Say the name Ryan Adams to people and, if they’ve seen him play live, you’re likely to get one of two responses: “an amazing performer” or “a squandered talent”. Adams seems to wow and frustrate people in equal measure, often with the very same action. His penchant for talking to the audience – about whatever’s on his mind on any given night – and messing around on stage annoys the people who wish he’d “just play the damned music” but delights those who want to take home a unique experience.
No two setlists are ever the same, and there’s no guarantee you’ll hear the hits or even a single track from your favourite album, which some, usually very vocal, members of the audience take personally. The length of the set can vary, too – some nights Ryan will play for two and a half hours; other nights it might just scrape 90 minutes. Encores may or may not happen, either because the mood has turned sour – hecklers are their own worst enemy – or, more commonly, because the band have played right up until curfew and there’s simply no more time.
In a nutshell, Ryan Adams is an old-school performer in a modern, stage-managed world – which seems to confuse some people. Of course, this shouldn’t excuse a shoddy show, but in the dozen or so gigs I’ve seen Ryan perform since 2000, in venues ranging from small clubs to aircraft hangars, I’ve honestly not seen him play one. There have been a handful that I’ve left feeling hugely disappointed and annoyed, but that’s because clowns in the audience have spoilt it by chatting through half of the set or hurling abuse at Ryan because he’s not playing their favourite song.
Ryan Adams gigs bring out the misanthropist in me.
So it was with some trepidation that I made my way to Shepherd’s Bush on Saturday, where Ryan and his band the Cardinals were playing the first show of a two-night stand at the Empire. Arriving at Victoria to find a chunk of the Central Line closed, I arrived a little later than I planned but, to my surprise, managed to get a decent seat on level 1 that gave me a beautifully clear view of the stage. Still, I wasn’t going to get too excited about that. It was early and the talkers were bound to arrive five minutes before showtime to mess everything up.
As it happened, when the set kicked off – with a Stonesy-sounding A Kiss Before I Go, my favourite track from the gorgeous Jacksonville City Nights – I found myself in a reasonably attentive crowd. The sound coming from the stage was a little hollow at first, but it seemed to settle down, and I was surprised to find myself relaxing and enjoying a stress-free Ryan Adams show for the first time in three years.
The setlist was mostly pulled from the two Cardinals albums. Choice cuts such as The End, Dear John, Cold Roses and Beautiful Sorta dallied with a handful of songs from Ryan’s solo catalogue – including a bluesy, one-third speed To Be Young and a searing I See Monsters. There was nothing from Gold, Rock N Roll or 29. There were no acoustic or piano-led numbers either – it was pure plugged-in rock ‘n’ roll from 9.15pm to just past 11pm. Only once did I think that this was to a song’s detriment – Peaceful Valley wasn’t quite so peaceful.
I’ve always enjoyed Ryan’s varying live arrangements, and for the most part I was very happy with the way that the songs were performed, the pedal steel adding some roll to the band’s rock. Pitting them against the other bands I’ve seen Ryan play with, The Cardinals aren’t my favourite – I prefer the swagger of the Sweetheart Revolution – but they’re very good. Guitarist Neal Casal – himself a singer-songwriter of some standing and also the night’s support act – seemed to be sharing the spotlight with Ryan at times, their guitar solos intertwining as they jammed. Good blend of voices, too.
Curiously, after just two songs and as the third, Magnolia Mountain, was kicking in, a woman a couple of rows behind me yelled out: “Play me something I know!” And towards the end of the set, as Ryan was speaking, a guy to my left started hurling abuse at the stage, which culminated in a stinging but weary-sounding: “Play something we know – you’re disappointing people.” As 95 per cent of the set was available in record stores, and on records that came out only last year, this completely baffled me.
I was also scratching my head when, about half an hour in, Ryan turned to the band and said: “This is the song” – a cue for all five members to don full-face headgear. Some, including Ryan, wore balaclavas; the others helmets – and played the next two songs looking like Slipknot in civvies. It was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen on stage – a joke without a punchline. It was, I imagine, more fuel for the “squandered talent” point of view – an anomaly in an otherwise pretty ‘straight’ performance. Ryan spoke a few times last night – and, yes, cookies were mentioned (he was sporting a Cookie Monster T-shirt, too) – but there was none of the train-of-thought monologues that he built his (apparently sullied) reputation on. And this was clearly deliberate as he referenced it near the end as he caught himself ‘talking too much’.
Ryan really ought to stop reading internet message boards and do what the heck he wants.
There was no encore. It didn’t matter (it rarely does). I got home at 12.30am and counted my blessings: I’d survived a Ryan Adams show without getting ultra grouchy about other people’s behaviour. Considering that I was ready to give up the ghost after February’s Victoria Apollo gig, an acoustic performance at which the people behind me spent much of the second set chatting and – oh, the irony – grumbling that Ryan was talking too much… well, I reckon that’s a bit of a result.