His orchestra (for want of a better term) has gradually assembled – first up was the entrance of a five-man horn section; all neatly done up to the nines in Dinner Jackets and perfectly prepared bow ties along with a double-bass player (who gives the impression of being let out of school for evening) who’s own dickie-bow is being worn almost as an after thought.
There is a guitarist cum banjo-player sporting a moustache that resembles one much favoured by 70’s footballers backed by a veteran drummer hidden away behind an alarmingly sized bass drum, a number of shell-like cow bells and a couple of elderly cymbals.
They’d been toe-tapping out sinuously re-imagined Dixieland arrangements of some of the main man’s main tunes to the cue of the grey-grizzle-haired pianist who doubles as MD for the evening before yet another drummer appears.
She adjusts her micro-skirt while (carefully) positioning herself behind her own kit centre stage as two backing singers appear in what might be construed as cocktail dresses – although, frankly, I’ve never been to a drinks party where that kind of attire is considered legal.
They rev up by ooohing, aaaahing and sashaying in simpatico with the massed ranks of clarinets, saxophones, trumpets and trombones; tonight the roaring twenties are being re-positioned way beyond the jazz age.
Next up is a guitarist who has obviously been studying hard at the Brian Jones school of hairdressing: he looks about sixteen, shoegazes while tuning up his Les Paul and prepares for action so languorously that he gives the impression of someone who’s wandered onto the wrong stage – his nod to more conventional evening attire sported by the rest of the ensemble is a jacket worn with the lapels turned inward.
The bass player and moustachioed guitar/banjo-picker swap acoustic for electric as the lady drummer counts four to the bar by cracking her sticks together much like pistol-shots sound in an enclosed space… and… all of a sudden, the orchestra is in full swing: it’s a bit like listening to a thoroughbred Maserati change gear.
Within moments, the curtain back stage-right has twitched and… there the main man is, sidling up the microphone in a soft-shoe shuffle like no other; he grips the mic-stand with his right hand, tips it slightly sideways and, with his left hand clicking the time signature behind him, leans into his first vocal of the night.
But… wait a moment… lets go back a bit, in fact to Saturday May 28th 1972. A bank holiday weekend spent in Lincolnshire – or, more specifically, at the Great Western Express Festival; a three day event held near the village of Bardney some ten miles or so away from and more or less due east of the Cathedral. True to bank holiday type, it tipped down for a good proportion of the duration.
And, after the debacle of trying to get to Glastonbury the year previous – when, after inadvisably partaking of rather too much of my pal Horace’s finest Jamaican stash en route to the West Country we ended up in Wales – we did… eventually… make it to Lincoln this time.
I’ve no recollection of seeing Smith Perkins & Smith, Gnidrolog, Capability Brown or Jade Warrior who played in one of the tents; maybe it blew down – within a matter of hours of tipping up the place was a mud bath and, on the second night my tent was stolen: Saturday and Sunday night were spent huddled up in my Afghan Coat underneath the Mini-Van in which we’d travelled.
By the end of the weekend my fashionably scrotum-constricting crushed velvet, hugely flared purple loon-pants were ruined. And, inevitably, we broke down on the M1 motorway on the return leg.
Even so, the delights on offer were pretty serious for those of us whose weekly edition of the Melody Maker provided (so we thought) nearly the level of knowledge Moses had acquired after he reappeared clutching his stone tablets: Joe Cocker (who was so refreshed on the night in question that he had to be held upright by one of his backing singers – when he actually sang, his hand and arm-propeller movements kept him more or less erect); the sublime Head Hands & Feet – little did I know that this would be one of their last performances with Albert Lee about to quit and join up with Emmylou Harris; a very young Average White Band and Slade (who I must’ve missed ‘cos I can’t remember anything about them at all).
There was Vinegar Joe who, like HH&F must’ve been close to their own end given the on-stage body language between Robert Palmer and Elkie Brooks; Rory Gallagher – who was six-string-bendingly amazing; The Sutherland Brothers (with or without Quiver – I can’t remember); Stone The Crows with Maggie Bell exorcising the ghost of Les Harvey who’d been electrocuted on stage a few weeks earlier; The Beach Boys – pure class in the rain when the sun shone both physically and metaphorically while the unexpected highlight was Sha Na Na – like stepping into the film of Woodstock but with the benefit of real rain falling.
Opening the proceedings on the Saturday and quite the cure for my too-many Gauloise-smoked/rough Cider-aided hangover was… Roxy Music. One of their first shows and quite possibly their Festival début – so, whether the 20,000 or so souls gathered in the drizzle were quite ready for Eno in a full on Boa-feathered outfit at his nob-twiddling finest, Andy Mackay’s squawking Sax or Bryan Ferry’s lounge lizard Cole Porter lamenting vocals, its hard to say.
To me… this was like seeing something from outer space. Musically – and just as it was hearing (say) Bob Marley or Miles Davis for the first time – what they did that Saturday lunchtime was other-worldly. Clearly, Roxy didn’t inhabit the same (musical) planet as Marley or Miles; but, they were equally out there… quite where I wasn’t too sure… but, it was certainly somewhere very interesting.
