A bespectacled man walks onto the stage in an opulent theatre. Standing in front of the rapt audience, he introduces the evening’s entertainment, a “great favourite” of the event’s organizing festival paying tribute to a recently deceased collaborator and creative inspiration. To much applause, the lights dim and the show begins.
Some may recognize this scene as the opening of Wes Anderson’s 2004 film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. It’s fitting and likely not entirely coincidental, then, that Seu Jorge’s “The Life Aquatic – A Tribute to David Bowie” at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre began in the exact same manner.
As the crowd cheered, the unmistakable opening riff of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” rearranged into Jorge’s favela-folk style rang through the theatre, punctuated by a hearty “Ooooooooooooh” that jolted everybody up in their seats. The show, which consisted almost exclusively of the Portuguese-language acoustic covers of David Bowie classics used throughout The Life Aquatic, featured Jorge alone on stage, armed only with his acoustic guitar, the trademark Team Zissou scrubs-and-toque, and a mug of tea that was periodically refreshed by a similarly toque-clad stagehand. In any other artist’s hands, a Bowie acoustic covers show could degenerate into a campfire-singalong faster than you can say “Major Tom to ground control,” but Seu Jorge’s onstage charisma and uniquely goregous interpretations of the late legend’s catalog truly showcased, as David Bowie himself put it, “[the] new level of beauty which [Jorge] has imbued them with.”
Jorge is blessed with one of the most expressive voices in music. He is able to jump from a gritty yet melodic shout so laden with energy that you can feel it in your stomach to a throaty, barely-there mumble that sounds much closer than it actually is. These stylings was used to great effect in Jorge’s mesmerising, subdued covers of raucous Bowie songs such as “Rebel Rebel” and “Suffragette City;” Jorge explained that “as a black guy from a favela, I don’t listen to much rock and roll…, [so] I played them bossa nova style.”
Jorge’s personality was as warm and compelling as his voice. Between tunes, he told the (frequently hilarious) story of how he became involved with The Life Aquatic through Wes Anderson, who called him in the middle of a game of FIFA on the PlayStation. Jorge admitted his initial unfamiliarity with Bowie’s music who he mistook for “the other blonde guy, Billy Idol”, and recounted his first meeting with the film’s all-star cast, where Jorge explained that he was so nervous that he started referring to actors with the films they’d previously been in (eg. Bill Murray was dubbed Groundhog Day, Jeff Goldblum rechristened Jurassic Park.)
The climax of the show, Jorge’s stunning cover of “Life on Mars?” was dedicated to both David Bowie and Jorge’s father, who passed away shortly after Bowie in January of 2016. You could hear the raw emotion in Jorge’s voice as he sang, and when the song was over, the spellbound audience broke their silence to deliver a thunderous standing ovation.
The final scene of The Life Aquatic is both melancholic and hopeful. As a sombre Steve Zissou sits on the steps outside, the ebullient audience of Zissou’s vindicating new film pours out from the theatre into the Mediterranean summer evening to a soundtrack of David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch,” Zissou’s reputation reconfirmed. As I departed the Orpheum that evening into the midsummer night’s breeze , the emotional weight of the evening was buoyed by the joy of seeing a talented, passionate artist celebrate the work of one of popular music’s greatest performers in his own way. More than just a set of covers or a film soundtrack, Seu Jorge’s tribute to David Bowie was a tribute to artistic individualism and the power of music to cross cultural boundaries.