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There are times, more so in the latter decades of his career, when the mix of outward poise and inner turmoil in Bryan Ferry’s songs has ceased to convey the enigmatic workings of an unfathomable but fascinating persona and become instead the insincere gestures of a smooth operator.
At the Palladium — “A beautiful theatre,” he murmured, glancing with aristocratic impulse towards the royal box — the 70-year-old’s decision to play a greatest hits set of solo and Roxy Music material had an element of retreat. But it was also a reminder of how captivating a performer he can be.
Like a host getting the formalities out the way, he began with the evening’s only song written in the last 29 years. It was the title track of his most recent album, 2014’s Avonmore, a slick but featureless confection that poured balm on troubled themes of alienation and lost love. It was greeted with polite clapping by a seated audience.
The next song, his 1985 hit “Slave to Love”, was in a similar mode, a glossily filtered paean to obsessive desire — but it was far more accomplished, at once sensual and self-controlled. It ended with enthusiastic applause and a courtly bow from Ferry. Then came a trip back further in time, to Roxy Music’s 1973 song “Beauty Queen”, which nailed Ferry’s arch attitude of reserve and romance. “Ooh the way you look/Makes my starry eyes shiver,” he crooned: “Then I look away/Too much for one day.”
Backed by a seven-piece band and two singers, he was in good voice. Quavering tones revealed the pull of powerful emotions while careful vocal control implied their successful repression. Well-mixed sound allowed his band and backing singers space to express themselves, from Jacob Quistgaard’s wild slide guitar turn in “Ladytron” to a series of self-possessed solos from Jorja Chalmers on sax and clarinet.
By the end, during a run of stomping back-catalogue classics, the audience was on its feet, ushers were failing to clear packed aisles and a stage invader was dancing around Ferry, suggestively pulling the hem of her dress up as he sang “Let’s Stick Together”. Unreachable at the centre of it all, he did not bat an eyelid.