Roxy Music’s silver fox brings his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame victory lap to Beantown
Bryan Ferry and his band didn’t get to the frenetic Roxy Music song “Do The Strand,” but one of its lines floated in my head during the show: “All styles served here.”
Ferry – inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year with the band he co-founded – played an hour-and-45- minute set at Boston’s Opera House August 5th. This tour, and there are 14 more North American dates, has been talked about as his 21st century Avalon tour. Indeed, seven songs, including the first three (“India,” “The Main Thing” and “The Space Between”) came from that new wave era/mainstream breakthrough from 1983. Although Avalon may have been at the core of this gig, Ferry’s intent clearly was to serve all the styles, what he’s done as a solo artist and what he’s done as Roxy’s lead singer-main songwriter over the years.
It might have been jarring to some folks. The early Roxy songs played – “Editions,” “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” and “If There Is Something” – are not the smooth, sophisticated glide that later (let’s face it, more popular) works were. But, really, Ferry and company – his crack nine-piece band – made it all pretty seamless.
Ferry told Forbes.com recently: “It’s just very nice to perform them and to jump into an earlier version of one’s self. So I don’t mind doing songs from 1972, which is the first album. And I find it quite refreshing to go there. At the same time I like doing the more mature things as well. So it’s great to mix it all up. And in the show it’s like this is my life in music. And it’s quite fascinating to go from a song from 1972 then they put it next to something from 10 years later. It’s all different parts of yourself you try and explore in the song.”
As did he, so did we during a most enrapturing journey through the past. We got a healthy heaping of the solo and Roxy art-funk sound – dark and swirling, multi-layered, atmospheric, with Ferry every bit the bruised, but hopeful, romantic.
There was the playful one-night-at-a-singles-bar snapshot, “Love Is the Drug” – their biggest US hit single (No. 30). Ferry’s done a lot of Dylan over the years – and though I wish he’d done his yelping “A Hard Rains-a Gonna Fall – his pick from his all Dylan album, Dylanesque, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” worked just fine.
My two favorites were “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” the slow-building paean to a blowup sex doll (“I blew up your body/But you blew my mind”) that explodes with a furious coda, and “If There Is Something,” a song that mixes poignancy (“I would do anything for you”) and absurdity (“I would put roses round our door/Sit in the garden growing potatoes by the score”). Ultimately, it’s a moving, guardedly optimistic song about trying to regain the passion of one’s youth.
We got a choice set-closing duo, “Jealous Guy” – again, his version that dwarfs (and de-Yoko-fies) John Lennon’s original – and an extended rave-up of Wilbert Harrison’s 1962 soul song “Let’s Stick Together.” A gentle plea for romantic forgiveness followed by an up-tempo song that, lyrically, is cut from the same cloth. Ferry is not doing encores right now. He gave us a long, generous set, waved, left the stage and the band took their bows.
Two major points.
Ferry’s voice: It was rather shaky when I saw him in 2016 – frankly quite rough at times – and it was not particularly mellifluous on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame broadcast. On this night, Ferry – 74 next month – was in fine fettle. Rich, resonant, clear. The ever-dapper singer was clearly enjoying himself and the sound mix was superb.
The band: First off, Ferry was a real part of this band, not just the singer in it. He often sat at an electric piano, reminiscent of his early Roxy days, but facing us. (He also played harp on “Tom Thumb.”) Ferry always has a killer band and this one, anchored by longtime guitarist Chris Spedding (he goes back at least until 1976), was no exception. Spedding and co-guitarist Tom Vanstiphout each took exquisite leads. Solos served songs. No showboating.
Saxophonist Jorja Chalmers was a particular standout, nailing (and building upon) the riffs originally played by Andy Mackay. She added a strong, sassy (and young) female presence to the ensemble. Same for violinist/violaist Marina Moore, who was featured too little, but soared on “Out of the Blue.” Backing singers, longtime Ferry vets, Fonzi Thornton and Tawatha Agee, complemented the lead singer well, Agee hitting the heights on “Let’s Stick Together.”
One minor point: No rock artist employs the use of castanets as much as Ferry does. (“Not since the Ronettes,” said Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz, sitting behind me and at his first-ever Ferry or Roxy show.)
While Ferry’s songwriting became more conventional – more mature, if you will – over time, he retained some of the prog-rock exploratory nature with which he began Roxy. For instance, “While My Heart Is Still Beating” and “Don’t Stop the Dance” both were stretched out, no one in a hurry to get anywhere, allowing us to bathe in the warm tonalities. This pleasure was aided by simple, but effectively lush staging – eight polygons, often red-lit, providing a luxurious kind of atmosphere.
I left thinking about something Ray Davies told me years ago: “The Kinks are the only band in the world where you can leave a concert and be over the moon with enjoyment and still be disappointed.” Which means, here: Sure, I’d have loved to have heard “Virginia Plain,” “Grey Lagoons,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “It’s My Party,” “Trash,” “Mother of Pearl,” “A Song for Europe,” “Like a Hurricane” and “2HB.” But that would have added another hour and I have no complaints at all about the nearly two hours spent with Ferry and company this past Monday night. I was, in fact, over the moon.
VIDEO: Bryan Ferry plays “Avalon” and “Love is the Drug” at the Boston Opera House