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Pop Music Review

More Than This Roxy Nostalgia

Bryan Ferry and others reunite on stage, performing with a passion that is as appealing today as it was back in the British band's heyday in the 1970's.

August 08, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Reunion tours are generally exercises in denial. From the Sex Pistols to the latest reruns by the Who, you trade some dollars for some memories--or vice versa, in the band's case. Then you spend much of the evening trying to convince yourself that it's not all nostalgia, that the music is as vital as ever.

One reason the new Roxy Music tour is a rare reunion worth applauding is that you don't have to waste time on the nostalgia issue. The British band's music was joyously absorbing at the Greek Theatre, where it opened a two-night stand Monday, even if you didn't know the songs were all written before the band called it quits in the early '80s.

When Roxy Music surfaced in 1972, it was in the very large, mesmerizing shadow--at least in this country--of David Bowie, who dealt in outwardly similar glam-rock sensibilities, but with a stronger stage persona and a generally greater feel for radio-friendly tunes.

Looking beyond the group's fondness for colorful, quirky fashions and glamorous album graphics, you saw that Roxy Music wasn't truly glam at all, musically-speaking. The band--whose original lineup included pop auteur Brian Eno--was one of the pioneering ventures into art-rock.

Unlike the stark, street realism of the Velvet Underground, Roxy Music reflected onstage in the '70s some of the teasing theatrical verve of English music hall. But the music itself was smart, experimental and challenging--an influence, to varying degrees, on such equally cerebral outfits as Talking Heads and Radiohead.

There were certainly some memories tickled Monday at the Greek.

"We love you, Bryan!" one fan screamed as Bryan Ferry, the still-trim singer with the suave, matinee-idol persona intact at 55, took the stage wearing a typically stylish black metallic jacket and pants.

In the '70s, Ferry often adopted the world-weary stance of a helpless romantic, someone who knew the dice of romance were loaded but couldn't help rolling them.

"Fallen leaves in the night/Who can say where they're blowing," Ferry sang in "More Than This," a tune on Roxy Music's most popular U.S. album, 1982's "Avalon." The group didn't perform that song Monday, but it did reflect on the uncertain nature of relationships in several other key tunes in the 90-minute set.

To his credit, Ferry didn't try to duplicate the original, tormented aura of such tunes as "Love Is the Drug" and "Both Ends Burning." Instead, he looked back at the themes with the comfort and distance of someone who has had a few winning roles of those dice.

Changing jackets to match the mood of the songs (a white dinner outfit here, silver lame there), Ferry remained the group's visual focus, and he has a deceptive emotional range as a singer. He injects some tunes with the exaggerated mannerism you might expect from an ultra-sensitive chanteuse, while he turns elsewhere to the deep-voiced somberness of Leonard Cohen.

But Roxy Music is far from a one-man show. Eno, who left the group in the early '70s, isn't back, but Ferry is joined on the tour by longtime Roxy hands Phil Manzanera on guitar, Andy Mackay on saxophone and Paul Thompson on drums--as well as a vanload of support musicians, singers and even dancers.

Manzanera and Mackay are especially aggressive players who step into the spotlight for dynamic solos at unexpected times, and Thompson energizes the show with explosive flurries. Indeed, their musicianship is as much at the heart of Roxy's continuing punch as Ferry's frontman command.

In some ways, the lack of radio airplay the first time around helps Roxy Music now. Some bands are burdened on reunion tours by songs that were so popular that they became embedded in the cultural framework of the time, making it hard not to think of them in an earlier context.

Roxy Music further sidesteps the "greatest hits" syndrome by drawing material from various albums rather than concentrating on tunes from the most popular ones. The result was juxtapositions as stark as their version of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy" with the party bounce of "Dance Away" and "Do the Strand." Adding to the punch of the latter two songs were, respectively, dancers dressed as go-go girls and Vegas chorus girls.

The band also showed good taste in selecting Rufus Wainwright as its opening act. He's a breathtakingly gifted young singer-songwriter who also deals in the world of romantic obsession. His performance Monday, however, was more workmanlike than inspired, as if he has so much confidence in his material that all he needs to do is wheel it out.

That's certainly not something that can be said about Roxy Music. Even after all this time, the band played each song with the passion and commitment of musicians who want you to feel every ounce of emotion.

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