Given the realities of music in 2016, it’s good to see a glitter-era icon who’s still alive and kicking.
By Brett Milano
It’s easy to grow old gracefully when you were already a world-weary romantic in your youth. So you’re not going to get a big, late-career reinvention from Bryan Ferry, who already figured out decades ago that love is both a source of exquisite pain and the only drug worth scoring. What you will get from Ferry these days is the same thing you’ve always gotten: A lot of seductive melancholy with a celebratory moment or two, all of it wrapped in the most elegant of grooves—the kind you can only dance to if you’re properly dressed.
Given the realities of music in 2016, it’s good to see a glitter-era icon who’s still alive and kicking. But while Bowie adopted a different persona every year, Ferry is always Ferry: He still looks impeccably dapper onstage, and you have to look close to see signs of age (and for a man who turned 71 next month, he hasn’t aged that much). His voice is intact, despite the vocal problems that plagued his last U.S. tour in late 2014 (especially in Boston, where his voice gave out during a soundcheck at the Orpheum and the show was cancelled). The one concession to time at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion was a few lowered keys, noticably on “Love is the Drug.” And though the material spanned four decades (or longer if you include the covers), the emotional tone was consistent throughout. The Jerome Kern standard “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (which Ferry first sang in the ‘70s) and his own ‘80s hit “Slave to Love” may seem worlds apart, but they’re both about the same thing. And when Ferry sang “I’m just a slave to love” at the end of the latter, it was with the same kind of self-defining pride that Springsteen evinces when he shouts “I’m just a prisoner of rock and roll” at the ends of shows.
Despite the career-spanning setlist, this was essentially a Roxy Music show, with two-thirds coming from that band’s catalogue. And while an actual Roxy reunion fizzled a few years ago, the current band includes a couple players from later Roxy albums (backup singer Fonzi Thornton and guitarist Neil Hubbard)—plus new saxophonist Jorja Chalmers and lead guitarist Jacob Quistgaard, who respectively have the sounds of Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera down pat. The sound was smoother and glossier than the ‘70s model, but so was Roxy in its later incarnations. They gave Ferry’s new material the necessary noir-disco rhythms, but could also get suitably dark and proggy on a Roxy nugget like “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” with its still-startling instrumental coda.
Ferry’s two major moments of glory were both on less obvious tracks. The Bob Dylan cover “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” managed to reframe the lyric: In Dylan’s original and most other covers, it’s an angry write-off to a bad relationship; Ferry makes it a more regretful farewell—singing “don’t think twice” in a half-whisper, as if he knows she never will. And the night’s least-known Roxy Music track, “Stronger Through the Years” (from 1979’s overlooked Manifesto album) The lyric is about—what else?—the enduring nature of romantic sorrow, and its dramatic buildup made for a sweet, somehow reassuring catharsis.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat. His latest book is Don’t All Thank Me At Once (125 Records), a biography of the unsung pop genius Scott Miller, who led the bands Game Theory and The Loud Family.