BRYAN FERRY Frantic (Virgin)

Frantic might not be the kind of word readily associated with Ferry's sultan of suave persona - he barely approaches ruffled, even on a bad day - but it's aptly indicative of the freshly invigorated air of his 11th studio album. If you have unpleasant memories of Ferry's immediately post-Roxy Music work being airless creations, suffocated by their own stylishness, take heart, because "Frantic" is an entirely different kettle of cherries.

It opens with a lovely version of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" that, if it weren't for Ferry's cultured foghorn blare and the shiny 21st century production values, could be pure Rolling Stones circa 1966: the bass-led introduction, fluttering string arrangement and distant harmonica are straight out of "Aftermath" and "Between The Buttons". "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" is, remarkably, even finer, with just Ferry, his harmonica and a piano accompaniment. It's witty, elegant and moving, and so simple it could be, and possibly has been, recreated flawlessly on "Loose Ends". It's almost a backhanded compliment to suggest that he makes a far more entertaining stab at Dylan songs than Dylan does these days, but there it is. A version of Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene" could have fallen off the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, all honky tonk fiddle and accordion, and he can't quite keep the chuckle out of his voice even when singing lines as morbid as "I'm gonna take morphine and die". There's even 36 seconds of crumhorns on "Ja Nun Hons Pris", a song written by Richard The Lionheart, of all people.

Of the new material, several songs have been written in cahoots with Dave Stewart, but before you run to the hills fearing some kind of flashy, witless AOR nod-out take heart, because they're actually rather good, if a little stifled, bloodless and formulaic compared to some of the treasures catalogued here. Ferry plays on his old doomed romantic persona on "Cruel" and "Nobody Loves Me", and indulges in some token Marilyn deification (and I'm young enough - just about! - to briefly register a flickering doubt as to whether he means Monroe or the flamboyant 80s singer) on "Goddess Of Love".

The best of the fresh stuff is huddled at the tail-end of the album. "Hiroshima…" is glorious and glossy, like Bowie stranded by the Berlin Wall in 1977 but with better tunes. "San Simeon" relocates lost fragments originally intended for "In Every Dream Home A Heartache" in what could best be described as a sequel, named after publisher William Randolph Hearst's estate. And closer "I Thought" chugs along like a cheap keyboard welded to its oompah setting, boasting a co-writing credit from none other than Ferry's old sparring partner Eno, who also sings and plays on a smattering of the album's 13 tracks.

Conventional rock wisdom states that "Frantic" really shouldn't work. Cobbled together from the efforts of nine songwriters by five producers and several studios' worth of session heavies, as well as featuring appearances by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and lower-key dance music diva Alison Goldfrapp, by rights it should be a compromised, grandstanding, directionless pudding of an album. Maybe what holds it together is the sheer force of Ferry's personality and persona. Certainly something special not far short of witchcraft is at work here, because "Frantic" is staggeringly good, definitely the best album Ferry's been involved with since "Avalon", maybe since "Stranded", even. Don't let the image or the accumulated baggage deter you: this is simply very fine and frequently great music, of the kind the world can always use more of.

BRYAN FERRY As Time Goes By (Virgin)

In which Ferry stakes his most blatant claim for crooner status yet, this 1999 album is a collection of standards whose authors include Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter and Kurt Weill. That the songs themselves are immaculate goes without saying, of course. The playing is unobtrusively professional, and the arrangements expensive and discretely littered with idiosyncratic touches. Phil Manzanera dabs some guitar across the languid samba of "I'm In The Mood For Love", there's an outbreak of tap dancing during "When Somebody Thinks…" and a distant thunderstorm and vinyl scratches far behind "Miss Otis Regrets". What, if anything, sabotages the whole enterprise is, surprisingly, Ferry's singing, breathy and mannered on material that perhaps requires a more commanding vocal presence. He's so much more convincing on conventional rock turf, for example this year's fabulous "Frantic" album. "Falling In Love Again" works because he sounds genuinely vulnerable, whilst still having enough spare savoir faire sloshing around to convince with lines like "Girls cluster to me/Like moths around a flame". Conversely, "Love Me Or Leave Me" doesn't because, compared to the swinging abandon of Nina Simone's version, the ensemble here sound like they're trapped in a sight reading exercise. "As Time Go By" must rate as a brave, interesting and honorable failure.

