Bryan Ferry and the Seduction of Subtlety
A relentless assault of zeros and ones is stripping our brains of the ability to recognize smooth edges. In the 21st century, we want things hard and binary, blunt and divisive – all mathematics and no mystery. The algorithms which attempt to define our preferences rob us of the freedom to relish chill bumps and hip sways, wherein our true love for music exists. If there were no machines to guide us, would we choose to live artless lives rather than suffer the inconvenience of making cultural decisions for ourselves? Would we listen to Roxy Music albums if we’d first discovered them on a Spotify playlist while sitting alone at a desk instead of hearing them on a turntable while slow dancing in the dark with our lovers? For me, Bryan Ferry’s performance at Atlanta’s Tabernacle on March 14, 2017 clearly answered these questions.
Art is not rigid, and as it turns out, there is no formula for feeling. Strings of code cannot command a 71-year-old man to spontaneously blow on a harmonica or fondle an electric piano. Only human will and emotion can do that. Choosing two hours of Bryan Ferry performing everything from “Ladytron” to “Bête Noire” made me want to rent a riad in Marrakech, dine outdoors in Paris, sail off the coast of Zanzibar, and go-go dance in a London nightclub while wearing nothing but a leotard and top hat. I’m not a Ferry virgin; I’ve seen his show many times over the past thirty years, both in the U.S. and Europe, including one of those Roxy Music reunion gigs. But last night’s happening – with no video screens or showgirls – played out like my recent recurring dream in which the world still cares about the humanity of charity, like it did the day Ferry sang at Live Aid in 1985, or in which society defines music as something to be celebrated by multiple generations, like it did the day Ferry performed with the Jazz Age orchestra at a 2013 summer festival named after a John Coltrane song.
The myriad musical influences of a globe-trotting glam rocker who adores Charlie Parker and Richard Strauss provided a precious opportunity to absorb sophisticated songwriting on a cold Tuesday night in March during a year when globalism and intellectualism are under siege.
At rock concerts with Bruce, Billy, Tom, Roger, Pete and Paul, the audience becomes a roaring ocean of anthems undulating to the backbeat. But at Bryan Ferry’s intimate theatre performance, we waltzed as one: I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. Of course, there was plenty of singing along, but we were so caught up in the atmospherics, I didn’t realize the words to “Windswept” had spilled from my lips until backing vocalist Fonzi Thornton, a legend who has sung on nearly every one of my favorite records, caught my eye and we nodded in unison as we repeated the refrain,”Feelin’ swept away.”
A great band leader interacts with his players as teammates, and Ferry is a gracious showman and performer who banters only when necessary. He used his few seconds of chatter at the Tabernacle to call Atlanta a “magical place” and soak up the love cascading over the railings of the theatre’s multiple balconies. A creative visionary, Ferry’s hand was deep in every aspect of this beautiful, yet simple presentation (he designed Roxy Music’s album covers back in the day, btw). I won’t go through the setlist in too much detail (another Atlanta colleague has superbly fulfilled that duty). I’m just here to describe the groove, which reminded me how much I miss these kinds of introductions, instrumentals, artful solos, and open spaces for musicians to stretch out. The “Tara” / “Take a Chance With Me” tandem segment was one of the best of the evening – an esoteric break featuring Jorja Chalmers’s sexy soprano saxophone. Later, Bobbie Gordon confidently handled the vocal high notes on “Avalon;” and Ferry’s industry heavyweights Chris Spedding (guitar) and Neil Jason (bass) added expertise and nuance to the 23-song set, bringing home the classic rock ending with “Love is the Drug,” “Virginia Plain,””Both Ends Burning” and “Editions of You.”
Concerts designed and performed by passionate players for whom quiet and loud are equally important may be disappearing, and in the future, subtlety might never leave our headphones or living rooms. Yet, onstage, Bryan Ferry still seduces us with his vulnerable tenor, which falls somewhere between the lovelorn ache of a teen heartthrob and the worldly wisdom of a statesman. This is where we beg him to stay with us forever: When he sings “Zamba” or his signature cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” with his eyes closed, the only thing we can do is watch the disco ball splinter into a million stars.
(Photo by Kristi York Wooten)