The reunited art-glam greats rock through their past, darkly and otherwise
Roxy Music – or, if you will, lead singer and chief songwriter Bryan Ferry – has always been, in part, about looking back to youth, about a certain embrace of wistful ennui even in the throes of in-the-moment pleasure.
It was there when Roxy was a young brash retro/futurist glam band in 1972 and it was there on Saturday Sept. 17 at Boston’s MGM Music Hall at Fenway with Roxy at full strength – the originals, Ferry, guitarist Phil Manzanera, saxophonist Andy Mackay and drummer Paul Thompson – all in their 70s, with Ferry in fact turning 77 on Sept. 26th.
“When we were young” and “When you were young” are key lines in the final stanza of “If There Is Something,” a centerpiece song off their first album, played mid-set last week. Ferry is looking back to the open-eyed enthusiasm and optimism of youth even as they seemed to have passed by him and the woman he’s singing about. (He was 26 when it was first released.) When they played it at Fenway, it brought little shivers down my spine, that ineffable mix of melancholia with just a glint of triumph, of recapturing what once was.
It was there in the sadly graceful “Oh Yeah” – about that song Ferry and his lover used to groove to with “the rhythm of rhyming guitars” in his car “on the way to the movie show.” The song begins with the two of them; at the end, Ferry’s in the car, on the way to another show, but alone, the act bringing those memories of young lost love back to him.
In “Same Old Scene,” Ferry sang, “Nothing lasts forever” and both he and the backing trio of singers to his right, Phebe Edwards, Fonzi Thornton and Senab Adekunle, sang the rejoinder “Of that I’m sure.” Ferry shot a smile their way during that bit.
And then, not to belabor the point, there was the opening line of “Jealous Guy,” “I was dreaming of the past ….” the closing song. Yes, it’s a John Lennon ballad, but Roxy de-Yoko-fied back in 1981 on a European tour and subsequent live EP. It’s been a frequent set closer for Ferry on solo tours in the past or Roxy in the present. Or at least has been on the handful of dates played this year in North America which, while not billed as such, has to be their farewell tour. The song’s ending is like a wave, a fond farewell to the faithful, those who, even with their doubts, paid big money and showed up. The song winds down with Ferry, as did Lennon, whistling.
VIDEO: Roxy Music “Jealous Guy”
As to those who did not show up, they had their reasons and Facebook was full of them. 1) the tickets were expensive (even if the show was quite relentless), 2) too nostalgic/living in the past, 3) Ferry’s expected diminished vocal prowess, 4) the anticipated set list. You can damn or praise setlist.fm for that. (I will be kvetching about that later.)
Roxy Music’s stint as a recording band was darn near Beatle-esque: Eight studio albums in ten years. They disbanded in 1983, after Avalon. This, coming after a hiatus from 1976-1979. So, the oldest material is 50 years old and the newest nearly 40.
I was speaking with a good friend, a semi-famous rocker and huge Roxy fan the night after the show. He could have gone to the New York show, but he passed, after having seen them first in 1975, then the Manifesto tour in 1979 and finally the (terrific!) 2001 reunion. But he couldn’t quite pull the trigger on seeing this one, primarily because of worries about Ferry’s voice; he’d rather live with the memories.
So, how was Ferry’s voice?
Well, there was no falsetto employed and in general he seemed to take everything down a register. He didn’t try for some of the highs, he was happy to have his backing vocalists soar where he couldn’t. At times, this was a tad irksome and others times not an issue, but, ultimately, not unexpected. I’m pretty sure most people who took the leap to buy the tickets didn’t expect the Ferry of yore. As one friend, a music industry vet and rabid Roxy fans said, “I loved the show overall. The performances, sound, and visuals were great. Sad that Bryan wasn’t able to emote in places he typically would.” And: “So grateful I could be there.”
This year’s Roxy features 13 musicians: Manzanera’s got an extra guitarist to work with (Tom Vanstiphout), Mackay’s got an extra saxophonist (Jorja Chalmers, who doubles on keys), Thompson’s got an extra percussionist (Nathan “Tugg” Curran). Ferry played occasional piano centerstage, but the keyboard chores are mostly handled by Christian Gulino (also the music director) and Chloe Beth Smith. Roxy has had roughly a million bassists over the years – a big hi to pal Sal Maida who was one once! – and this year it’s Neil Jason. They played 100 minutes in Boston and were out of the gate fast and furious with “Remake/Remodel,” the greatest and most gleeful introductory song I think a band has ever had. (Campy, mysterious, zipping all over the place, the players introduced through brief, whimsical musical statements.)