BRYAN FERRY/ROSIE THOMAS Windsor Hall, Bournemouth International Centre 13 October 2002

As the proud custodian of officially the final ticket to be sold for this concert, my perch up in the rafters, about as far from the stage as it was possible to get whilst still being in the same room, rather suggested why it was the last pup left in the shop. It certainly made Rosie Thomas appear diminutive, and her pleasant if undistinguished piano- and guitar-backed gentle Americana didn’t really possess enough energy to complete the journey. Maybe one day she'll make the kind of albums that Uncut contributors rave about; at the moment she's more akin to Tori Amos on an uninspired day (of which there have been rather too many in recent years). Nevertheless, top marks are awarded for her White Stripes fashion sense, but the memory of her oddly uncharacteristic squeaky speaking voice will linger far longer than that of her songs.

Amidst much interval stage shuffling a harp is carted on - as in the big wooden stringed thing, rather than the hand-held metal instrument - and this has to be the first time I've encountered such a beastie outside of a classical concert. The lights dim and a guy in a dinner jacket stations himself behind a bank of keyboards to the side of the stage and begins to play. It's only when he begins to sing - something unfamiliar that appeared to be called "Havana Midnight" - in a voice uncannily reminiscent of Bryan Ferry's that I realise who he is, a charming, unexpectedly low-key entrance. The band gradually assemble one member at a time, song by song, a la "Stop Making Sense", with a keyboard player arriving to accompany Ferry on the witty, twinkling version of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" from this year's fabulous "Frantic" album. A violinist joins for a husky tiptoe through "Falling In Love Again", famed session guitarist Chris Spedding assists a rather flavourless "Carrickfergus" (which seems almost predetermined to fail without the kind of Celtic lugubriousness Van Morrison and The Chieftains have brought to the song) and a saxophonist is added on "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes", the first tune of the evening to be warmly applauded during its introduction. So far, so very fine, a night of velveteen crooning, gentle, flexible accompaniment and surprisingly clear sonics, even from my distant vantage point. Gentleman Bryan has also been meticulous in crediting his musicians as they arrive.

And then things get, well, different. Under cover of much strobe lighting and nebulous saxophone soloing the rest of the band arrive - a gaggle of percussionists, guitarists and backing vocalists, the latter attired in white trouser suits and hats like they'd just stumbled off the set of "Casablanca". A big rock thing, again unrecognised by me, cracks up and the clarity the evening has offered so far is obliterated in a reverberent welter, over which Ferry shouts vainly in an attempt to be heard. A cluster of similarly adorned songs follow, including "Tokyo Joe" and "Cruel", the clattering only letting up for a 30 second rendition of Richard The Lionheart's "Ja Nun Hons Pris". The first Roxy Music song of the evening, "My Only Love", lopes to a close on an extended tussle between Spedding and the remaining backing vocalist, Ferry and the two other backing vocalists having cleared out long ago for a costume change. (Costume change?! There'll be choreography next, at this rate!) Then comes the evening's biggest surprise, a version of the Roxy instrumental "Tara", here sensitively elongated with guitar and violin solos, testament to how stoutly durable this initially slight song has proved.

The choreography arrives for a breakneck rattle through "Love Is The Drug", two of the backing vocalists gyrating in pink, feathery chorus girl outfits on podiums either side of fellow Roxy member Paul Thompson's drum riser, the pace hardly slackening for competent if hurried versions of "Slave To Love" and "Jealous Guy", complete with Ferry's virtuoso whistling. The evening slid gracefully towards its close with combustible renditions of "Do The Strand", "Shame Shame Shame" and a stomping "Let's Stick Together", which set the balcony quaking.

So there were lots of treats during the evening - Bryan and band were onstage for 90 minutes, and worked through 20 songs - but somehow it seemed to add up to something less than the sum of its parts. A whole night of Ferry the crooner would have been fabulous - it wouldn't have transformed the BIC into a smokey supper club, exactly, but the clarity displayed in those first five songs was warming and winning. Unfortunately, Ferry the stomping messiah of suave predominated, to the evening's detriment in my opinion. The latter might have been more palatable if leavened with some of the more experimental material from "Frantic", such as "Hiroshima…", the "In Every Dream Home A Heartache" sequel "San Simeon" or the Eno collaboration "I Thought", all of which conspire to make "Frantic" the best collection of songs Ferry's put his seal on since "Avalon", or maybe even "Stranded". Still, it sounded as if the surprisingly elderly crowd (it's been a long time since I appeared to be the youngest in an audience!) enjoyed themselves - it's not as if anybody was yelling for "The Bogus Man" or anything - but somehow I felt that tonight wasn't quite the ticket it could have been.

