Graded on a Curve:
Bryan Ferry,
Live at the Royal
Albert Hall 1974

Bryan Ferry’s solo discography commenced in deceptively lowkey fashion with a pair of covers albums in 1973-’74. The setlist for BMG’s Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1974 draws from those records as it showcases the man’s sturdy, distinctive pipes and equally unique interpretive skills plus a killer band including guitarist Phil Manzanera, guitarist-musical director John Porter, pianist-violinist Eddie Jobson, bassist John Wetton, drummer Paul Thompson, and saxophonist Chris Mercer. It’s out now on LP and CD; both are included in a box set that’s loaded with extras.

An eternally sharp dresser with an erudite croon, Bryan Ferry can be synopsized as the high priest of chic. However, the sheer brevity of this designation ignores the atypical and occasionally downright oddball aspects of his personality; the art-school (big on Duchamp, he was), the art-rock (bandmate of Eno, he was), the smoky late-night lounge (a persistent component in his image, it was), the jetsetter (ditto), the student of pop (as revealed in numerous interviews and journalistic portraits over the years). All are traits that have fortified his work both with Roxy Music and as a solitary operator.

If you know Bryan Ferry’s solo debut These Foolish Things and its follow-up Another Time, Another Place, then you’re already hip to what transpires on Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1974. With the exception of “A Real Good Time,” a Ferry original from Roxy Music’s Country Life (released roughly a month prior to this performance), all the songs are drawn from his first two, and the only other non-cover is the title track from his second.

If you don’t know those records but do know Ferry, perhaps picking up the career thread at Roxy’s Siren (with its big hit single “Love is the Drug”) or maybe having just absorbed a latter portion of his long tenure as the Svengali of suavedom, this archival set needs a little contextualizing. Because for some, the contents, at least as represented on those solo LPs, inspired some head-scratching.

While he tackles the cornerstones of ’60s pop-rock seriousness, namely Dylan, Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards, and Brian Wilson with obvious affection but varying degrees of reverence, he gives equal weight to the songwriting architects of the girl-group sound through affectionate readings of “I Love How You Love Me,” a hit for The Paris Sisters, and most audaciously, “It’s My Party,” notable as a teen culture chart smash by Leslie Gore.

Some might be tempted to simply call Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1974 the live album extension of Ferry’s songwriter-tribute phase as solo career kickoff (an unusual move, for this sort of impulse regularly arrives much later in a singer’s trajectory) but it’s not so cut and dried. A cover of “Baby, I Don’t Care,” well-known as a hit for Elvis P., fits the songwriter motif as penned by Leiber & Stoller, but it works just as effectively as a reminder of the Glam era’s appreciation of ’50s R&R.

Even with his debonair ways, it can still be forgotten that Ferry exploded out of ’70s Glam. Once remembered, it can be easy to just chalk up the retention of feminine perspective in “It’s My Party” to the genderbending practices of the period, but that’s not what Ferry was striving for. Instead, he’s emphasizing the legitimacy of the song’s content from deep inside a decade where retrograde male attitudes were running rampant, i.e., the emotions of teen girls are as valid as those of manly rock dudes.

At the same time, he temporarily took some of the air out of the balloon of pop-rock (and post-folk singer-songwriter) importance that was elevating the aforementioned ’60s heavyweights. Rather than solemnity, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is a stomper with variety show backing singers (and Fender Rhodes), which combines nicely with Ike & Tina Turner’s “Fingerpoppin’” getting the full Vegas treatment (at a point when this development was still rather novel).

Importantly, Ferry intends no disrespect, and unlike some speculator’s assumptions, I don’t see any of this as a joke. The Beatles’ “You Won’t See Me” is given a pretty straightforward reading, and The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” doesn’t stray far from the template, either. It’s really the show opening “Sympathy for the Devil” that undergoes the wildest alteration, notably different from Ferry’s studio version on These Foolish Things.

Here, “Sympathy for the Devil” hits an appealing middle ground between rock spark and pop sophistication, complete with slide guitar from Manzanera that suggests Ry Cooder or Lowell George guesting on a studio arrangement of the tune by Billy Strange, perhaps for an unmade Lee Hazlewood album. Late on the other side of the LP, a take of Dobie Gray’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” is an equally tough rocker, though this was already established on Another Time, Another Place.

Of course, it’s hard to deny the songwriter-tribute flair emanating from this record, so I won’t, especially as Ferry digs into a pair of pre-rock chestnuts in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (featuring string-section work mildly forecasting Big Star’s Third) and a performance closing “These Foolish Things” where the sincerity shines through like a beacon from a lighthouse. Also, a reading of the Miracles’ Motown beauty “Tracks of My Tears” from a little earlier in the set is a standout that’s played straight to near perfection.

But maybe the highest praise one can bestow upon Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1974 is that in being somewhat out of step with the standards of 1973-’74 it sounds particularly sweet right now.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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