4/21/2014

Bryan Ferry: The Power of Poise

Bryan Ferry, the singer and songwriter who climbed to lasting fame as the stylish leader of Roxy Music in the early 1970s, displayed his singular combination of well-appointed sound and restrained personality during the course of an accomplished performance at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon, on April, 8, 2014. To the abundantly evident delight of his local fans, the British star (now entitled to be known as Bryan Ferry, CBE, after receiving a formal honor from Queen Elizabeth II in 2011) provided a smooth evening in which a musical standard of casual grace and careful taste was deftly, and most enjoyably, upheld.

Bryan Ferry was born in Washington, County Durham, England. As a young man, he was strongly inclined toward art and music, and attended the University of Newcastle, where he dedicated himself to procuring a degree in Fine Art, studying under Richard Hamilton (who designed the stark cover of the "White Album" by The Beatles in 1968), while performing with two bands, The City Blues and The Gas Board. At the start of the 1970s, he formed Roxy Music, recording two standout albums, Roxy Music (1972) and For Your Pleasure (1973), with a lineup that included Andy Mackay (saxophone, oboe), Phil Manzanera (guitar), Brian Eno (synthesizer), and Paul Thompson (drums), and using his background in art to shape the visual element of their presentation.

When Brian Eno, eager to pursue his own music, departed from Roxy Music in 1973, it allowed Bryan Ferry to exercise more authority over the band, with the result that later recordings by Roxy Music, while still of a generally high quality, were more polished and less experimental than their first two albums. Bryan Ferry also took measures to further establish himself as a musician in 1973 by releasing These Foolish Things, the first of a string of albums that featured him apart from Roxy Music. Following the breakup of Roxy Music in 1983, and up to the current day, he has continued to record and perform under his own name, with his latest albums being Olympia (2010) and The Jazz Age (2012). In addition, Roxy Music, with Bryan Ferry at the helm, returned to tour for several years at the opening of the 21st century.

The performance in Portland got off to a lively beginning with Brian Ferry, attired in a dinner jacket with a flowered pattern, a white shirt, and a black bow tie (soon loosened), appearing at the rear of the stage, seated to one side behind an electronic keyboard, pounding out the driving chords of "Re-make/Re-model," the first track on Roxy Music. Throughout his hour and a half onstage (he apparently was determined not to overstay his welcome), the familiar offerings of Roxy Music were clearly favored in his choice of songs: "Ladytron," "If There Is Something," "Stronger Through the Years," "Oh Yeah," "Tara," "Take a Chance with Me," "More Than This," "Avalon," "In Every Dream Home a Heartache," "Love Is the Drug," "Virginia Plain," "Both Ends Burning," and "Editions of You." Also featured were four songs drawn from his own albums: "Kiss and Tell," "Slave to Love," "The Same Old Blues," and "Reason or Rhyme." He closed the evening with a slick rendering of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy."

Each song was impressively delivered by the eight members of Bryan Ferry's band, comprising two guitars, bass, keyboards, saxophone, and drums, along with vocal backing from a pair of female singers (who also shimmied with frantic ardor). The sharply fluid talent of the young musicians made even the older tunes come across as completely fresh and utterly vital, right down to the rousing cry of "What's her name? Virginia Plain!" (The parts for saxophone, which are essential to the songs of Roxy Music, were handled especially well by Jorja Chalmers.) Bryan Ferry himself was a steady picture of calmness and control. Even when he was moved into action by the excitement of the beat, he swayed in a deliberate manner, never entirely abandoning his measured approach. With his thick hair swept back and a faraway gaze in his eyes, he had the handsomely jaded look of a dissipated matinee idol from the 1940s.

If one highlight from the overall performance is to be singled out for special mention, it probably should be "In Every Dream Home a Heartache," a sinister composition about the snare of affluent boredom and the allure of perverted romance that sounded every bit as compelling, and every bit as creepily provocative, as it did when it first was released as a track on For Your Pleasure, more than forty years ago. To hear Bryan Ferry darkly intone the haunting lines that begin the song ("In every dream home a heartache and every step I take/Takes me further from heaven is there a heaven?/I'd like to think so"), as only Bryan Ferry can do, was a perfect moment of unwholesome musicality, both bewitching and alarming.

In 1972, when Roxy Music quickly created a stir in the world of British rock'n'roll, there was no way of knowing whether Bryan Ferry would outlast the flashy trends of that period and stay the distance through subsequent decades. As it happens, Bryan Ferry has, in 2014, at the age of sixty-eight, now assumed the dignified standing of an elder figure, albeit one who still retains enough of his formidable cool to entice an audience and put all younger pretenders to shame. His diverting show at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall confirmed him as an expert performer with a masterly hold on his abilities, skillfully using the power of poise to convey a practiced melancholy that is distinct in its effect and enduring in its appeal.