In recent months, I’ve seen his name pop up on all kinds of unrelated mailing lists and chat groups – from The Wildhearts to Jason & The Scorchers to… well, just this morning I was browsing NotBBC’s fine Comedy Forum, when I stumbled upon a thread about the guy. Okay, so it wasn’t a very flattering one, but it just goes to prove that Ryan’s rocket has definitely cleared the launchpad. He’s on Later With Jools Holland on Friday, having already had his new promo vid (for New York, New York) played on TOTP 2. When you leave the pages of (alt.country mag) No Depression for the giddy heights of the Beeb, you know that something big’s going down. Or up
“Keep it a secret,” runs the T-shirt slogan. Too late. Way too late. If the final clue – a sold out Empire, with a trail of ticketless hopefuls wandering around outside hoping to find a reasonably priced tout – doesn’t convince you that Ryan Adams’ star is very much in the ascendancy, I guess nothing will. Next time round, it’ll be two nights, then three. You’ll see.
But why? Hey, if you need to ask, you obviously need to invest in an album from Ryan’s back catalogue. Though you won’t be able to stop at just the one, ‘cos no one ever can. Uncut magazine once described him as combining “the soul of Gram Parsons with the spirit of Keith Richards”, and that’s not bad as soundbites go. From the beautiful, ragged country-stylings of Whiskeytown’s Faithless Street, through the warm but wounded ache of Ryan’s ‘lost love’ masterpiece Heartbreaker, to the hip-shakin’ rock ‘n’ roll and heart-busting balladry of Gold, the guy’s yet to make a record that’s anything less than classic. And the news is spreading, an awful lot of it by word of mouth.
The last three times I’ve seen Ryan live, he’s been sitting on a stool doing what he describes as his “sad guy thing”. There’s still some of that on the menu tonight, but the main course is Rock ‘N’ Roll, with capital letters, red wine stains, and plenty of “ass-shaking” (which Ryan says he just can’t help when he plays this kinda stuff). Oh, and a band called the Sweetheart Revolution, made up, for the most part, of Ryan’s friends (including his best friend, Billy Mercer – who looks so much like Ryan that, for a few seconds when he first comes on, I think he actually is him). He obviously keeps real good company, as these guys are hotter than molten lava. They look like they’ve come straight outta 1972, too, which is always a bonus in my book. With sax, Hammond organ, pedal steel and a big dollop of electric guitar on offer, Ryan takes the lot, the band whipping up a sound not a million miles away from his heroes the Stones. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s sexy. And it’s flesh-strippingly good.
Almost every (electric) song played tonight rocks way harder than its recorded version – To Be Young almost takes flight, and The Rescue Blues has turned from a Let It Bleed-style mid-tempo ballad into an upbeat rocker more along the lines of Exile On Main Street’s Happy. When I first heard this song on a live bootleg, it was a fragile wee thing, and now hark at it!
The set is pretty much one big highlight, but if I have to single out a few songs for special attention, I’ll go with Touch, Feel & Lose (man, I wish more bands would have a go at this Stax thing; there ain’t enough of that stuff going on these days outside of tributes), a stunning Nobody Girl, a mighty fine Tina Toledo’s Streetwalkin’ Blues (complete with Midnight Rambler middle section, just to give it that genuine Stones vibe!), and a very welcome airing of Lovesick Blues, which Ryan’s recently recorded for a Hank Williams tribute album.
Between songs, Ryan is his usual talkative, amusing self – reacting to heckles, doing impressions of his mum, and just generally shooting the breeze with his audience. This was something that I was scared was going to be lost with these big electric gigs – that interaction thing that’s as much as part of the Ryan Adams experience as the songs themselves. But it’s still here, and it still works. Thankfully, he ignores all the calls for Summer Of 69 and Run To You, which, I admit, were kind of funny the first time I heard them. But a year later, they’re just plain annoying.
Come encore time, Ryan straps on his acoustic guitar (with an “I Love Cops” sticker on the back) for My Winding Wheel, Don’t Ask For The Water, a new song that I never caught the title of, and Damn, Sam (I Love A Woman That Rains), before moving to the piano for The Bar Is A Beautiful Place (“because it is”). And then the band come back for I’m Tired (a new, bluesy song), Harder Now That It’s Over, and – what else? – Come Pick Me Up. It’s the first time I’ve heard this played live with a full band, and it’s gorgeous. And just when I think it really is all over and I’m starting to make my way out of the venue, Ryan comes back on and does Oasis’s Wonderwall. Thankfully, Liam Gallagher’s tucked up in bed at home, snoring. (A few years ago, he’d constantly turn up on stage at other people’s gigs, and it became quite irritating.)
I have only one criticism of the show, and that’s that all of the seriously rockin’ songs are packed into the main set. It would’ve been nice to save a couple for the encore, and slotted them in before Come Pick Me Up. But I’m aware that that’s nitpicking, ‘cos, well, quite honestly, I have myself a ball tonight. As brilliant as the shows at the Lyric and Borderline were (and they certainly were), this is even better. The mix of electric and acoustic means that we, the humble Ryan fans, get to have our cake, eat it, and then go back for seconds. And with a set lasting two hours and 25 minutes, it’s an absolute banquet.
What next for Mr Adams? Well, he’s reportedly already got two more albums in the can – another solo record and an album of more rockin’ material that he recorded with The Pink Hearts. And he’s writing new stuff all the time. If his record company, Lost Highway, can keep up with it all (and they seem prepared to), we should be in for a Ryan-filled 2002.
So, tell your friends before they tell you. And I’ll see you down the front.