Roxy Music’s 50th Anniversary Tour, which had its final performance in North America last night at the Kia Forum, has at its heart a somewhat fascinating premise. It is less of a roaring, victorious affirmation that “we’re back,” than a question to the artists on the stage. That question is, “now that your lead singer’s distinctive voice has been diminished to little more than a whisper, what kind of show can you possibly put on?”
And the answer turns out to be, “we’re going to let him whisper all night long, and make the best of it.” When you have the right band, the right catalog, and the right whisperer, you can make quite a bit out of that.
Bryan Ferry’s unmistakable voice has always been a major part of this band’s magic, and there was no getting around the fact that in this iteration, he’s lost a lot of that remarkable instrument. But he still whispers in tune, and has adjusted his phrasing to suit his new way of doing things. A lot of the songs were re-set in lower keys. Someone pointed out that there were no songs from the monumental 1973 album Stranded in the set list at all, which surprised me until I realized, most of those are among his most croony, gymnastic vocal performances. There would have been no way to pull off a tour de force like “Song For Europe” today.
But the songs that had restraint as part of their style, like “The Bogus Man”, “If There Is Something” and “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”, sounded just fine. The latter, an expression of ice-cold romantic feelings for a sex doll, took on an additional poignancy with the tremorous voice promising, “I’ll dress you up daily, and keep you till death’s eyes” in a tone suggesting that might not be a very long time. The multiple songs from the Avalon album, which ended their original run in 1982, became even more fragile with this new breathy delivery. Where big choruses were still called for, the stylish trio of backup singers was right there on the job. And there were some songs where you just had to just roll with it, sing along on the chorus and enjoy how great the band was sounding doing these songs. Probably, a lot of people’s ability to enjoy the show, or not, depended on their ability to do that. In the room, it certainly felt like the best part of the audience was rolling with it.
Guitarist Phil Manzanera is always a pleasure to behold, and was especially thrilling tonight. His solo brought “…Heartache” to a boil, a feverish, slow-moving explosion over their heaviest riff, as drummer Paul Thompson played fills that suggested the protagonist of the song destroying his luxurious digs, shredding the sofa, driving his Rolls Royce into the swimming pool, in an attempt to feel something.
Some tunes were noticeably truncated – we got the shortened “single version” rather than “album version” of “Out of the Blue” and some others. Other songs that didn’t get instrumental showcases in the past were padded out with solos, giving Ferry’s voice a rest and the players a chance to stretch out. “While My Heart Is Still Beating”, a pretty ballad from the Avalon days, got a hair-raising makeover from Manzanera that took it all the way into left field. Ferry’s occasional keyboard solos were not virtuoso displays, but a few well-chosen notes played with impeccable timing. The sax and reed playing of Andy Mackay is a key element, and he still adds class and sophistication without looking to make much effort doing so. Newly added guitarist Tom Vanstiphout proves to be a capable soloist himself, taking a memorable lead on “My Only Love”.
Perhaps only Genesis has a back catalog that’s so obviously split between a “classic prog period”, in Roxy’s case the first four albums, and a “commercial pop period”, or the last four albums. The balance of this year’s show was shifted toward the latter, relative to their 2001 tour which featured a dream setlist for aficionados of the old stuff. I happen to like Avalon and consider it on almost the same level as those first four, in terms of quality and also of generating fond memories. That was the Roxy stuff I heard when it was new, around the first time I saw them in 1983, and it holds a strong appeal for me, despite being a world apart from the hairy, scary charm of the first four.
While not without its limitations, this fine edition of Roxy Music earned a standing ovation from a crowd virtually weeping with joy for the pleasures of this return round. It’s now possible, instead of comparing them to their younger selves, to compare them to a world without Roxy Music in it, and decide immediately in their favor. That repertoire, that vibe, and those players, were well worth the celebration.