An imperceptible dream: Bryan Ferry at 75 + live in Holland & New Zealand

Bryan Ferry has turned 75. 

This seems an imperceptible dream. In the mind’s eye, the most suave man in music seems frozen in time, a sharply tailored nightcrawler whose husky nicotine croon still sets knees trembling. Whether it’s peacocking in a sharp white suit in the Let’s Stick Together video (with the show-stopping turn by then squeeze Jerry Hall), or stylised to the max in faux-military fatigues and eye patch in Love Is The Drug, or the elegant, sophisticated crooner in a deluxe tux for Avalon. Ferry is simply forever, timelessly cool.

A revered and chameleonic figure in music and fashion, Ferry is as admired for his sense of style as he is for possessing an incredible back catalogue stretching back almost 50 years. Moreover, Roxy Music are rightly regarded as the most innovative and important British band of the 1970s, with Ferry’s playful lyrical dexterity often outsmarting and influencing David Bowie, his great art-rock rival-cum-champion.

In total, he’s issued 16 solo albums, eight with Roxy, and a slew of unforgettable hits: Virginia Plain, Slave To Love, Dance Away, This Is Tomorrow, Street Life, A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, and the chart-topping version of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy to name just a few.

An influence on everyone from Chic and Scissor Sisters to Japan and Duran Duran, the cover of each solo album announced his trailblazing new persona and attendant image. He rarely if ever got it wrong, from the rainbow prisms of In Your Mind (which electroclash kid Tiga paid homage to on his debut album, Sexor) to the leather blazer and skinny tie hipster on The Bride Stripped Bare and the cigarette smoke dreams of Boys And Girls, which happened to be the LP I bought with my very first pay packet.

Despite that status as probably the cleverest songwriter of our times, Ferry is one of those fave raves I haven’t witnessed live in concert anything like enough. I was extremely fortunate to catch the reformed Roxy in London twice (2001 and 2005), on their comeback trail of the noughties. But for some unfathomable reason, I skipped seeing the band‘s farewell tour in 2011, and at the time the o2 Arena was only a few miles from my house in Dulwich. Regrets? I’ve had a few…

While I was still a Londoner, I also caught Bryan doing his solo thing a coruscating quartet of times. Off the top of my head:

1989

1994

2002

2007

Come 2018 and I was determined to right (stuff) those wrongs. For a selected pairing of just two concerts on his post Avonmore tour BF was accompanied by the Dutch Metropole Orkest, in Amsterdam and the following day in Antwerp. In order to explore a bit more of the region I decided to drive from my new house in the south of France to the gig in the Netherlands, though, ironically, I spent the night in the Belgian city the Flemish call Antwerpen on the way back. 

AFAS Live was, until recently, known as the Heineken Music Hall, and a venue I knew from attending the annual Gay Pride event the White Party when I lived in the country in the early 2000s. Due to the limited space available the Metropole Orchestra were snuck away at the back of the stage so that Ferry’s nine-piece band — seemingly split between younger hipsters and preternaturally talented older hands like guitar supremo Chris Spedding — were the focal point. But whenever they were featured they enhanced the colourful scenery, kind of like Van Gogh adding a few intermittent paint splashes to a much revered Rembrandt. It’s clear from the outset this is going to be a classy, classy night.

The strings added a sense of grandeur, giving many of the tracks a subtle new lease of life. Having said that, there were many moments and even entire songs where the Metropole was sidelined and I started to wonder what all those people were doing back there. Even with an orchestral set-up, let no one be in any doubt that the ineffably elegant Ferry is absolutely the main thing. In recent years, his seductive croon came across as mere tremulousness. and often little more than whispering Bry, but tonight in the Dutch capital he sounded richer, fuller and crystal clear.

BF with Sydney saxophonist Jorja Chalmers © Steve Pafford 2018

Relaxed yet regal, laying a whole life of soul and experience, BF rattles through 23 songs with barely a breather for small talk.

Never talkative, though always graceful, he’s often exhibited a slightly awkward shyness that marks him out as being far from the most natural of stage performers. Ferry is at his best on the slower, darker songs like A Wasteland/Windswept, Mamouna and the Roxy classics Bitter Sweet and In Every Dream Home a Heartache, where his stagecraft stiffness are often masked by turns at the keyboards.

Slave To Love brings the swoon, but Out Of The Blue shifts the atmosphere from appreciative genuflection to something hungrier. From Bête Noire — his under-appreciated 1987 album with Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard — Zamba still retained its ghostly, queasy quality, while the Tango Argentina’d title track was exquisite, its French cinematic mystery further enhanced by the orchestra’s bells and whistles. It was almost worth the ticket price alone. Yup, that good. 

The set came to a climax with a home-stretch sprint through the inevitable crowd-pleasers Virginia Plain, Love Is The Drug, Let’s Stick Together and Jealous Guy. Now in the autumn of his career, the BF live experience has regained some of its shining silver lining. After all, it’s Bryan Ferry — celebrate!

The prairie rose was blossoming again.

© Steve Pafford 2018

BONUS BEATS: Nine months later, I caught BF again, down under in the Kiwi capital of Wellington, having flown to New Zealand from Sydney at the end of February 2019.

As I’m prone to do, I was travelling light, with the minimal of hand luggage. In my accommodation across the quay from the waterfront TSB Arena I wasn’t exactly spoilt for choice with the selection of gig wear staring out from my mini suitcase. It must have been some kind of subliminal influence in it being there in the first place, but I opted for a white t-shirt emblazoned with a freaky neon-like shot of Bette Davis smiling garishly, a still from the cult sixties classic Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?*

Then it occurred to me. Where was I flying to next? Brazil via a Chilean stopover. 

It had to be.

Song wise, the 2019 show was very similar to the previous year’s model, save for three or four substitutions that brought fan favourites like Tokyo Joe and a raucous Editions Of You, plus a considered cover of Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright into the set. The latter saw Ferry is at his most exposed: backed only by piano, it’s possible to reflect on how that once unsettling voice – which always sounded old before its time – has matured.

Being slap bang in the middle of the second row, there was one point quite late in the show where I could see Bryan’s eyes lock on to my top. Realising it was Baby Jane Hudson, he seemed suitably impressed enough to give me a knowing wink, nod and a smile.

But then the shocker. Somehow the evening rapidly turned into the first time I’d seen Ferry or Roxy where Virginia Plain was left on the shelf in Acapulco.

So, to conclude, if I can paraphrase the opening of the first Bowie song I ever bought and Virginia Plain itself, Do you remember a line that’s been in such an early song?

“Baby Jane’s in Santiago… we are flying down to Rio!” And Rio was hawt.

Just like Bry.

Steve Pafford

*Yes, I‘m aware that it‘s Andy Warhol superstar Baby Jane Holzer being namechecked in Roxy’s glam oddity. All styles served here.

An earlier version of this article was published in 2018 here

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