The structure of the show? I’ve seen and reviewed Roxy and Ferry a number of times since 1975, but I was looking back at Tim De Lisle’s Daily Mail Ferry review from 2018 and had to smile: “His set lists are largely predictable, with a cross-section of his career – sparky start, melancholy middle – teeing up the same old stompy finale. So why are his shows so satisfying? It’s partly that, like your favourite restaurant, he varies the menu just enough.”
I should state that I am more of a fan of the “sparkly” and the “stompy” and those songs – the ones where Manzanera and Mackay most excel – get my blood pumping. “Out of the Blue,” “Ladytron,” – slashing power chords from Manzanera! – “If There Is Something,” “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” “Editions of You,” “Do the Strand.” (Even if the latter too were a tad sluggish.)
AUDIO: Roxy Music “Do The Strand”
And, while I view them as lesser delights, I enjoyed the smoother songs of conflicted romance – the subject is “inexhaustible” Ferry told me with a laugh during a 2016 interview – like “While My Heart Is Still Beating,” “Dance Away,” “The Main Thing” and “More Than This.” The more mannered, dance-and-romance-oriented, less quirky, post-Brian Eno period, if you will.
This, let’s face it, is where the bulk of Roxy’s American audience – especially the female part – came aboard – “Love Is the Drug” being the gateway drug in 1975.
Oh, you may be wondering, was Eno there?
Yes, he was!
On the large video screen behind them, at least twice during clips of back-in-the-day videos. Roxy used, but didn’t overuse, the video element during the show.
As to Roxy’s evolution … “The records kept getting more sophisticated,” Ferry told me, when we spoke in 1993. “A more atmospheric sound, softer on the drums. I got into a blacker [more soulful] thing, which personally I like better, but unfortunately it meant I stopped being as zany and, perhaps, quirky. Avalon was a really interesting record, but it was very different, more smooth and more seductive than the earlier ones.” Ferry said his challenge was to write songs that were “less tongue-in-cheek and more heart on my sleeve. I wasn’t trying to be clever so much in the lyrics; I was trying to be a bit more heartfelt and my aspiration as a songwriter became slightly different.”
So, the set list? I gotta quibble and quarrel, as is my nature. (This happened to me reviewing Kinks shows, too, Roxy Music and the Kinks being my two favorite bands ever.) Nothing from the third album, Stranded, a fabulous and transitional LP, and six from Avalon!
Ferry told me this ahead of the 2001 tour, when I asked which era was his favorite. “Obviously, the early period,” he said. “The first two albums [Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure] are very close to my heart and I want to draw heavily from them. On the other hand, Avalon was the most successful so I think I owe it to the audience to represent that period as well.” He said he had 40 songs on his “wish list.”
It would seem that’s still the case, but Avalon won the debate. What was ultimately disappointing – criminal! – was the omission of “For Your Pleasure,” the best walk-off song you can imagine and what Roxy did in 2001, with musicians leaving the stage one-by-one, leaving only the touring keyboardist to float an eerie spell.
This year’s take-away for me: Very glad I saw. These are like old friends and if they’re old, so am I. Maybe five to ten years younger, but still. I loved it when Manzanera and Mackay got cranking; if Phil’s a guitar hero, Andy’s a sax hero. Thompson was aces on the kit.
The song that keeps swirling in my head is “In Every Dream Home A Heartache,” that paean to a sex doll (old-school, blowup kind) that floats in Ferry’s pool “deluxe and delightful.” The setup is sublime and the idea that Ferry could transpose his world-weary romantic yearnings to this doll, still tickles me pink. I love the idea that Ferry believes “my role is to serve you” and yet considers her a “disposable darling.” After all the exposition, the band kicks in full-bore and the music goes absolutely mental, a crazy-quilt of strands and shards, explosions and implosions, with Ferry wailing, “Oh those heartaches … dream home heartaches!”
Yes, this is not a relationship that will not last. Come to think of it, which is pretty much the case with all the romantic entangling in Roxy songs.
Postscript: My wife – speaking her own words, but likely testifying for many of her gender – said, “Bryan Ferry can still make a young girl swoon!”