Jhe air of mystique that permeated Roxy Music’s prime in the 1970s has, in recent years, been replenished by their absence from the live arena. It’s been over a decade since the debonair contrarian art-rock last played in the UK, a longer period of time, by the way, than the entire recording history of eight band’s albums from 1972 to 1982. And so it is that intrigue as much as expectation greets Roxy’s return for a 50th anniversary tour, with a line-up anchored around four core members from their imperial phase, including guitarist Phil Manzanera, drummer Paul Thompson and saxophonist and oboe Andy Mackay. Still a vision of unreasonable chic and beauty at 77, County Durham-born singer Bryan Ferry glides on stage and on his piano stool in a dark suit, white shirt unbuttoned and flared across the chest. To use a saying from Love Is the Drug: dim the lights, you guess the rest.
A career-spanning set begins with the opening track from Roxy Music’s 1972 self-titled debut album, Re-Make/Re-Model – practically a manifesto to rip it up and start again with its rogue synth squiggles and screeching vocals. Glamour, glitter and peacock feathers in the age of denim-clad blues hard rock, funky in the punk era, soulful transatlantic smoothies by the time other British bands had caught up to their hitherto hazy ways, the originality and influence of Roxy was something for everyone. from David Bowie to Kate Bush might fit. With his genius synth playing and mysterious sonic “treatments”, Brian Eno restored his reputation as a founding member of the band before stepping down in 1973, but Roxy’s reputation as an inventor survived the oblique strategist’s tenure well.
Ferry’s hairline has withstood the ravages of time much better than his once luxuriously silky croon – he’s counting on a trio of backing vocalists to help him do most of the heavy lifting tonight, especially during a string of tough numbers. more effusive of Roxy. And yet, a delicate spoken and sung delivery somehow suits a work dripping with irony that reads as if written entirely in quotation marks. Among a series of opening songs from the end of the band’s catalogue, the eerie vampire funk The Bogus Man – aptly abbreviated from its full nine-minute version on 1973’s For Your Pleasure – slips and slides, before Ladytron sees the Mackay tartan gave the Hydro the craziest oboe solo the hall had ever seen. A band with such an aversion to choruses surely shouldn’t have a place in arenas half a century later, but it helps that every time they trigger one – like the buttery, arm-shaking chorus of Oh Yeah , Ferry’s wistful ode to faded Hollywood glamor – it tends to be massive.
Nine other musicians, including three keyboardists, fill the stage, testifying to the labyrinthine arrangements of songs such as the proto-sophisticated-pop workout The Main Thing. In Every Dream Home a Heartache – part critique of hollow opulence, part romantic ode to an inflatable sex doll – Ferry revisits his darkest lyrics over shuddering organ and creeping guitar lines from Manzanera, the stage lit in sinister green, before the rest of the band kicks off with a thunderous boom and the vocalist wanders offstage to let Roxy rock. He remains behind the scenes as Mackay takes center stage for Tara, an extravagant instrumental odyssey for oboe sure to be loved by high-end hi-fi sellers the world over.
For all that Roxy Music’s catalog revels in texture and shadow, their best and most enduring songs paint emotion in simple colors. In Dance Away’s blistering chorus and Bontempi- and castanet-adorned electro-disco beat, the origins of every new romantic band that’s ever burst into their mother’s makeup cabinets are plain to hear. Never mind that Ferry doesn’t even bother to try More Than This’s swooping falsetto – people are out of their seats and elated. The final wave is Roxy Music at its most unbridled, from the horndog anthem and punk-funk ancestor Love Is the Drug, to a stomping, skroning edit of You and, either side of the sugary cover of the band of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy, a pair of ageless quirky glam bangers at Virginia Plain and Do the Strand. This is all in the past now, but has any other band made the future so fun?