Not long after, my hair has been clipped (a bit) and the crushed velvet has given way to a nicely conservative three piece suit; I’ve joined EMI in the lowest of all low sales reps positions and I’m doing whatever it is I’m meant to be doing in a record shop in Harrow – I can’t remember which one but it might well have been Harlequin. In walks the Island rep. He’s wearing jeans and a confident smile. He fishes a new single out of his bag and plays it to the shop-manager.
While I’m meant to be stocking the shop up on stuff they don’t want – Manuel And The Music Of The Mountains – I can’t but help but hear: he’s playing Roxy Music’s first record, Virginia Plain. Not long after that and despite the fact that EMI distribute Island, I’ve given up my safe pension and the equally safe suit and have joined the Island sales force. St Peters Square feels like home.
So… here we all are at Cambridge Corn Exchange; it is full to the rafters and, six rows back, what’s hitting us straight between the eyes ‘n ears is better than I dared imagine. I mean, one hardly needed the brain of Einstein to know this was going to be a good show but… this good? Nah, I didn’t imagine that.
Obviously, Ferry is aware of his audience; this is a sit down gig for a start. But, that’s the only safety net: his show could have gone one of two ways – play the safe card and trot out the hits (and there are many, very many) which would have left the massed ranks of newly coiffed housewives delirious or… forego the safe option and… in a sense, challenge us as much as challenging himself.
The arrangements are more than re-arrangements; the re-working of songs is like he’s mining a seam of material that has little nuggets hidden away, previously covered in… stuff. Suddenly, they’re exposed and his songs start to breathe and amass a new life all of their own. The transformation is genuinely remarkable.
It’s as if Ferry has taken his canyon of a catalogue and said to himself… ‘y’know what… I’m going to have a bit of a play with these tunes, have a bit o’ fun.’ The direct opposite of one of the more recent shows I’d seen at the same venue when Steve Winwood had (unfortunately) settled on the safe option being the wise choice. Yes, there is that peerless voice, the superlative playing – that’s all a given with a musician of his calibre… but… ultimately, it was all a bit… the same as the time before… and the time before that.
And Ferry’s reinvention process hasn’t exactly been hindered by some of the best players I’ve seen in years. The lady drummer hits so hard and so accurately that one has the impression she wouldn’t be the first person one’d like to encounter after imbibing nine pints of Scruttocks Old Derisible down a dark alley after closing time.
The interplay between shaven headed sax player #1 (who doubles on keyboards) and shaven headed sax player #2 is astounding – watching their combined eye-trajectory is an abject lesson in eyebrow raising; one twitch of the latter leads to miniscule fills that are so, so subtle yet within the whole are just… right.
Neither is the bass sax player who doubles on clarinets various a slouch either – he looks like the kind of bloke who’d take on a crumhorn without so much as a second thought.
A quarter of the way through the show and the bass-player’s wrap-around bow-tie has found a new home, directly under his right ear. Ferry’s meantime, just dangles… Bryan is old school – he can tie a tie. Properly. Oh… and the jacket he wore in the first half – show me a man in the audience who wouldn’t have maxed-out his credit card for that or a wife who’d not have approved of the transaction.
And… the man can dance. He’s downright dangerous – the sort of chap who you really do not want to meet at a wedding… y'know – when the dancing starts and the dads all get up and trudge about embarrassingly somewhat akin to the Hairy Biker on that Strictly dirty (obviously rigged) Dancing BBC programme. Ferry really does have all the moves; he may well be nearer 70 than his Byronesque looks suggest but, trust me – his footwork is something to behold.
There really isn’t much to complain about – other than… why on earth break the show midway through? There’s really no need for the half-time oranges – although the bar did a roaring trade in Gin and Dubonet, plastic pints of IPA and ice-cream… Ice cream? Yeah, not that rock ’n roll an audience.
As much as the first part of the show cranked it up toward the break, so the second half had to all over again – meaning momentum was lost; even so, the home run was a delight and finally the good (but staid) burghers of Cambridge actually got up from the safety of their seats and… danced.
The final section included a heart-stopping Carickfergus, a stellar Jealous Guy that out-Lennon-ed the best Beatle, a scorching Sam ‘n Dave’s Hold On I’m Coming; there was Editions Of You during which Ferry worried a keyboard so much it was like watching a ferret having just grabbed a rabbit by the neck. He closed with a harmonica infused Lets Stick Together and that was pretty much it – he just walked off, nodding his head, clicking his fingers to the beat. Sheer class.
When the band were introduced, one or two of the names I got, most I didn’t. I inquire of Tiggles B the name of the Brian Jones look-a-like guitarist; he’s been exemplary all night. She’s unsure… ‘Oliver someone or other, I think.’ The house lights come up and it doesn’t look like there will be an encore – the perfectly-coiffed gather up their Barbour jackets en masse and head for the exit. Drat.
Please sir, may I have some more…