The climax of Bryan Ferry’s world tour this weekend at the Hollywood Bowl was announced by conductor Thomas Wilkins as the singer’s “first full show with an orchestra.” That might have come as a surprise even to some dedicated followers. Whether he was trading his glam-rock look for a tuxedo all the way back in the early ‘70s or dressing down to a mere dinner jacket in subsequent decades, Ferry has always looked like a man who belongs in front of an enormous bandstand. Working with the Bowl Orchestra for almost the entirety of Saturday’s 80-minute set, Ferry might finally have found the musical manor to which he was born.
The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra has a worthy recent track record of showing up as guest accompanists for at least two or three shows by pop stars a summer, though the circumstances aren’t always the same. When Diana Krall uses that “house band,” as she did just two weeks ago, she’s able to hand them some sterling string charts fresh off her latest album. Sometimes the orchestra is employed nostalgically, recalling the time when rock & roll and strings actually went together, as in recent shows by the Moody Blues and ELO (whose Jeff Lynne didn’t seem quite as tangibly thrilled about returning to his orchestral roots as the rest of us were). When an orchestra is being added where it didn’t previously exist on record, things can get riskier. When Steely Dan played with the Bowl Orchestra last year, they had the assistance of some brilliant string arrangements — which you could rarely hear over the band, which played as busily and loudly as at any other gig.
The mix was just right at Ferry’s performance, though. It helps that most of his music is airy enough that there’s ample room for a string brigade to come in without his having to instruct anyone in his usual crew to pipe down. (The keyboard player did sound quieter than usual, perhaps inevitably, since his synth lines would tend to serve much the same function as the symphony’s.) It also helps that Ferry already keeps a violin/viola player, Marina Moore, busy as part of his regular touring band; casual comers who haven’t seen Ferry before might’ve assumed Moore was a member of the Bowl Orchestra who’d been bumped up to featured soloist. It’s a short, slippery slope from one orchestral instrument to 70.
Most helpful of all in making this collaboration work, of course, is his and latter-day Roxy Music’s intrinsic silkiness and sulkiness. Once his former band got the glam-rock out of their system, they became music to cry in your cocktail by, or at least think about crying to, since Ferry’s trademark suavity doesn’t allow for quite that open an expression of emotion. That band’s music, and Ferry’s since they stopped recording in 1982, is inherently cinematic. And if cinema = strings, then a song like 1985’s “Windswept” finally came to its fullest fruition at the Bowl, now less about the saxes and, with that full orchestra, sounding like a lost, gentle, mid-period Bond theme.
The effect wasn’t as swelling or minor-key dreamy on every song. Ferry recorded a Dylan covers album a decade ago, which was a good one, even though your first hunch might be that that kind of wordiness wouldn’t be exactly in his more contemplative wheelhouse. The Dylan pick he pulled out here was “Simple Twist of Fate,” which benefitted from a more sprightly orchestral arrangement that made it sound like something Glen Campbell would have recorded in his Jimmy Webb-collaboration heyday.
Of course, there were really two Roxy Musics, and the initial, more eccentric and energized one, when Eno was still in the band and the glitter force was still strong, remains well-represented in Ferry’s solo sets, too. It’s telling that three of those earliest singles — “Re-Make/Re-Model,” “Virginia Plain,” and “Do the Strand” — were performed with just the band, while the orchestra sat as spectators. It’s unwise to mess with the actual rock too much, though Wilkins and company did join in on something as raucous as “Love is the Drug.” On those early Roxy songs, the star of the show is not so much Ferry as sax player Jorja Chalmers, who gets to be the sexier, sleeker reincarnation of Andy Mackay, recreating that Roxy member’s amusingly squawky early solos as well as the more smooth-jazz-leaning stuff from later on.
(One other number that didn’t get the orchestra add-on was “More Than This,” which got some audience members who otherwise sat down all night to stand up — ironic, since, pretty as it is, it’s one of the least exciting numbers Ferry could possibly do in concert. He certainly recognizes that; these days, he cuts a couple minutes out of the recorded version of the tune, forcing those one-hit lovers in the crowd to sit down almost as soon as they’ve stood up.)
Ferry has one of the most unique voices in rock — in its breathiness, it seems to be high and low at the same time — but he’s never been a belter. So you have to give the 71-year-old star credit for allowing himself to be potentially blown off the stage as a singer by Saturday’s choice of opening act, Cécile McLorin Salvant, who at 27 is already sounding like one of the world’s great living jazz vocalists. The audience remained rapt through the Grammy winner’s 40-minute set, which covered material both wildly familiar (“Something’s Coming,” “And I Love Her”) and not (“Darkies Never Dream,” a provocative ballad from an early all-black Hollywood musical). Both she and her phenomenal backing trio were wildly unpredictable from moment to moment even on the standards — not least of all on a nearly avant-garde version of the “Meet Me in St. Louis” chestnut “The Trolley Song,” the virtuosic weirdness of which would have made the Sweeney Sisters’ heads explode. Rarely has a standing ovation for an opener seemed so apt and inevitable.