Bryan Ferry Casts His Vote At The Strathmore

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Before seeing Bryan Ferry for the first time since Roxy Music’s Siren tour — which occurred right around the time Gerald Ford was handing out WIN buttons — we wondered which Bryan Ferry would show up.  Would it be the hurricane that hit rock as a Category Five force, adding art and glamour to the old three-chord shuffle?  Or the Eurosmoothy whose solo albums since the ’80s have been like a ride in a Bentley, elegant but sensationless?

It’s such a pleasure to declare that Ferry played two-one hour sets reminding us how great Roxy Music and those early solo albums were.  Maybe his audience has forgotten just how revolutionary a song like “If There Is Something” was when that first Roxy Music album came out, but judging from the enthusiasm with which Ferry and his 9-piece band played it, he hasn’t.

It’s not often that you come back from a concert and comment on how well it was art-directed, but this is who we’re dealing with.  While the two go-go dancers writhed, and the chick singers sang along, the screen behind the band was a roiling sea of images, some from cameras on the band, some from a familiar iconography of party scenes that may as well have been the Titanic, so doomed and distant was that world.  The band was fantastic — with Roxy’s Paul Thomas on drums and the great Chris Spedding putting on a guitar clinic.  The flash young guitarist on the other side of the stage would wind up to take a furious solo, and when he was done, the old pro would barely tip his quiff toward his axe before blowing the young ‘un off the stage with a solo as concise as it was explosive.

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Ferry’s voice was hoarse, and missing its trademark warble.  What once was so dominant and yet so easy to parody that Eno could nail it in “Dead Finks Don’t Talk,” was now sufficiently limited that Ferry sort of hid within the mix, the big band, the four other singers.  No matter.  Ferry’s choice of songs was exemplary, even if he no longer felt able, or willing, to give us “Tokyo Joe,”  or “When She Walks In The Room.”  The first set heated up with “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and included Roxy Music highlights like “Casanova” and the aforementioned “If There Is Something.”  The second set included “Love Is The Drug,” and “Let’s Stick Together,” and of course Roxy Music’s only #1 hit, John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” Along the way he covered Neil Young’s “Hurricane,” as well as “All Along The Watch Tower,” both of which were fine enough, but we wish he’d covered more of the work of that great songwriter, Bryan Ferry.  We wish he’d spent more time on those immediate-post Roxy Music solo albums, In Your Mind, and The Bride Stripped Bare.  After all, he had Chris Spedding standing four feet away.

It has been easy to forget the revolutionary influence that Ferry and Roxy Music had .  Ferry’s career arc has taken him from genuinely disruptive genre-bending to a self-conscious effort at invoking elegance, which is the antithesis of what we love about rockn’roll. It’s as if Miles Davis’s evolution saw him eventually playing smooth jazz.  It is possible that generations have grown up not realizing that Ferry started as a musical bomb thrower.  Happily, the complete package was on display last night, a madeleine, lost time found again.

The newly released Olympia, which Ferry’s touring to support, started life as a Roxy Music reunion album, and yep, even Eno decided to show up.  But we’re glad it doesn’t have the band’s name attached; with it’s deep bottom and granite-smooth perfection, it’s closer to being one of those scented-candle mood albums, with Ferry, dressed in an Anderson & Sheppard suit, playing a world-weary Barry White rather than the high-strung artist who declared it was time to do the Strand. We say Roxy was influential, and it surely was, though Ferry’s Roxy Music eventually begat bands like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, while the departed Brian Eno went on to influence bands like Garbage and the New Pornographers, to say nothing of Talking Heads and U2.  But at it’s peak — Country Life, with a hat tip to the albums that came just before and after, Stranded and Siren — Roxy Music was Bowie’s only competitor for the mantle of early ’70s greatness.  For after the Stones’ 72 tour, the entire rock infrastructure began to collapse.   Even though some bands (Stooges & Dolls) anticipated punk without knowing what was coming, even with the advent of Big Star, it was a fallow period.  It diminishes Roxy Music not one whit to declare it was the most fascinating band around, circa 73′-’75.  From the moment we heard “Amazona” — the moment we realized Phil Manzanera’s muscular guitar was the butch answer to the seemingly fey Ferry — we knew the post-Eno Roxy Music could be every bit as evocative as it had been before the little genius bid adieu.  Maybe we didn’t know just how important he would turn out to be, but from “Amazona” on, it was clear that even with Eno gone, Roxy Music would continue to push all boundaries.  Which they did, for one more album, and parts of the one after that.  And then it was over.

If you don’t remember those days, Ferry does, thank Heaven.  He may have become the de facto spokesmodel for Savile Row, but last night’s re-make, re-model was a remembrance of just what wildness beats beneath that surface calm.

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