POP / Why pay the ferry man?: The epitome of detached irony, Bryan Ferry is back on the road. Phil Johnson saw him in Brimingham

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The Independent Culture
With his centre-parted hair still showing far more black than grey (though even in the old days there was always a suggestion of boot polish), and his leather trousers fitting better than any man of 49 could reasonably expect, Bryan Ferry looks in better shape than his audience.

Last Wednesday, a sprinkling of elderly lounge-lizards in suits, and a few middle-aged couples touchingly dressed up for the occasion (Birmingham's Aston Villa Leisure Centre is not a formal venue), mixed with a more workaday concert crowd: people whose ages, and hairstyles, spanned the two long decades of Ferry's solo career.

When, towards the end of the show, 'Love Is the Drug' was disinterred, the reaction was mixed. While those who were there at the time punched their fists in the air in imitation of their hero, those who only knew the song as a greatest hit stood waiting for something more recent. They didn't have to wait long; 'Avalon' was next, and it reinforced the feeling that for such a major artist, a good song has been hard to find.

The performance started with 'I Put a Spell on You', written by Screamin' Jay Hawkins but now almost public property. It is sufficiently familiar for Ferry to cover it without the version seeming - as with so many of his covers - too self-conscious. With three guitarists providing a light industrial drone that tingled with a sense of bare wires and electricity, Ferry crooned menacingly over the top while the two backing singers shimmied and squealed behind him.

The show's setting recalled a Bedouin tent, with canvas awning and candy-striped poles, but Ferry (wearing a red vinyl waistcoat under his black box-jacket) was less the imperious sheikh, more one of the boys. He even played air-guitar and dripped glitter-dust from his hands as he sang, as if to put an end to all those accusations of posing and ironic detachment.

After 'Slave to Love', an affective funk-by-numbers, came a selection of songs from the new album. None were memorable, and the band was left to provide a sort of superior muso-rock while we waited for something more perky to tap our feet to. When it came, in the shape of 'Virginia Plain' and other Roxy favourites, the band seemed to give up the ghost, deciding that art-school rock required little of their expensive expertise - though surely the one thing it does require is enthusiasm. They played their best on the worst numbers while the crowd-pleasers were left to get by on the crowd and little else.

The exception was a wonderful version of 'In Every Dream Home a Heartache', Ferry's conjuring up of a disassociated world. He carried the song on his own, bar a few synth doodlings and a call-back for the band on the power-chord ending; it was a chilling performance. On 'Jealous Guy', there was some virtuoso whistling, but when Ferry sings it begs the question, does he sing well?

The angular vocal mannerisms that characterise his early work - a vocal equivalent of pulling faces in the mirror - are left behind when he tries to be soulful. The result is a pleasing, though bland, voice that strains to attain any real presence beyond that of being the principal signature of Bryan Ferry. It's because he is, unmistakably, Bryan Ferry, that the star persona tends to cancel out any shortcomings we might be tempted to feel but, really, either of the backing vocalists could eat him for breakfast.

As arena-style performances go, this was well up to the mark; the lights were impressive, the sound was great, the band could play; the frontman was charismatic and he had a few decent tunes. But something essentially ersatz seemed to be at the heart of it all and, if you want the Bryan Ferry sensibility, an arena is probably not the place to find it. Though this show would not have disappointed the converted, that dread sense of ironic detachment was - despite the lights and the spectacle - difficult to overcome. After all, we were watching the supreme ironic and detached performer.

Bryan Ferry will be performing in Hammersmith and Dublin. For details, see Gig Guide opposite (Photograph omitted)