BRYAN FERRY / BAREFOOT / SMOKE FAIRIES The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 10 March 2007

A young guitar-toting duo Smoke Fairies may be, but they’re no Tiny Tin Ladies, and I’m soon longing for the kind of giggly exuberance last night’s support act brought to their performance. Smoke Fairies sound a little like Ry Cooder ambling through the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy songbook, with even the vocals more than slightly reminiscent of those of Will Oldham’s recent sparring partner, Dawn McCarthy. I’ve listened to – and loved – some pretty joyless music in my time, but the likes of “Closer”, “Seventeen Seconds”, “Berlin” and “Third / Sister Lovers” at least have something redemptive and cathartic about them, qualities that are sadly absent from the Smoke Fairies’ sound. And then, after four songs (and the inevitable attempt to flog us the CDs that are available in the foyer: “They’re better than this, they don’t have us tuning up in the middle!”) and what must be the shortest support slot in my gigging history they’re gone, like a puff of, um, smoke…

…to be replaced on stage by Barefoot, an (at a guess, since the internet doesn’t exactly appear to be crammed with the appropriate biographical details) American lady dressed in heels, black dress and hat, acoustic guitar and sparkling silver guitar strap. “This is “Born Slippy””, she announces; nice one, I think smugly to myself, naming a song after the popular dance anthem, but blow me down if it actually is the Underworld tune, retrofitted with what sounds like the melody from Portishead’s “Glory Box” rearranged for six unplugged strings. Just goes to show how little attention I’ve paid to that songs lyrics, its plaintive “lager lager lager lager” refrain aside. Next up is “something that you may hear again tonight, but if not at least you’ve heard it once”, and it’s “Slave To Love”, probably my first observed instance of a support act covering the headliner. Again, the melody’s been changed (to protect the innocent?) but there’s no disguising the words. A few unannounced and unrecognised songs follow, giving me time to reflect how infrequently I see a performer so consumed by the music they’re making, her face corkscrewed up with the intensity of her singing. For her final number she repeats that opening trick, honouring Manchester’s key role in the development of dance culture with, um, The Shamen’s “Ebeneezer Goode”, laced with a hint of Santana-style samba. Wow.

Ferry’s stage set boasts a backdrop that appears to be based on the funfair cover art of his just-released long player “Dylanesque”, emphasised by what look like strings of coloured fairground bulbs draped from the lighting rig, and more instruments than I’ve ever seen at the Bridgewater before. (The Joanna Newsom gig doesn’t count, I’ve decided, since the orchestra toted their instruments on and off themselves.) His ten-piece band (three guitarists – one of whom was Chris Spedding, two keyboardists, two backing vocalists, a bassist, drummer Andy Newmark and a saxophonist – does he really need all of that?!) were impressively drilled, and the man himself blew a mean harmonica and tinkled some spare ivory. The self-penned material was well received – bizarrely, in my humble opinion, in the case of mid-80s superficialities such as “Kiss And Tell” and “Don’t Stop The Dance” - but it was the covers that made the evening, hardly surprisingly given that he’s just released an entire discful of them.

Most of “Dylanesque” received an airing, all of it polished and professional yet also sweaty and swinging where appropriate. The highlight for me was his magnificently sad-eyed, stripped-down “Positively Fourth Street”, but a volcanic “All Along The Watchtower” – effectively Bryan covering Bob’s cover of Jimi’s cover of Bob’s original – was also mightily impressive. I could’ve lived without the mysterious groin thrusts Ferry performed during his “Gates Of Eden” harmonica solo; can’t imagine Dylan lowering himself to such a cheap display. Still, you’d have to catch Bob on a particularly good night to hear these songs performed in such fidelity. Other covers included “The In Crowd”, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and “Let’s Stick Together”, and I’ve never seen so many women of a certain age get quite so excited by “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” before; you certainly don’t get that at a Dylan gig.

Given his pre-eminent position as the master of suave sophistication it’s a surprise to see Ferry actually break into a sweat, and also to see him conduct the band with hand signals a la Van Morrison. He smiles a lot more than Van does, though. I was a little disappointed at the absence of anything from the fabulous “Frantic” album, and the omission of the version of “Jealous Guy” heard on other nights of the tour – we got “Love Is The Drug” as some small compensation, the only Roxy tune aired all night. And at barely ninety minutes with no encore I don’t think he really squeezed every last drop of value from the not inconsiderable 45 ticket price. Still, a fine show, one that had the edge over the Bournemouth leg of the “Frantic” tour which I attended, being comparatively stripped down without sacrificing any panache.

