Bryan Ferry is doing a rather brave thing with his current tour, which reached the Albert Hall last night and continues around the country for the next three weeks. Unlike most performers of his age, he is trying to give us more than we bargained for.
The show begins with the nine members of the Bryan Ferry Orchestra, the band that created instrumental versions of Roxy Music songs in the style of Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke and Duke Ellington on The Jazz Age and went on to contribute to the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. So we’re presented with a banjo, a bass saxophone, a variety of clarinets, a string bass and a drum kit from a 1920s photograph: but Colin Good, Ferry’s musical director, has such a profound understanding of this form — as do his musicians, notably the trumpeter Enrico Tomasso — that the results go well beyond mere pastiche or novelty.
For some members of the audience, however, it is undoubtedly something of a shock to hear “Avalon”, “Slave to Love”, “The Bogus Man” and “Do the Strand” so radically transformed, and they have to wait until half a dozen pieces have been delivered in this fashion before Ferry himself arrives on stage to sing “The Way You Look Tonight”, joined by his two backing singers. “Reason or Rhyme” also begins in the same idiom, but is transformed by the mid-song arrival of Cherisse Ofosu-Osei, who settles behind a second drum kit, and Oliver Thompson, who plugs in his Gibson Les Paul, heralding a sudden time-shift to the present day.
From that instant the momentum builds, thanks in large part to Ofosu-Osei, who bludgeons her equipment with an unwavering ferocity that would make Paul Thompson, Roxy’s hard-hitting old drummer, sound as though he were playing for tea-drinkers at the Ritz. But Ferry hasn’t stopped taking chances. He’s going to sing what he wants to sing, and what he wants us to hear, and much of the pleasure of the concert is derived from seeing how he and Good marshal their resources to refresh the material, with Martin Wheatley switching from banjo and guitar to mandolin for a delicate “Carrickfergus”, John Sutton adding percussive decoration to Ofuso-Osei’s rolling thunder, and Tomasso and Iain Dixon providing a blast of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker on “Au Privave” as a prelude to “N.Y.C.” (a song from Ferry’s album Mamouna). And if you have a bass saxophone standing there, why not use it on “Editions of You”?
The set is liberally sprinkled with Dylan songs, including a lovely voice-and-piano treatment of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, and there’s a version of “Shame, Shame, Shame” in which the backing singers interpolate a chorus of “Can I Get a Witness”: a witty and appropriate touch that you can’t imagine coming from anyone who didn’t have a real love and first-hand experience of that kind of R&B.
And that’s what I liked most about the concert. It was about the music, not the image. Ferry seems to have adopted Dylan’s view of time, which is that there is no division between the past and the present. On this evidence he seems to be making it work, for us as well as for him.