Bowie tribute set to land in Fort Langley

John Gilliat (below) has been making a living performing flamenco and rumba at corporate gigs for the past couple of decades. But recently, the Fort Langley guitarist rejoined his bandmates from the ’80s as they relaunched Major Tom, their David Bowie tribute band, under the name Ground Control, featuring Syl Thompson (above). - submitted photos
John Gilliat (below) has been making a living performing flamenco and rumba at corporate gigs for the past couple of decades. But recently, the Fort Langley guitarist rejoined his bandmates from the ’80s as they relaunched Major Tom, their David Bowie tribute band, under the name Ground Control, featuring Syl Thompson (above).
— image credit: submitted photos

It will be a show 30 years in the making.

Syl Thompson’s A Night of Bowie featuring Ground Control is set to touch down at Fort Langley’s Chief Sepass Theatre on Friday, March 28.

And among the musicians hitting the stage that night will be a pair of familiar faces — one, audiences may connect with because of its similarity to British pop icon David Bowie; the other, because it belongs to a long-time neighbour — Fort Langley’s John Gilliat.

Gilliat, who plays lead guitar for Ground Control, is one of three original members of the band, which started out in the early 1980s under the name Major Tom.

Soon after he graduated from high school, Gilliat joined Thompson, bassist Rob Begg — and the rest of the band as it existed back then —  and began touring across Canada and into the U.S.

“Back in the ’80s, club bands were spectacular.

“It was a real production,” said Gilliat.

Everyone hauled tons of gear from town to town and fancy lighting and pyrotechnics were a staple.

He laughs as he recalls racing around on stage with his wireless electric guitar.

They had a lot of fun in those days — rocking out to the same songs the Thin White Duke himself was performing at the time — but, unlike Bowie, they definitely weren’t getting rich, Gilliat chuckles.

“There wasn’t a lot of money in tribute bands unless you were in Vegas,” he said.

After a couple years, the band members went their separate ways.

Gilliat traded his electric guitar for an acoustic model and began to perform at corporate events, honing his trademark “fiery rumba flamenco” style while earning a relatively steady paycheque.

When it comes to music, “I’m sort of a hired gun,” said Gilliat.

In addition to his live performances, over the past 30 years, Gilliat’s music has been used in radio, documentaries, television and films. He’s also given lessons and still has an online guitar school.

“That’s the thing about being a musician — you have to do everything,” he said.

But with the proliferation of casinos in Canada — particularly in B.C. and Alberta — over the past several years, the musicians saw an opportunity to reunite and hit the road once again.

In fact, Begg had been bugging Thompson for about a year to put the band back together, said Gilliat. Finally, the singer relented.

With Thompson, Begg and Gilliat on board, the search was on for four more musicians to round out the new tribute band.

Ground Control features Graham Howell on saxophone, Mark Gawthrop, keyboards, Rob Gawthrop, synthesizer and Sean Lang on drums.

“They’re all ’80s guys, except the drummer,” said Gilliat.

It takes a younger guy to be able to pound away on the drums for a couple of hours at a time, he laughed.

The Fort Langley show will be the second of the band’s upcoming tour, based on Bowie’s Serious Moonlight show from 1983.

“Most of the music (we play) are the classics everyone knows — like Space Oddity and Rebel Rebel,” he said.

“The nice thing about this show that we didn’t do before is we have a VJ.

“There are videos playing on massive screens behind us and it adds another dimension.”

It doesn’t hurt that Bowie is back in the public eye, with a new album — The Next Day — released last year, said Gilliat.

“It works well for a tribute band because it creates buzz, the songs are playing on the radio. It’s good timing for us.”

Gilliat’s timing was right on the mark last year, too, when he actually met David Bowie at a Vancouver restaurant where Gilliat often played.

He was called over to the singer’s table at Francesco’s where he’d been performing his flamenco act.

“A waiter told me, ‘there’s a guitar player here and he’d like to meet you,’” said Gilliat.

He approached the table and was greeted by a man in a dark, curly wig and a hat.

“He said, ‘Hi, I’m David Bowie’ and shook my hand. ‘I like your guitar playing,’” Gilliat recalled.

The men chatted for about 25 minutes, but Gilliat wasn’t sure whether he was actually in the presence of the famous musician or if someone was having a laugh at his expense.

“The next day, I Googled him and realized it really was him.”

As it turned out, Bowie was, in fact, in Vancouver at the time,  said Gilliat.

The guitarist never mentioned the tribute band during the conversation, but added he might have if he’d known for certain it was Bowie.

Ground Control may cross the Brit’s radar yet.

“Whenever we play Bowie’s music, we fill out a form and the royalties go to Bowie,” said Gilliat.

“He makes money every time we play.”

A Night of Bowie hits the stage at Chief Sepass Theatre, 9096 Trattle St. on Friday, March 28 at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $30 in advance; $35 at the door.  They’re available online at www.anightofbowie.com or in person at Long & McQuade Music in Langley and Abbotsford, Vivid Hair Boutique, #190-8700 200 St. Langley or Wendel’s Bookstore and Café, 9233 Glover Rd. Fort Langley

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