By Mike Finkelstein
Bryan Ferry does not tour often. In fact, his last tour was in 2002. He is now 66 years old and recently had a scare concerning his heart (it was not actually a heart attack.) An opportunity to catch one of his gigs demands action. So, his appearance at the Greek Theatre Saturday was met with eager anticipation from a large crowd of his loyal fans. He and his latest stellar band rewarded the interest by delivering a mesmerizing nearly two-hour show.
Ferry is from working class English roots but studied fine art after secondary school. Not long after his University years, in 1970, he formed Roxy Music with, among others, Brian Eno and Andy MacKay. The name conjures images of dance halls and theaters as well as playing on the word “rock.” “Roxy” also refers to being simultaneously sexy and swanky, a perfect choice of words to describe the band’s music. Back in the day, Roxy Music’s album covers often featured artily staged photos of sophisticated looking hot models in elegant lingerie. These ladies (such as an unknown Jerry Hall) often became Ferry’s love interests. The music on the vinyl within got the idea across magnificently. Roxy Music put Ferry’s name out there and he was able to establish a solo career that began in 1973 and continued off and on from then.
Along with the wealth of strong material Ferry has built over the years, the big force this evening was the band. We were treated to some very interesting contrasts in guitar styles from British legend Chris Spedding (clean and beefy tone) and nimble New York ace Jeff Thall (thin overdriven biting Strat sound). Also featured were original Roxy Music drummer Paul Thompson, Jorja Chambers on sax and keyboards, Jerry Meehan on bass and Colin Good (in a tuxedo) on keyboards. Ferry, of course, sang and rotated between piano and harmonica.
As a performer, Ferry’s connection to fine art seems to be his compass, coloring his image and the sound of his music. On Saturday he looked very impressively artsy as he strode onstage in the cool night air. When he opened with “The Main Thing,” from Roxy Music’s 1982 album Avalon we took in his look — long legs, sharp haircut, wearing a tailored suit, with a scarf… this was the look of the artist on a winter day in Central Park. Stylish he is. Suave and debonair are words that still apply.
Onstage, the band members were set up symmetrically but artfully stayed away from perfect symmetry. Several tiers of risers looked cool and easy to navigate, stylish and utilitarian. Four backup singers (3 female, one male — two stage left and two stage right), Sax/keys (including soprano sax), more keys, a guitarist on either side of the stage, but one sitting. Bass and drums were towards the center of the stage and keyboards were on either side of the stage but not identically placed. Artfully arranged. And true to the Roxy tradition, we had one very hot dancer on each side of the topmost risers, suggestively clad and moving with the music.
The Bryan Ferry sound is a sexy, rapturous swirl rooted in layers of harmony and rhythm, much like veils of sound. The music surges quite seamlessly from the swagger of blasting rock to the polyrhythmic suggestion of samba and bossa nova. Ferry’s singing voice is rather thin, breathy, lilting and certainly melancholic — a bedroom voice, to be sure. He has a good range, stays within himself and commands his voice with smoothness. Subtle harmonies or unisons between himself and backup singers Aleysha Gordon, Hannah Kemoh, Tawatha Agee, and Fonzi Thornton made the sound lush. To be sure, Ferry is keenly aware of the allure in well-matched male and female harmony.
The program featured a few of his solo hits like “Slave To Love,” and “Don’t Stop The Dance,” but for much of the evening drew mainly from the Roxy Music catalogue and an array of interesting cover choices. Notable Roxy Music moments included “If There Is Something,” “Avalon,” “Casanova,” “Oh Yeah,” “Love is the Drug,” “Tara,” and “Editions of You,” which sounded very punk rock for 1973.
When you have someone with as stylized a sound as Ferry’s, it becomes a showcase of sorts to cover someone else’s songs. On Saturday, the covers ranged from Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming,” to Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane,” to John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and an almost completely metamorphosed version of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I’ll Put A Spell On You.” Even within the stylized format, all of these songs featured room for fine interplay between the remarkable talent on guitars and sax.
Ferry has an affinity for Bob Dylan songs and included “All Along The Watchtower,” “Make You Feel My Love,” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” in the set. Hearing songs as gritty as Dylan’s originals often were, being polished into something that sounds so completely different was great fun. And the guitar dialogue between Spedding and Thall on “Tom Thumb’s Blues” was a keeper.
It’s a fine line between mush and clarity when one mixes a large number of sounds as Ferry did on Saturday. But the results were well worth the effort as it all blended easily into the clear signature sound. Within the mix, you could focus on any one instrument and hear the precision in the playing. This tended to prime our imaginations. In fact, at one point the mix started to resemble bagpipes … and you could still pinpoint the sax and guitar that created the effect.
Opening the show was the Phenomenal Handclap Band, one of Ferry’s favorite new bands. They played an energetic mix of disco and funk over rock chord progressions. Moving like Sly and the Family Stone at Woodstock, in their big hair and bell-bottoms, and with keyboards whooshing away, the PHB had a strong and convincing ‘70s vibe.
To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.