BRYAN FERRY / BAREFOOT / SMOKE FAIRIES Guild Hall, Preston 12 April 2007

I bought my ticket for Bryan Ferry’s Manchester concert before the announcement of this Preston date, one of a string tagged on the end of the “Dylanesque” tour, but it seemed verging on rude not to make the effort to see him a second time, given that he was performing a short bus ride away from my tiny home. In the event, I felt amply rewarded, maybe not by a night and day difference to the earlier show, but at least by a dawn and dusk one.

Not that the spirit of continuous improvement had exerted much influence upon the Smoke Fairies, whose four song opening set remained a potentially brilliant idea drearily executed, their music bereft of the slightest hint of humour or passion. Not so Barefoot, who executed another near-stunner of a performance; slightly rejigged from her Manchester appearance, with “Slave To Love” and “Born Slippy” up front (both now unannounced) and a trio of what I presume are self-penned songs backing them up.

Ferry’s performance has undergone less evolution in a month than Van Morrison’s does overnight, but, whipped up by an enthusiastic, heck, passionate audience who were dancing in front of the Guild Hall’s stage three songs earlier than the Bridgewater’s, there seemed to be a little more fire and ice behind his impeccably suave persona tonight; he seemed to be constantly moving, a shimmy here and a hand jive there. There was more chat, too, introducing a few of the less familiar songs from his late 70s albums, and we learned that his saxophonist hails from nearby Clitheroe. Musically the evening was as immaculate as before, but a mildly nipped and tucked setlist afforded a glorious “Jealous Guy” and what sounded like a spontaneous amble through Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’”, and a “Casanova” I don’t recall hearing at the Manchester gig. Again, I’m not sure he totally earned the somewhat extravagant 45 entry fee, but he certainly came a little closer to doing so than before.

BRYAN FERRY Dylanesque (Virgin)

I feel duty bound to point out, as does just about every other review of this album, as if compelled by some kinda EU diktat, that it’s far less “Dylanesque” than “Ferryish”, the man ladling his Earl of Suave persona generously over eleven songs written by or associated with Bob Dylan. I’ve never really enjoyed Bryan’s arch reading of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, but a brace of Bob covers were the highlights of Ferry’s previous studio album, 2002’s excellent “Frantic”, so despite what initially appeared to be a somewhat pedestrian song selection “Dylanesque” definitely had potential. And so it proved: even my mum, an avowed Dylan-hater, was halfway through enjoying the album before twigging as to the songs’ source.

“Make You Feel My Love” is an unexpected highlight, Ferry shining the torchlight of romance upon this forgotten corner of “Time Out Of Mind” and rendering appealing what Bob makes sound vaguely creepy. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” rather raises the question of who his intended audience might be, if anyone: it’s hardly the clarion call of youth revolution anymore, and Ferry’s generation are some way beyond the command of their parents by now. Maybe it’s just a nostalgia trip. He overdoes “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” – but, then again, doesn’t everyone apart from Bob? – robbing its deathbed credibility in the process. “Positively 4th Street”, though, is the album’s triumph. Stripped of the bilious rage of the original (a postscript to the “long piece of vomit” that begat “Like A Rolling Stone”, perhaps) Ferry sounds more saddened by and weary of the behaviour of the song’s subject. It’s a dramatic reinvention, all the more so for not sounding very dramatic at all. He rather skates over the surface of “Gates Of Eden”, but then again there’s probably only one man alive who could bring something personal to its densely allegorical fable.

It’s all very breezy and stylish, the arrangements and performances – by, amongst others, Chris Spedding, Guy Pratt, Paul Carrack, Andy Newmark, Frank Ricotti, Brian Eno and Robin Trower – are impeccable throughout. However, at no point is the listener tricked into feeling that Bryan’s actually inhabiting these lyrics; he could be singing his shopping list, to be honest, and it wouldn’t sound much different. (Although, to be true to the spirit of the occasion, perhaps he would be better off singing Dylan’s shopping list.) The glossy packaging of the vinyl edition is a delight to behold and hold, although Paul Morley’s offhand sleevenote inanities, as usual, are not.

Roxy Music