in performance: bryan ferry

bryan ferry.

bryan ferry.

Watching Bryan Ferry, one of the founding fathers from the prog side of Euro-pop, holding court in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, ground zero for country and Americana music, may represent the ultimate in culture clashes. Even a patron seated next to me on Tuesday night as a rare North American tour by Ferry hit Music City seemed bewildered. “How many people in Nashville even know who this guy is?”

Point made. Much of the healthy turnout seemed familiar with the veteran British singer and song stylist only through his early to mid ‘80s music, when a de-glammed version of the vanguard pop army Roxy Music decamped into darker, textured and more ambient inclined songs – all traits he carried over into a revamped solo career after Roxy ceased operations as a recording group in 1983.

But Ferry carried on as if Nashville was one of his key fanbases from previous decades with a neatly orchestrated nine-member band that ably fleshed out the dense, arty arrangements of his music and a setlist that wasn’t afraid to promote deep cuts from long lost albums as much as hits. After all, those who knew Ferry through the 1982 Roxy swan song record “Avalon” and the 1985 radio hit “Slave to Love” (which accounted for the bulk of the crowd) needed an understanding how just how extensive Ferry’s pop history was.

Make no mistake, the evening was a history lesson. After opening the show with two groove-directed songs from his newest album, 2014’s “Avonmore” (the title tune and “Driving Me Wild”), Ferry jettisoned everything from his catalog that post-dated 1987. That effectively eliminated three of the four-and-half decades Ferry’s recordings encompass. But the 15 year spread that remained was examined thoroughly.

From the earliest days of Roxy Music came giddy pop hits (“Virginia Plain,” “Re-Make/Re-Model”), quirkier, more prog-laced works (the noir-like “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” ominously performed with the band in silhouette, and the lost post-disco requiem “Stronger Through the Years”) and few complete surprises (1973’s “Beauty Queen,” which opened with summery lyricism before exploding into storm-trooping arena rock).

The solo career fare was more diverse, tracing Ferry’s pop roots as well as his stylistic evolution. Those songs reached back to the traditional pop wistfulness that distinguished his 1974 cover of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and the lean piano-led reflection of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Thick Twice, It’s Alright.” The Ferry the crowd seemed to know made himself known early in the show when “Slave to Love,” with its thick keyboard and percussion-dominate soundscape, was dispatched. But there were again surprises, like a pair of  tunes from 1987’s Patrick Leonard-produced “Bete Noire” (the dark tango-infused title tune and the spiraling meditation “Zamba”).

At 70, Ferry’s voice has thinned a bit. Then again, he has spent much of his post-Roxy career as a kind of hushed, ambient crooner whose voice was less of a lead instrument and more part of an ensemble fabric. There were old band hands on board (guitarist Neil Hubbard, a co-hort since 1979) and vocalist Fonzi Thornton (a Ferry mate since “Avalon”). But newer members called upon to handle the vast instrumental terrain established by the Roxy material (Australian reed player Jorja Chalmers and especially Danish guitarist Jacob Quistgaard) helped Ferry blur time lines and geographical boundaries, making a sound fashioned in Europe decades ago seemed fresh and vital in boot-scooting Nashville.

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