By BRUCE DENNILL
Bryan Ferry / World Tour 2019 / Sun Arena Time Square, Pretoria
It’s difficult to find a mention of Bryan Ferry’s name that doesn’t also allude to his style (and that’s another one). It’s become one of those observations – like Steely Dan being sophisticated, or Fleetwood Mac being dysfunctional – that’s both useful and problematic, in that it helps define an artist or a band in a way that makes them unique or instantly recognisable, while also distracting from an appreciation of their music for facets that have nothing to do with whatever characteristic has become a cliché.
In Pretoria, following a strong set from support act Arno Carstens (impressive for the complexity of the sound created by his two-piece backing band, and particularly for the versatility and virtuosity of trumpeter, keyboard player and synth soundscaper David Watkyns), Ferry arrived onstage with a grin and a wave, joining an eight-piece band arrayed in front of a red velvet curtain.
The singer, now 73, is not one for banter and launched straight into regular opener The Main Thing, one of a large number of Roxy Music songs performed alongside selections of his solo material. A good portion of both of those catalogues is the inventive fusion of sounds that, while a good deal less radio-friendly than the big hits, intrigues and impresses in terms of the interplay of the band members and parts of the arrangements they’re responsible for.
They’re a varied collective – two backing singers, a violinist, a saxophonist and the more traditional keyboardist, bassist, drummer and guitarist. For live purposes, the running times of the studio recordings are stretched, with Ferry often completing his vocal contributions halfway through, before statuesque saxophonist Jorja Chalmers or stoic guitarist Chris Spedding embark on one of many solos. Ferry is always the musical director at the end of the songs, with the flutter of a raised hand from the singer generally being the signal to wrap things up.
Ferry’s signature voice is – as is to be expected – not as rich as it once was, but if there is slightly less tone, his trademark technique is still there, his vocals waxing, waning and ever-so-slightly cracking to add emotion to his delivery. In some instances – on hits More Than This and Jealous Guy, most noticeably – drops in register or some ropey whistling are marks of tricks of the trade that are not as easy to pull off as they once were. But these are momentary blips, and when the band is given more license to drive the grooves, as in audience favourites Love Is The Drug and Let’s Get Together, everything hangs together beautifully, and the energy on stage is quickly transferred to the enthusiastic crowd.
Don’t Stop The Dance, Avalon, Bete Noire and others get the crowd nodding and singing along to their chic melodies, and regularly changing lighting set-ups and backdrops mean that audience eyes are kept as busy as ears. This is a slick, well-designed show with plenty of heritage value, but just as much contemporary currency.