For Bryan Ferry on Tuesday, it was a tale of two sets.
Part One at the Civic Opera House found the past and still occasional Roxy Music vocalist imitating the skipper of the good ship Yacht Rock, a smooth but disinterested navigator in an expensively tailored suit and tie.
After a brief intermission, Part Two brought out a suddenly engaged performer, shimmying with a wicked smile. It didn’t hurt that the mix in the great hall was vastly improved, the tepid mulch of the first half replaced by a sharper clarity in the second.
Ferry is an elegant subversive, an art-rocker disguised as a crooner who with Roxy Music provided a sly, sometimes disturbing, sometimes heart-breaking soundtrack for ‘70s decadence. At 66, he remains credible because he always exuded a cool, adult sophistication that contained multitudes: vulnerability, detachment, excess, humor, despair.
Little wonder Ferry’s fans were out in force Tuesday, but they had little reason to exult as the show opened in subdued style. The singer’s elegance barely registered a pulse -- he couldn’t even be bothered to finish choruses, letting his four backing vocalists do the heavy lifting.
The music sailed smoothly, barely raising a ripple, a mid-range shimmer. Guitarists soloed, dancers gyrated, videos flashed images of a vintage Mercedes cruising on a country highway into the dusk. It was refinement without a soul – a mid-life crisis Ferry once would’ve transformed into riveting theater. But on this night, the singer somehow turned a snippet of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” into a sleeping pill. Instead of throwing himself into the increasingly desperate Roxy Music classic “If There is Something,” he leaned on his backing chorus. A cover of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” was the lone first-half standout, its sparse arrangement clearing out room for Ferry to play the world-weary saloon balladeer.
Ferry took his time warming up in the second set, but he unlocked something during a smoky electric-piano solo on Roxy Music’s “My Only Love,” feeding a long Chris Spedding guitar solo. With a rakish smile, he jumped into “Love is the Drug,” giving the “r” in the final “drug” a vampirish roll. He struck toreador poses, leered at the array of beautiful women in his band, and stalked the lip of the stage as if to inspect his next conquest. Ferry was having a ball blurring the line between the rogues in his songs and the rogue he had become on stage.
On the romping “Editions of You,” the yelping singer made an organ cry “96 Tears.” “Whooh!” he exulted, throwing his hands up as if delighting in the mayhem suddenly exploding around him. He blasted a harp solo on Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Stick Together” and bowed triumphantly, raising the hands of his two dancers and then retreating with them backstage.
He returned for a moment of regret, a moving take on John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy.” And then came a perfunctory version of Sam and Dave’s “Hold on, I’m Comin’.” After exerting himself for half of his 90 minutes on stage, Ferry was back on the yacht and calling it a night.
Bryan Ferry set list Tuesday at the Civic Opera House:
1 “The Main Thing” (Roxy Music)
2 “I Put a Spell on You” (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins)/“Slave to Love”
3 “Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues” (Bob Dylan)
4 “Don’t Stop the Dance”
5 “If There is Something” (Roxy Music)
6 “Make You Feel My Love” (Bob Dylan)
7 “Casanova” (Roxy Music)
8 “Boys and Girls”
9 “Oh Yeah” (Roxy Music)