At college, you either loved Roxy Music or you couldn’t because you hadn’t heard of them. It was the progressive art-rock band of its time, and its time stretched reasonably for nearly two decades.
Many of us Roxy purists accepted Love is the Drug as a single that brought attention to its earlier work, but most of us drew the line with Avalon and believed that whatever jumping the shark was called back then had happened. Thankfully, no more Roxy records, because that was heading down an alley the early investors in the sound could not abide. Still, singer Bryan Ferry would reemerge with a strong enough solo career to keep that campy, cosmopolitan sound alive.
I have seen Ferry in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and, after tonight, the 2010s. He still wears the best clothes (his jacket tonight is similar to the one from the 2012 image atop this review), has a suave cool-older-brother presence onstage, and says little and leaves much to the imagination. Even though his upper register has gone and the bellow is mellower, there remains much to like. There is also much to remember, because his influence is likely only surpassed by Bowie in that genre. Robert Christgau argued that, without Roxy Music, there likely wouldn’t have been Talking Heads or Devo or any number of the avant-garde.
Ferry opened his tour in Vancouver with an eight-piece band (meaningful that women were on drums and saxophone/oboe/keyboards and could hammer home every beat and note), and brought an eclectic selection from a large vault for us to hear. It started with the first song on the first Roxy album, Re-Make/Re-Model, paid strong homage to the earliest of the work, skimped on several mid-career albums, dropped into Avalon briefly, threw a few solo songs in, and left most everyone wanting a little more.
Roxy Music and Ferry in solo performances have always, somewhat confoundingly, left some of the expected out and dropped some of the unexpected in. There is still a form of restlessness in the repertoire, as if revisiting will make those lesser songs greater. So, no Mother of Pearl, no Song for Europe, no Sentimental Fool, no Thrill of It All, no Out of the Blue, Do The Strand or Virginia Plain. But we got In Every Dream Home A Heartache, Let’s Stick Together, Kiss & Tell, the J.J.Cale cover Same Old Blues and Lennon’s Jealous Guy in a generous performance of more than an hour-and-a-half.
When you indulge nostalgia and take in artists of your youth, the unfortunate context is the memory of the earlier performances. Without them, I guess, you wouldn’t come out in the first place, but it means that you measure what has been lost and retained more than what is presented and asserted. You listen for a note that can no longer be reached or a nuance that now doesn’t appear, and you hope (at times hopelessly) there will not be cringe-worthy moments. (There weren’t any. Ferry still has it together.)
So, the strengths of tonight were first and foremost a top-flight band that was faithful almost to a tee to the records. (The last Roxy part-reunion would veer a little too far.) He has surrounded himself with ace players and that bodes well for the tour.
There weren’t terribly many weaknesses. Obviously the voice can’t be what it once was, as distinct as anything in modern music, but it held its own often enough to pass the test, particularly in mid-set. It was a little disappointing how much time Ferry spent at the keyboard out of the limelight, off-putting for such a charismatic focal point to be so stealthy at times. We were there to see and hear him, and we didn’t get quite enough of either. Only at the end of the set did he rouse the crowd from its seats (and keep it there through a lengthy encore) with Love is the Drug.
But he is, after all, 68. Will any of us be that way at 68? Not much chance any of us could be Bryan Ferry at 68.
[Feature photo: Bryan Ferry feat. The Bryan Ferry Orchestra by Bruno Bollaert]