Back in December 2000, the BBC reported an attempted hijacking on Boeing 747 London to Nairobi flight BA2068: “Passengers screamed, fearing for their lives, as the jumbo carrying 398 people plunged several thousand feet before the intruder could be restrained.” The story continued, “Passengers, who included singer Bryan Ferry, described the terrifying moments when they thought they were going to die.” According to that fount of all audience-vetted knowledge, Wikipedia, “Maintaining his composure in a frantic situation, Ferry took the time to berate one of his sons for using bad language during the incident.” Whether the claim is true or not, its stiff upper lip message reflects Ferry’s reputation as a great British institution. After all, he may have been a working class lad from Newcastle, but he developed a debonair image with Roxy Music that framed him more as an unravelled and yet unruffled aristocrat playboy.
Ferry always appeared innately cultured; the sort of socialite who, dripping with glamorous women, might stumble out of a bohemian soiree in a timeless Berlin or Vienna at dawn and disappear off into the mist. He was a spectral presence pitched somewhere between James Bond and Count Dracula.
While Bryan Ferry has endless credit amongst my generation of music fans for his general genius and creative collaborations with Eno, I can’t help thinking that his super-smooth 2013 live show is taking rather a long time to hit its mark. It starts with only his jazz orchestra on stage. Their crisp 1920s style expresses great musicianship, but their chirpy approach belongs more to a senior citizen’s radio hour than a rock’n’roll house party… I’m not sure that I like my music quite this vintage.
When Bryan does appear – complete with a guitarist who is probably less than his son’s age, some cheery backing singers and a female drummer – he looks great. His classy lapel jacket hangs off him just right, and his bow tie is so eloquently and gently undone. He is getting older, its true, but that is no great crime for someone of his effortless sense of style. Bryan Ferry does not need to bust any energetic moves for all assembled to understand how cool he actually is. And behind that veneer of the fading aristocrat is a kind of bonus new wave hipster, as if that awkward character played by the keyboard player from Sparks had developed phenomenal social graces and become everything that all those retro-nuevo bands of the 1990s and early 2000s wished that they could be.
As if to affirm my estimate, Ferry undergoes a costume change and emerges in dark grey, faux office wear – a more down at heel image, perhaps, but one that calculatedly shifts him from European chic to New York nightlife. Now bracing his blues harp and in full flow, he comes on like an aging lecturer to give us a masterclass in how popular music should be created.
Any yet, for me, it doesn’t quite hit the spot.
Don’t get me wrong. I love his music, in all its intoxicating gothic seductiveness. It is, however, hard to translate numbers like ‘Oh Yeah’ and ‘Windswept’ into a big concert format. With its chugging bass line ‘Let’s Stick Together’ also starts to sound like Status Quo for wine bar patrons. The splashy cover of Sam and Dave’s ‘Hold On: I’m Coming’ is just a bit too full in arrangement to quite make its own point. And even his classic, delicious, and painfully jaded version of ‘Jealous Guy’ is given a crescendo ending.
In the last few minutes of the concert, however, this unique and understated defender of great British cool is – within his own chilled remit – going for broke, and even smiling.
‘Street Life’ gets the audience to its feet. What I find fascinating at this point is the amount of camera phones – which were nowhere to be seen when we were seated – start to become visible and dotted about the crowd.
By the end of the show I am interested, but feel that I should have been more moved. Perhaps I was expecting much more soul (small “s”) then there could or should have been. After all, spectres do not do sweat and neither must they.
Bryan Ferry has had a variable but always interesting career. Despite even his utterly misjudged comment on aesthetics, however, I am still left slightly in awe of his introverted grace and ability to summon up a sedate house party in his wake.
Maybe his sound can never be live what it is on record, but he was always so much more than his music.