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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

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.