Harpa provides a new centre of gravity for downtown Reykjavik. Situated on the seafront and consisting of a series of interlocking glass slabs, the multi-room concert hall, all oblique angles and sun flare, is seemingly visible from virtually every junction in the Icelandic capital. It is an imposing landmark; a handle on which to orient yourself in a confusing city.
But more than this, Harpa is a wonderfully brazen emblem of Icelanders’ refusal to sacrifice culture in the face of crisis. The venue was intended to sit at the heart of a new redevelopment in the East Harbour, which would also include a luxury hotel and a new headquarters for Landsbanki. After the crash the East Harbour project was abandoned – but Harpa eventually opened anyway, thanks in part to pressure from Reykjavik’s new mayor, a comedian who ran on a ticket of free swimming towels and an end to debt. That money could be found for Harpa is indicative of the preeminent position afforded in Icelandic society to popular culture. It is the building that seems to say more about contemporary Iceland than perhaps any other.
Harpa, then, is an important venue – but as Bryan Ferry’s show shambles on, that import serves only to underscore the artist’s slow decline into irrelevance.
The Roxy Music man had sold out two night’s in Harpa’s largest room, meaning that roughly one in every 33 Reykjavik residents would be in attendance. It was the venue’s biggest production to date, and yet everything about Ferry’s performance felt amateurish.
Gone, apparently, is the tightly wound pop craftsmanship that characterised Ferry’s output during his time with Roxy. Instead, during a brief set punctuated by an interval that felt almost as long as the second half, it becomes clear that the artist has dipped firmly into a period of indolent tastelessness. There is no longer any drama in a Ferry set; none of the style or melodrama with which he has become synonymous. Instead there is a group of slightly doddery musicians floating in and out of time and tune, barely looking at each other, fronted by a man who seems apologetic about the fact that people have paid to see him.
And reasonably so. If you had bought a ticket hoping to see a greatest hits set, you would have been disappointed. In fact, you’d have been pretty pissed off if you had bought a ticket on the reasonable assumption that you were going to see a Bryan Ferry set. Much of the evening consists not of Ferry compositions, but of the ill-judged covers that have characterised much of his solo output. A harmonica-heavy wander through ‘All Along The Watchtower’, which Ferry took on for 2007’s Dylanesque, elicits stifled laughs of confusion from elsewhere on my row, with the singer’s inability to separate Dylan’s delivery from his lyrics producing a strange warble and an accent quite unlike that in which the rest of the set was sung. Elsewhere Ferry and band dip into the back catalogues of Neil Young, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Sam & Dave, and previous Roxy muse John Lennon – and turn in reasonably competent performances of the sort one might expect from a band of GPs practicing to play at their best friend’s third wedding.
Ferry’s own tracks also appear to have had the dad-rock treatment, with ‘Slave To Love’ and ‘Don’t Stop The Dance’ both suffering from a penchant for Robert Palmer-esque power chord drudgery. Indeed, the entire set is pockmarked by incessant six string wanking, with two guitarists endlessly competing to see who can come up with the most predictable solo at the most inopportune time.
Only the Roxy Music songs escape relatively unscathed. ‘Avalon’ remains deliciously lysergic, while on ‘Love Is The Drug’ Ferry still sounds capable of a transatlantic sparring match with David Byrne. But it is impossible to concentrate even on these, as the back wall of the stage is covered in perhaps the most unpleasant projections I have seen outside of a foundation degree show. Clips of noiry actors smoking ruefully are offset against pictures of quills saturated in deep purples, the animations apparently cribbed directly from a late ‘90s educational CD-ROM game. When the scrolling clips of Warhol’s Mao turn up, it suddenly feels very much like it’s time to leave.
It is depressing to watch a previously gripping artist slowly losing their grip on taste. Today a Bryan Ferry set seems like an extended attempt to prove right those who say old men shouldn’t be allowed near instruments. There is no sense of danger, not a hint of unpredictability. Instead, the overriding feeling is one of boredom; the sort of fatigue that one might feel after watching their parents’ friends trying to relive the glory days in which they once headlined a suburban pub. They’ve got the flight cases and the nice suits, but the passion has long since departed.