even with the best intentions the line between a heart-stopping tribute performance and a cringe-inducing pastiche is so thin as to be almost intangible. For evidence just look at YouTube for Lorde and Lady Gaga, who both covered David Bowie after the iconic artist died last year.

At the Brit Awards Lorde, dressed smartly and drenched in red light, not only paid her respects with a stunning rendition of Life on Mars but also managed to make one of Bowie's signature songs uniquely her own.

At the Grammys Lady Gaga, dressed in full Bowie regalia and preening around the stage, made a medley of his greatest hits the sort of awkward endurance test that would make Ricky Gervais proud. Her heart obviously in the right place, her mind tragically misguided.

"I know I'm not David Bowie," Julia Deans says. "I'm not going to pretend to be or pretend to sing like him. None of us are."


The "us" Deans refers to are fellow vocalists Anna Coddington, Shihad's Jon Toogood and Kora's Laughton Kora. This formidable foursome will, on Thursday evening, perform Starman, a tribute concert to the late, great, David Bowie.

That's not the exciting part. Oh, no.

The exciting part is that the group will be accompanied by the full sonic force of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra; the APO's involvement not only elevating the expectation but also promising a new spin on those classic Bowie songs.

As a huge Bowie fan, I find Deans' words hugely reassuring. Not because I dislike any of these cats but rather because I really love Bowie, whose vocal delivery is, was and remains not only unique but also instantly identifiable.

"It's quite rare that you get to sing so much with your peers so to be able to be there for each other is totally cool," says Deans.

Be there? Where? On stage?

"Yeah. We're not gonna do the walking on/walking off thing. It's too much of a party," she says, grinning.

"We take leads on different songs but we're all backing each other up, which is great fun. One of my favourite things in the world is to sing backing vocals. Some of the coolest parts are in the backing vocals."

There's also another often-overlooked aspect to singing BV's.

"We've worked out our 'backing vocals' dance moves," she laughs. "It's really important."
Deans got involved after Toogood phoned and asked if she'd be keen. It was a no-brainer.

"I leapt at the opportunity," she says, describing the impact of Bowie's music on her own as huge. "He was constantly searching for new inspiration and allowing the world to inspire him which is his greatest influence on me."

Picking a favourite tune proves difficult, although I knew this wasn't a fair question. But Deans does reveal there was one song she absolutely had to sing.

"I emailed Jon and begged to have Ashes to Ashes. He did the whole, 'but that's one of my favourites . . . ' and I said, 'but it's my absolute favourite'. I did actually plead."

"Look at Ashes to Ashes," Toogood says. "If someone released that today there's no way they'd get it on radio but that was No 1 everywhere around the world. Bowie made it a hit. It's an amazing bit of music. But if you listen to pop radio now, or even then, how the f*** did that make it to No 1? It's going places pop songs traditionally shouldn't. It's genius because of it."

Singer Jon Toogood joins the APO for its Bowie tribute concert Starman on Thursday.
Singer Jon Toogood joins the APO for its Bowie tribute concert Starman on Thursday.

I was supposed to be talking to Toogood about another project but he'd just got back from Starman rehearsals and was fizzing.

"It's gonna be awwwesome," he said, wringing out every bit of emphasis.

I didn't know what he was talking about as, at the time, the show hadn't been announced. So, after a quick elevator pitch (APO, Bowie, Deans and co.) he went into details.

"It's 22 tracks. It's got the big hits, which are amazing, but it's also got a couple of songs where you go, 'I'm so glad they actually put that in because that's gold'. Station to Station is in there, Let's Dance."

He raved about the set list, an ambitious compilation of hits that begins at the start of Bowie's career and ends right at the end.

Of all David Bowie's songs, which ones are the favourites of singers at the Starman concert?

Anna Coddington: "It's hard to pick a favourite Bowie song as there are so many great ones for different reasons. The toss up for me is between Modern Love, Let's Dance and Fame but I'm going with the latter. Fame has an incredible groove and says quite a lot with only a handful of lyrics. It's one of his great dance floor songs and has so much attitude and swagger you can really get into the spirit of it. It has all these amazing guitar parts going on at once and yet a lot of space as well. And I just love that heavy groove."

Jon Toogood: "Life On Mars: It's a hyper-romantic look into everyday suburban life where every line manages to conjure a clear image in your head. As a kid, I could literally "see" the story Bowie was telling in this song. Not only that but the music and its arrangement is so incredibly beautiful, from the way it starts so small to its epic crescendo in the chorus, that it just grabs you from the word go and never lets you wander off."

Laughton Kora: "Space Oddity: It's the memories of hearing that song that gives me the connection. The first time I heard it I was about 11; my dad would play the vinyl. At the same time, we would listen to Pink Floyd's I, Rainbow, Wishbone Ash, Dire Straits. Something I think is missing from today's popular sound is the "journey". It sent me on a journey; I could make my own imaginative story from the way the music made me feel. The narrative was so clear."

William Dart on what you can expect to hear

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's selection of David Bowie for full symphonic treatment is far from the left-field programming it may seem.

From the start of his career, Bowie, the songwriter, was always closer to Beatles' pop than the tougher R&B of the Rolling Stones. The Fab Four took to lacing their songs with orchestral instruments and so did Bowie from his very first album in 1967, a collection of wry vignettes that nodded to music hall and cabaret rather than Memphis, Tennessee, or Kingston, Jamaica.

Bowie's first chart success would come with Space Oddity in 1969, a ballad of alienation for a questioning generation, indelibly associated with Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey and the first moonwalk.

The song's impact would have been so much less without the string arrangements of Paul Buckmaster and the extra-terrestrial woodwind flutterings, courtesy of producer Tony Visconti.

This song launches the APO's Starman concert next Thursday, very much laid out over the orchestra's strings, although Daniel Denholm's arrangement does charge the atmosphere with a solo tenor saxophone, directed to be played with "lots of bends and sexy" while Laughton Kora takes a break from singing duties.

Bowie was drawn to the almost primal power of the orchestra in the early albums that made his name. Strings were crucial to 1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust especially in its final irrevocable chord after the death of its hero, reminding one of the similar orchestral chord that closed the Beatles' A Day in the Life.

But Starman's five Australian arrangers - Denholm, Joe Twist, Jamie Messenger, Nic Buc, Jess Wells and Ben Northey - take some ingeniously creative licence with the Bowie originals.

When singer Jon Toogood exhorts the children to boogie in the concert's title song, they do so with full orchestral support, thanks to Twist, a noted composer himself, with a recent children's opera titled The Grumpiest Boy in the World to his credit.

We're promised Bowie classics and the play list covers almost 50 years of songs, through to Lazarus from last year's X album, which once again puts Toogood in the spotlight.

Behind the singer, Twist fleshes out the original, with the luxury of horns where once there were only electronics; duelling saxophones are retained from the original but string tremolos cast their own dark and sinister shadows.

Bowie fans may be surprised by the additional workout that Denholm gives the woodwind when Julia Deans sings Life on Mars, but the song's talking cello and bass lines, so much part of its dramatic signature, remain. Gustav Mahler may well have approved.

Although the orchestra dominates the evening, the APO musicians can take a break during two songs, Boys Keep Swinging and Oh! You Pretty Things. These are handled by a sharp on-stage band consisting of Matthias Jordan on keyboards, drummer Steve Bremner, bass man Jeremy Toy and Tom Healy alongside Jol Mulholland on guitars, with a surprise guest turn from the orchestra's Principal Bassoon, Ingrid Hagan.

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra - Bowie. Starman
Where and when: ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre; Thursday