If Douglas Fairbanks was inhabited by the spirit of one of those inflatable tube-man dancers they have at car lots, and the footage was slowed down 25 percent, he might move something like how Bryan Ferry does onstage.
Ferry doesn’t dance, exactly. His is a kind of a stationary back and forth movement, with arms in motion vertically. The very first time he played Minnesota, in 1976 at the Guthrie Theater, a local paper compared his “little rhumba dance steps” to Xavier Cugat, of all people. That’s not entirely inaccurate, but Ferry's performance is stranger and more deeply compelling than that. He also points, mimes lyrics, blows kisses. This all happens in a slim fit suit, and the overall effect is sexy without being sleazy, funny without seeming foolish. You see footage of him on Top of the Pops in the ’70s, and he hasn’t really changed much. He doesn’t need to: His style is perfect.
The 71-year-old Ferry executed these moves from the moment he stepped out of the shadows onstage of the Palace Theatre in St. Paul on Saturday, backed by a chic nine-piece band clad in all black that looked more like an international gang of jewelry thieves than a group of touring musicians. He sang a few solo numbers, some tastefully chosen covers, and a whole slew of singles and album tracks from his first group, Roxy Music, including four from their landmark first record.
Ferry had a band that could, in the words of the man himself, remake and remodel those Roxy numbers to exact specifications – not a note off from the whole band, even on those weird Eno passages from the first two records. Highlights (and audience favorites) were Jorja Chalmers on saxophone, and Lucy Wilkins on violin. Both matched the old Eddie Jobson and Andy Mackay lines note for note when called upon, but also stretched out beautifully on the weirder, more improvisational numbers of Ferry’s more languid, new-age yacht-rock world-music solo records like Bête Noir, from which he played two songs. Most saxophonists backing veteran pop stars overblow their lines in that terrible last-two-minutes-of-Saturday Night Live kind of way, but Chalmers followed the Mackay playbook and kept things alternately noisy and understated in the service of the songs.
Ferry's performance of “Every Dream Home a Heartache,” from the second Roxy Music record, was a particularly brilliant bit of showmanship. It's a creepy epic-length tale of a yuppie’s doomed love affair with his plastic blowup doll, and the slow burn of the first half let Ferry’s voice rise to the top of the mix. When he set off the second half (which has one of the great payoff lines in pop history), half the crowd shot up to their feet and mostly lost their minds. One dude in front of me was pumping his hands in the air so hard I thought he was going to fall off the balcony. I guess he got lost in the explosive energy of the moment and forgot it was all about a plastic blowup doll – which, come to think of it, is sort of the point of the song.
Ferry also covered Neil Young and Bob Dylan, in that specifically Ferry-ish way of smoothing down the jagged edges, but also laminating the folky earnestness with a studied art-school sheen. (There was a Velvet Underground cover, too, of “What Goes On,” which Ferry has probably been strumming along to since 1968.) During “Simple Twist of Fate,” he thrust a finger in the air, as though pointing to that great Nobel Prize Committee in the sky.
Ferry is a pioneer in counterintuitive Dylan covers: At a time when the canonization of the man was so complete that sleazebags were going through Dylan’s garbage like they might find outtakes from the Talmud and everyone else was awaiting whatever gnomic insights into the human condition he was going to utter from his Woodstock compound, Ferry’s version of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” stripped sway the “holy seer” stuff and embraced the lyrics' weirdness and humor without diminishing their apocalyptic essence. One gets the sense, especially in his enthusiastic run-throughs of those songs, that Ferry remains a passionate and discerning fan of the music of his youth.
Speaking of Bryan Ferry’s youth: Part of the fun of getting to know a musical artist is learning about the jobs they held down before pop stardom came calling, and comparing the ordinariness of those resume entries with whatever flamboyant public personas came later. There’s Mick Jagger, the student of economics, or Wayne Coyne, the Long John Silver's fry cook.
Before he was the leader of Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry taught ceramics to teenagers at an alternative high school in London. That always seemed so hard to believe to me. The artiness makes sense, but the reality of ceramics is that it’s a really messy medium. You have to load kilns, mix slip, that sort of thing. How would Ferry have managed all that wearing a tuxedo?
When Roxy Music appeared on the scene in 1972, Bryan Ferry’s persona was so completely fully formed right out of the gate, it’s hard to imagine he could have done or been anything else. From that first photo of the band in the debut Roxy Music LP’s gatefold, Ferry was a cynical but hopelessly lovesick lothario in evening wear, a persona he’s maintained flawlessly and with exquisite taste for forty-five years. A high school ceramics teacher? It’s like hearing Jacques Brel drove a school bus. Even Ferry’s contemporary David Bowie, before settling on the first of his major personas, was a mime. Of course he was.
So I always imagined Ferry’s stage persona would match the fluency of his lyrics and cinematic quality of those photo shoots: chatty, bantery, and smooth, like a transcript from a cocktail party written by Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman.
Halfway through the set, though, the ceramics teacher began to peek through, past the façade of the super-elegant international playboy. The talk was at an absolute minimum – Ferry graciously introduced his band members, and said a brief word about being glad to be back in Minnesota, but that was about it. Otherwise he communicated nonverbally. He grinned and smiled and pointed and waved throughout – growing increasingly, I thought, giddy through two encores, ending with a rip-roaring “Editions of You.” At the end, he blew kisses to everyone. Ferry’s cool is entirely contained in the music and his performance of it. Behind that playboy persona, so well-crafted over the decades, there’s evidence of an enthusiastic high school ceramics teacher with killer taste in music and a flair for the witty and the arcane who just happens to look dangerous in a dinner jacket.
Critic’s bias: They used to have Avalon on the jukebox at Matt’s Bar, and for years I wouldn’t leave without playing “More Than This” at least once. It got a nice workout last night, though that long instrumental section at the end was cut.
The audience: It’s always fun at a show to work out where an artist sits on the pop continuum by seeing what t-shirts featuring other bands people are wearing. In this case, I found Rogers Waters on one end, and Sisters of Mercy on the other. This makes a certain amount of sense: Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music live, in the conventional wisdom of the early twenty-first century, on the margins of both artier ’70s classic rock and gloomier, dramatic ’80s guitar rock. I also saw Chan Poling and Mark Mallman in attendance, two Minnesota artists who certainly display Ferry's influence Bryan Ferry in their own work.
The Main Thing
Slave to Love
Out of the Blue
Simple Twist of Fate (Bob Dylan cover)
A Waste Land
Stronger Through the Years
Like a Hurricane (Neil Young cover)
Can't Let Go
Remake - Remodel
In Every Dream Home a Heartache
If There Is Something
More Than This
Love Is the Drug
Let's Stick Together (Wilbert Harrison cover)
What Goes On (The Velvet Underground cover)
Jealous Guy (John Lennon cover)
Editions of You
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