David Brighton and Space Oddity take imitation beyond flattery

By Christina Campodonico
The saying goes that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But for David Bowie impersonator David Brighton, playing one of the greatest rock stars of all time is not simply an act of imitation or praise. It’s like taking lessons from a master.

“I’ve learned so much from taking apart Bowie’s music,” says Brighton, who’s been performing as Bowie for so long — 16 years — that you could say he’s earned a PhD in all things Bowie. “Taking his songs apart and the arrangements apart and the productions apart, there’s so much to learn from that and apply. I don’t mean that you steal from it, but you learn something from it.”

As frontman of the Bowie tribute band Space Oddity, which plays a free show in Playa Vista Central Park on Sunday, Brighton has molded his talents as a singer and guitarist to near-perfectly reproduce each era of the multifaceted performer’s decades-long career, from
his Ziggy Stardust days to the heyday of The Thin White Duke.

“Obviously no one can really become another person, but we sure make the effort,” says Brighton. “We try very hard and study everything that’s available.”

With his Space Oddity bandmates, Brighton has created a meticulous performative playbook of Bowie moves, mannerisms, costumes and makeup, using photographs and performance video to recreate the Bowie concert experience down to the last detail.

“I remember speaking with Earl Slick, who played guitar on and off with Bowie for about 40 years,” recounts Brighton. “And Earl paid me and the band the highest compliment possible. He just said, ‘Man, you have studied Bowie like Bowie studied Elvis.’”

Bowie had a lifelong fascination with the King. His 25th and final album, “Blackstar,” possibly references an obscure Elvis song of the same name (“Every man has a black star / A black star over his shoulder / And when a man sees his black star / He knows his time, his time has come”). They even shared the same birthday, 10 years apart.

Brighton’s vocal and physical similarities to Bowie are also uncanny. Listen to their tracks one after the other and it’s hard to know where the genuine article ends and the replica begins. Their physical attributes are so similar, in fact, that Brighton appeared alongside Bowie in a 2003 Vittel bottled water commercial. Watching the 30-second spot, it’s hard not to take a few double takes, or hit replay again and again to figure out who’s who.

The word doppelgänger comes to mind after reading a testimonial like this from “Young Americans” and “Station to Station” producer Harry Maslin: “David Brighton has the voice, moves and look to actually step in for David Bowie if he were unavailable, and few would ever know.”

In the wake of the star’s death in January, that scenario is no longer as far-fetched as it might once have been. Demand for Space Oddity’s tribute concerts has been off the charts,
says Brighton.

“It just exploded since Bowie passed,” says Brighton. “I never really had time to process it, because the second the news came out the phone never stopped ringing with people either sending their condolences or wanting us to perform.”

He says Bowie diehards have attended Space Oddity concerts as if they were live performance wakes.

“You’ve got a huge community of music lovers and Bowie fans who are coming to sort of grieve and heal together. …  At a lot of shows, people are crying and are dressed like Bowie in one of his eras, or they’re just celebrating his life and his work, and so it’s pretty extraordinary.”

As strange as it might seem to resurrect a recently passed persona on stage, Brighton is honored to continue filling the void that Bowie’s departure has now only made greater. When Brighton was working the Vegas music circuit, he saw that the rock star was noticeably absent from the pantheon of famous imitated personalities.

“I was working in Las Vegas doing a show that had just come to an end, and I saw a show there called ‘Legends in Concert,’” recounts Brighton. “They
had impersonators for everyone from Elvis to Marilyn Monroe, and I didn’t
see David Bowie.”

Which gave him an idea: Why not put together a David Bowie tribute show?

He already kind of sang like the artist.

“Bowie was a voice I was always accused of sounding too much like when I was doing original music,” says Brighton, gifted with a vocal range that’s right in the sweet spot for songs sung by Bowie, Tom Petty and George Harrison, whom he imitated in a previous life touring with Beatles tribute bands.

Brighton also had Bowie-like angular features.

“If I looked like Tom Hanks this wouldn’t work,” he jokes.

But Brighton was really most interested in figuring out what made Bowie such a “consummate performer.”

“He had all these skills that I found mysterious because I was not a flamboyant frontman. I was a guy who played guitar and sang,” says Brighton, who as a kid became fascinated with Bowie after hearing “Panic in Detroit” on the radio. “He personally was trained in so many areas that your average rock musician was not trained in … so I’m having to try to learn how to dance and do all these moves and mannerisms and so forth, so that was and is very challenging.”

The challenge still engages Brighton after all these years.

“It’s really very satisfying musically, artistically,” he says. “I have this huge, vast wealth of knowledge that I learned from Bowie and the Beatles to pass on. That’s something I might want to do some day.”

David Brighton and Space Oddity perform at 5 p.m. Sunday, July 17, in Playa Vista Central Park, 12045 Waterfront Drive, Playa Vista. Free. Visit davidbowietribute.com for more info.