The one thing you really need to know about Roxy Music is this: They are a band that has not released any new material in nearly two decades, yet their performance at Greek Theater sounded absolutely contemporary. Combining high style, pop art, post-war melancholia and an ironic appreciation of kitsch, Roxy is the genome that mapped out most of the trends in today’s pop and rock music; a big bang that has finally cooled to the point where you can view the planets that orbit around their sun.
Somewhere in Beck’s record collection undoubtedly lies find a well-thumbed copy of Bryan Ferry’s allusive, witty lyrics. Thom York would kill to write a song that carries its experimental ambitions as lightly as “For Your Pleasure.” Eminem can only look on in admiration at the twisted sexual fantasies Ferry assayed “In Every Dreamhome a Heartache” (about a man’s love affair with an inflatable doll). Even baby boomer mood music like Sade and the Sundays fall under the spell of “Avalon,” an album that was the soundtrack to a whole generation of undergraduate seductions. And what would hipsters have to excavate without Roxy pointing them in the direction of lounge music, Martin Denny and Serge Gainsbourg?
But even die-hard Roxy Music fans had to be surprised at how relevant and fresh the band sounded. Hitting the ground running with “Re-make/Re-model,” Roxy proceeded to tear through a set that concentrated on the best-known songs from its first five albums.
Touring in support of “The Best of” (Virgin), Roxy didn’t play it safe in terms of song selection: More obscure material such as “Ladytron,” the aforementioned “In Every Dreamhome” and “Editions of You” were among the evening’s highlights.
Even songs from later albums worked in this context. Used as a garnish instead of a whole meal, the lush, one-dimensional romanticism of “Avalon” becomes less distasteful.
The nattily dressed band members each had a chance to shine. The finale of the eerie “For Your Pleasure” shined a spotlight on Paul Thompson, Roxy’s unsung hero. The superlatively brawny drummer was the last of the original members to leave the stage, as the squalling loops and treated sounds beat a tattoo around him.
Phil Manzanera (looking continental in a stylish vanilla suit and scarf) and, wearing a beautifully cut, long gray coat, Chris Spedding (never an official member of the band, but is so closely associated with them that he might as well be) traded guitar solos on “My Only Love”; purple-suited saxophonist Andy McKay had his contractual obligation fulfilled when he took center stage for his instrumental “Tara.”
Zev Katz, in a bright blue suit, does an admirable job in the band’s bass chair, which has all the job security of a Spinal Tap drummer (this is a band that even changed bassists between pressings of its first album).
Ferry is, of course, the show’s star. Even the giant screen behind him (projecting, among other things, solarized op-art images of the band) and line of plumed showgirls was no competition. Changing costume from a black sharkskin suit to white dinner jacket and finally a quilted silver lame suit, his theatrical sense and crooning-on-the-edge-of-sob voice remain intact.
He suavely shimmies from side to side on the stage, looking like a James Bond lounge lizard, even playing a credible harmonica solo during the band’s cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” But he has not exactly been a victor in the battle of time. His face is deeply creased, his eyes heavily lidded. But it works for him; Ferry was always old beyond his years. Still, it’s nice to know that a man who so reveled in corruption and decadence did not end up looking like Dorian Gray.
As arch and sophisticated a songwriter as Ferry, Rufus Wainwright was the perfect choice of opening act. Backed only by his sister Martha and bassist Jeff Hill, he came off like the scattered yet self-possessed leader of a coffeehouse trio: In a striped shirt and stylish glasses, he looked like Yves Montand as a ’60s folksinger. The winning, stripped-down arrangements focused attention on his beautifully constructed songs, which combine classic Tin Pan Alley melodies with his acute observations and waspish wit.