I went to see Bryan Ferry at the Paramount Theater this past Thursday night. It was a show I had really been looking forward to as I am a fan of his solo work and his old band, Roxy Music. I saw Roxy Music once, back in the 70’s, and I was definitely ready to see Ferry revisit some of those old songs. I was also looking forward to seeing the Paramount Theater for the first time.
The Paramount Theater opened in 1930 as a movie theater. It is located adjacent to Denver’s (in)famous 16th St Mall, a place I generally stay away from as 1) I don’t like crowds, 2) I really don’t like panhandlers, and 3) I have no interest in visiting any area that thinks grouping chain restaurants and trendy shops in to one location constitutes a “must see” destination. I can find the restaurants here in the ‘burbs and I don’t generally do trendy shops. I don’t need to pop in to Savory Spice Shop for paprika, thank you very much.
So I parked in the designated garage – no extra fee! – and made my way to the theater about a block away. The mall – an outdoor, open air, pedestrian area – was bustling with a mix of locals, tourists and the ever present mendicants that work the area. (Am I the only one amazed to see a guy that begs for a living eating McDonald’s food, smoking a cigarette and talking on a cell phone? “Oh hi mom, can’t talk now. I’m working.”) I entered the theater with minimal security hassle and made my way upstairs as I was in the cheap seats. It’s all about listening after all!
I made my way in to the theater to find a cavernous auditorium, the balcony seat I was assigned high above the stage level. I honestly don’t believe I have ever been in a grand old theater that large. The decor looked original as did the seats, quite narrow given the ample bottoms of many Americans these days. I could only hope that my seat neighbor – I was on an aisle purposely – was not plus size. Not that there’s anything, ahem, wrong with that. A smoky pall hung over the theater for some reason. Once oriented, I decided to grab a drink.
I greeted the bartender and ordered a vodka over ice. She asked if I wanted well or premium, offering that Tito’s Handmade Vodka was said premium. I scoffed at that, letting her know that Tito’s was not, in fact, a premium vodka, rather a foul tasting Texan concoction of which I had poured the better portion of a bottle down my drain after gagging on my first – and last – taste. She demurred, stating that Coloradans definitely had a taste for this Texas bathtub vodka. We agreed to disagree and I had the well brand, Finlandia, perfectly okay in my book.
I made my way back in to the theater to people watch before the show. I always arrive plenty early, preferring to grab a cocktail and get to my seat before the show starts. Many folks apparently prefer to show up at the last minute with no clue as to where their seats are located. Seating charts anybody? You would think all of these people clutching their cell phones like lifelines would put them to some use other than social media and flashlights to find their way around in dark theaters with no sensitivity to those trying to watch a show or movie. (Pet peeve. One of thousands.). The ushers were a busy bunch, ejecting people from seats that were not theirs because they couldn’t read tickets, or signs, and probably needed to sit so they could check Facebook and send some tweets. Priorities.
The lights went down and the opening act – Judith Owen – appeared onstage with a minimalist band. I was not familiar with her work and was instantly turned off when she announced something to the effect “I used to think talent was important, but I guess not.”
Let’s break that down:
“I’m extremely talented but have not managed to become rich and famous, so the world is obviously full of unsophisticated plebes who have no idea what a true star sounds like. Let me regale you with my wonderful songs so that you may come to love and appreciate me as much I as I do.”
She made the point – several times – that she was Welsh. A look at her bio shows that she was born in London and currently lives in New Orleans. (She’s actually married to Harry Shearer of This is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons fame if you can believe that.) Okay, call me Irish then. Or German. I guess the point that she was really trying to make was that she was Welsh, therefore better than most and possibly a misunderstood artist. Funny, I understood her point completely. She did a half dozen songs or so, playing her keyboard whilst attempting Stevie Nicks style moves with her upper torso. A bit awkward. She then announced that she had one more song to play, and then was vocally disappointed when we did not protest. She cajoled a collective “Awwwww.” out of the audience, reminiscent of Jeb Bush’s “Please clap.” line.
She and her band then teased – and finally launched in to – her own special version of “The Age of Aquarius”, a song better left in the 60’s. I say special because it was especially retched. I don’t know what the woman was thinking when she put that arrangement together. It was better suited to The Gong Show than a paying audience and I was very happy when it was over. She thanked the audience, stepped in front of the band, and bowed profusely, possibly expecting roses to be thrown from the footlights. She informed us that she would be in the lobby signing CDs – and vinyl! – copies of her albums. I suspect she was rather lonely out there.
