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LIVE REPORT: Bryan Ferry
Chris Roberts , November 7th, 2013 07:38

Chris Roberts celebrates the many Bryan Ferrys at the Royal Albert Hall. Photography by Valerio Berdini

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Much, for many years, has been made of Bryan Ferry as an avatar of suave, cool and poise. Less has been made of his devotion to musical textures and driven desire to find the soul in any sound. He understands this, understands he brought it on himself, but accepts that being a Pop Art cartoon is a useful thing in the Faustian music industry and that that version of himself brought him freedom and riches. “People tend to think of me as this… cool… thing”, he once said to me, shyly. “But really I’m quite... hot-blooded.” Then he half-laughed, half-embarrassed at what he’d said, which is when you know someone’s dared to tell an unfamiliar truth.

So there have always been (at the very least) two Bryan Ferrys: the popularly celebrated or parodied one who wafts through 'Avalon' in a white tuxedo as the party fades, and the one who really, really, loves art and cares about his music. The high profile of the cartoon one has meant that Eno now gets all the credit for Roxy Music’s early innovations (a ludicrous notion once you consider Stranded, Eno’s own favourite) and that Ferry is seen by some as a 'mere' poseur, a dilettante. Yet Ferry, eventually substituting his lyrical dexterity with sonic ambition, went on to reinvent Roxy as music-as-aroma, the very distillation of yearning, an eternal ether-torch. His solo work in the last couple of decades has been fascinatingly schizophrenic, oscillating between the slightly campy baroque songs he knows will sell a few, and the layered, obsessive, perfectionist productions that clearly now interest him more. On some of the latter selection, you sensed that if he could take his own enduring image out of the picture to let the music breathe more, he happily would.

Then last year he found a way of doing something approaching that, with The Bryan Ferry Orchestra’s The Jazz Age album, vocal-free, re-working his old tunes as Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker fever-dreams. It baffled some, but it rejuvenated the man. Because while you would have been able to find me saying almost any Ferry concert in living memory is enjoyable, this one is magical. It sees him triumphantly merging all the different Bryan Ferrys into a fluid, flickering, forceful whole.

With a (long) set list that seems to put his entire oeuvre onto random shuffle, and the rather radical symbiotic interplay of his orchestra and rock band – onstage together for the most part – the appropriate setting of the Albert Hall is well and truly owned. Ferry, aware as both persona and artist that he has finally found a way to tie it all together, is the living embodiment of the moment a sensitive, oft-misunderstood soul moves from frustration to satisfaction.          

The evening begins with the eight-piece orchestra tootling through Dixieland-jazz versions of 'Do The Strand', 'Slave To Love', even 'The Bogus Man', Ferry nowhere to be seen. It’s a risky opening, as five minutes become ten become fifteen, but they stand their ground with a high charm factor. Then, casually, Ferry and two backing singers stroll on and join in. Not with a here’s-a-hit flourish, but with 'The Way You Look Tonight', 'The Only Face', and (the sublime) 'Reason Or Rhyme', numbers which arguably only aficionados would recognise. Then Ferry’s guitar protégé Oliver Thompson and a band join in and we take in lesser-known tracks from The Bride Stripped Bare and other solo albums.

The singer, in fine voice, is confident and comfortable enough now to highlight songs he feels undervalued. When he does throw in a crowd-pleaser, it’s in the form of 'Don’t Stop The Dance' or 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes'. There’s then a guitar-solo-heavy 'Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door', one of four Dylan songs reinvented tonight. The show’s first half climaxes with the epic sturm und drang of Roxy’s 'A Song For Europe', which still defines the concept of desiring another time, another place.

Now this is all well and good, but you could worry that the champagne-swigging bankers in the boxes who want the hits are getting restless. But, y’know, fuck ‘em. So far Ferry and his ensemble have proven unpredictable and compelling. The second set wanders even further into (relative) obscurities for Ferry-philes to relish ('When She Walks In The Room'), before tumbling giddily into Famousville, albeit with jolting mood-swings, from 'Jealous Guy' to 'Street Life', from 'Love Is The Drug' to 'Let’s Stick Together', with noir-ish, deeply-felt curveball-confessionals like 'Casanova' confusing the lightweights wonderfully. It’s a reminder of how great Ferry’s canon is that a 33-track, two-and-a-half-hour show can omit songs of the stature of 'Virginia Plain' and 'Mother Of Pearl', but a final flourish of 'Hold On I’m Coming', 'Editions Of You' and 'A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall' represent the soul man, the Erwin Blumenfeld art-rocker and the lit-geek euphorically.

Few artists of his vintage are at this point still discovering new methods of dance: he’s found fresh juxtapositions with which to embrace all his personalities. In phases here, as the strings and horns dive and shimmy and the band funk and flare, you wonder what remade and re-modelled genres you’re hearing. Somehow he’s again hit on a melting pot that delivers regret as affirmation, elegies as energy and the bittersweet as beauty. Serenely surprising.

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Kate McKinnon
Nov 8, 2013 11:47pm

Another great Ferry piece from Chris Roberts- thanks for the beautiful review, I think you really captured the joy that Bryan is feeling right now, bringing this all together. I saw the show the night before in Oxford, and I was in heaven, watching how happy he was, and hearing how beautifully tight all of the arrangements were. Also: OLIVER THOMPSON. Man. He just gets more amazing every day.

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Post-Punk Monk
Nov 9, 2013 4:57pm

This sounds magnificent. Of all of my Roxy/Ferry moments, the concert I treasure most was the first time he did this juxtaposition for the "As Time Goes By" tour that saw a jazz-oriented band tackling not only the classic songs of that album, but his songbook with fresh aplomb as well. Hopefully, this show can cross the pond. if so, I'm there. It's been a dozen years since I saw him with Roxy last. That needs to change.
For further rumination on the Fresh New Sound of Yesterday®

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David Craggs
Nov 11, 2013 8:06am

Brilliant review of an amazing show.
Ferry is without doubt the UK's "Taste Tarantula" and his performance at the RAH was, without doubt, a career best. The standard of musicianship, subtle rearrangement of songs and sheer glamour left the audience breathless. Whilst many iconic performers rest on their laurels, Ferry continues to plough new furrows. We are so lucky to have him!

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Nov 11, 2013 4:54pm

Reading Chris Roberts' review is making me wish I could fly to Scotland for tomorrow night's show! It's beautifully written and so true. By going back to the jazz music he loved so much growing up, it sounds as if Bryan Ferry was able to meld all his influences, styles and peronas together, to create a show of music he loves and feels most. I don't really know his Bride Stripped Bare album, but after seeing a clip of "Can't Let Go" live on You tube, I plan to. I saw Bryan Ferry in concert for the first time in New York 2011. There, even among the "hits for the bankers" as you say, he did a version of "If There Is Something" followed by Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love", both of which were staggeringly beautiful. Bryan Ferry gets to the heart of a song like no one I've ever heard. I expected the concert to be high on charm and it was, but the emotional impact, of the Dylan song especially, was intense.

The jazz influenced music he did for The Great Gatsby this year was the best thing in the film. I wish he'd bring this UK show to New York! And, back to superficial for just a second, that midnight blue, silk jacket with the wild floral patterns and tribal Basquiat-like faces is absolutely exquisite.

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bill ackland
Nov 13, 2013 12:39am

Thank you. A perfect review; a perfect understanding of a sublime artist. We are waiting anxiously in Australia Bryan.

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Bill Gedeon
Mar 17, 2014 10:55pm

I've seen every Bryan Ferry/Roxy Music show in Cleveland, since 1974. For me they've always been huge events. Chris Roberts, is just telling it like it is...

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