For the whole of Ms Owens’ set the young lady next to me had been texting. I gave her the sideways stink-eye a couple of times and she ended up trying to do so covertly which was still a fucking annoyance. At least I did not have to guess what time it was a she kept her phone in her lap the whole time, the clock on her lock screen glowing pretty much constantly. At intermission I thought about letting her know that I would not be happy with that during Ferry’s set. I thought better of it and she fortunately put the phone away. She appeared to be a huge fan, really getting in to the show in a way I rarely see people do at the kind of shows I go to. Good for her.
The lights finally dimmed for the main act and the band started playing an intro of sorts, obviously giving Ferry a chance to make an entrance. My first thought was “uh oh”, as the music was a thudding, bass heavy wall of sound that was nowhere near up to the standards that I want and expect at a live show. Ferry strolled out to much applause and the band launched in to The Main Thing. All I could think was “Please Mr. Sound Engineer, fix it! Fix it now!” The sound was so bad that I didn’t even recognize the second song – one I know well – until the chorus. “Please, please, no!!!”, I thought.
I had seen the set lists from previous shows and knew that Out of the Blue, my favorite Roxy Music song, was the fourth song. I only hoped that they could get the sound under control before then. They didn’t. It was like listening to it on your neighbor’s stereo, through the apartment wall. The crisp sound usually associated with Ferry’s solo material was just not there, robbing the music of the nuance and detail that make the songs so rich. I was tempted to leave at that point. Live music with terrible sound is a deal killer. I once saw a double bill with Live and Collective Soul that was the shittiest sound mix I have ever heard at a live show. Collective Soul sounded like they were playing in a Tupperware container inside a refrigerator and the vocals for Live were like listening to a screech in your ear from close range for 80 minutes.
I decided to hang on however, and after about eight songs the sound had improved somewhat, or maybe my ears just got used to “listening in” and picking out the good stuff while trying to neglect the muffled outer layer. Ferry played a good cross section of solo, Roxy Music and cover material. I was unfamiliar with many of the songs, which was actually a bit of a bonus as I had no preconceived notion of how they should sound. The band was spot on with guitar, violin and sax solos galore. I especially enjoyed the sax player, a young lady who came down from her perch on a riser for several numbers to add some smoky solos to some of the songs. Exquisite. The two backup singers added another layer to the vocals. The band was excellent and they frequently found a groove that a live music fan like me longs for. It would seem easy, but I swear that the “groove” is an elusive animal. Many bands never get it live and some only once or twice per show. Ferry and his band were in the zone and it was a great show.
Probably the best song of the night was a cover of Neil Young’s Hurricane. The lead guitar for most of the show was handled primarily by a young Dutch guitarist I am unfamiliar with. On this particular number however, secondary guitarist Chris Spedding – a studio legend – tore it up with a blazing solo. The show closed with an encore performance of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy, a highlight of the evening. It was a great show and despite the sound never being very good Ferry and the band gave it everything and I am happy that I went. As far as the sound goes, it might just be the venue. A theater built in 1930 was in no way constructed with acoustics that can meet the requirements of contemporary artists.
A couple of notes:
During one particularly quiet song, the music went from the hushed lyrics to a bombastic guitar solo. The segue was a giant flash of light and crashing drums and pretty much the whole audience jumped in their seats. I did not, despite having never heard the song. That’s what songs do sometimes. Some of my favorite bands pull you in with a quiet buildup and then unleash a furious solo. I guess I’m just used to it.
The girl next to me offered her binoculars to me at one point. She kept exclaiming “He looks great!” I waved her off, then thinking that might have been a bit rude I qualified with “Maybe later.” She offered them to me again and I accepted, taking a few moments to check out the entire band. Ferry looked good indeed, a stylish 71 year old in a sharp skinny suit sans tie. Very debonair. I handed the binoculars back to the young lady and thanked her. I woke up the next morning with a red, irritated right eye and a runny nose. In hindsight, I had noticed that the woman was having coughing fits here and there. Lesson learned.
As the lights came up another music enthusiast I had chatted with in the row in front of me before the show turned to me and asked what I thought of the performance. I said “Great show. Terrible sound.” He looked puzzled, caught off guard actually, and insisted that he thought it was great, but that he was not familiar with the music as he had come with a friend who was a fan. He told me that he didn’t know what it should have sounded like but he thought it was awesome. I told him it should have sounded crisp and clear, should have shimmered in the air. You should have been able to hear a pin drop between lyrics in some of the quieter songs. He flashed me a look of disgust and turned to leave. Ouch! Gotta be real, man.
At any rate, I just crossed another item off of my bucket list. Given that I have seen The Waterboys, Midge Ure, Wishbone Ash, Y&T and Roger Waters since moving here I would say that Denver is quite agreeable with my list. In fact, I just bought a ticket this week to see Al Stewart perform his fantastic Year of the Cat album with a full backing band at one of my favorite local venues. One more item to tick off that list.
Can’t stop rockin’.
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