The sentimental geek strikes back

Be-caped and beguiling, Ryan Adams stages a triumphant solo return at the Barbican.

Ryan AdamsBeing a Ryan Adams fan can be a bit of a rollercoaster.

There’s his habit of releasing everything he records, often for free, simply because he feels like it. For the record, I love it, but it drives some people nuts, and just confuses others. If mellow country classic Heartbreaker is your all-time favourite album, chances are you probably won’t be spinning his death-metal sci-fi concept album Orion all that often.

Then there’s his personal life and his well documented spiral into drinks and drugs which pretty much everybody assumed would end with him choking on his own vomit in a hotel room, a la Gram Parsons. Erratic, angry, funny to himself but not others, stoned Ryan was a sad spectacle, even if the music kept flowing at a startling rate.

Then there are the fans. Every fandom has a small core of nutters with a hugely inflated sense of entitlement, who make way more noise than they should and seek to spoil it for the quieter majority. The tiny coterie of fuckwits who sit at the heart of Ryan’s fanbase like some malignant tumour composed entirely of self-regard and pressure-cooker spite are as bad as the worst Doctor Who fans, and trust me, that’s some benchmark.

Ryan struggles to deal with these prats, engaging with his fanbase online for periods until overwhelmed by the bile of a vocal few and retreating, shutting down accounts and websites, retreating into his shell to lick his wounds. Eventually he pops up somewhere else in some other guise, Quixotic, hopeful that this time the loonies won’t bring him down. His persistence is endearing.

Then there are the concerts.

It’s okay if you don’t like the Sad Dracula records; they were free. But if you fork out £25 for an evening’s entertainment and you are presented with a guy who stares at the floor and sings a set composed entirely of songs he wrote that day, then you’re entitled, perhaps, to feel a little short changed.

Six years ago I took my wife, on one of our first dates, to see Ryan perform in Kentish Town. He had a band with him – I think it was an early Cardinals lineup – and it was in the middle of the Rock N Roll rebellion, where he was dealing with a record company that refused to release his double album Love Is Hell, spurring him to deliver a balls-to-the wall rock record that took everybody by surprise and which divided his fans and critics alike.

It was, to be honest, not a good concert.

To begin with, the band were all over the fucking shop. False starts, false middles, fumbled endings – it was like an early rehearsal rather than a practised professional performance. I’m all for a bit of punk attitude, but this was, frankly, taking the piss. Ryan was off his tits, so it’s hard to say how much of the fault lay with him or his band, but playing the same song twice, the second time with vocals by the Cookie Monster, is the kind of thing that’s hilarious if you’re high, but which just pisses an audience off.

After a few shambolic numbers, the band left the stage. Ten minutes later Ryan re-appeared with his acoustic guitar, a bottle of wine and a stool and did a few quiet solo numbers. And just for a few moments, he conjured real magic. His delicate performance of Jacksonville Skyline remains one of the best moments of any concert I’ve ever seen. This was a true artist playing the hell out of a brilliant song.

But then, having apparently calmed himself, he disappeared again for ten more minutes, before returning with the band. It was better than their first spasm, but it was still barely controlled, self-indulgent and just not very good.

Eventually, her patience exhausted, not-yet-wifey dragged me out as the band played on. We had a bit of a row about it, to be honest. As we neared the exit, there was a loud crash from behind us and a few shouts. Finally succumbing to whatever cocktail of crap was driving him that night, Ryan had plunged off the stage.

A few nights later he repeated this manoeuvre, shattering his hand and, we all pretty much assumed, finishing his career.

However, this incident seems to have been the moment he bottomed out. Following this, he got better, learnt to play again, got a stable backing band, gradually cleaned himself up, and produced a flurry of albums – three in a year, for God’s sake – that ranged from solo acoustic, via honky-tonk country to Grateful Dead noodling. It was a brilliant realisation of early promise and a huge relief.

But he couldn’t sustain it. A band is a capricious beast, and The Cardinals’ ever shifting lineup testifies to how hard it was to keep the ball rolling. Eventually it imploded.

But, on the upside, Ryan married Mandy Moore.

I remember Ryan’s friend Adam Duritz once being taken to task by an idiot fan about his friendship with the one-time teen pop sensation. To paraphrase his reply to this twerp, it basically read ‘I hang out with Mandy because she’s cool, clever and talented. And also: fuck you.’

I thought that was fair. When your fanbase starts trying to dictate who you can and cannot befriend or marry, then really, they cease to be fans and become little more than borderline psycho stalkers. Ryan seemed happy. After all he’d gone through, it was hard not to feel that he bloody deserved it. (Also: she’s super-hot! Go Ryan!)

Then Ryan was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease, which just felt so damned unfair. He was finally getting it together, but his inner ear was crumbling and the tinnitus and dizziness knocked him off track. In a blaze of burn out, he announced his retirement from the music business.

Even in retreat, however, the famously prolific Ryan couldn’t seem to stop art pouring out of him. Poems, paintings, rap records released for fun on his website, gaming columns and even an as-yet-unfinished novel.

Two years after his retreat from the stage, after settling into married life, learning to live with his medical condition, and generally just taking a well-earned break, Ryan began a staged re-entry. First he released a few archive recordings, to wide acclaim, then he recorded an as-yet unreleased new album (or perhaps, rumours suggest, in typical Ryan fashion, two albums) and now has taken to the stage for a short series of solo acoustic concerts across Europe.

Last night I took my seat in the balcony at the Barbican, unsure what to expect. The reviews had been good, the tour was going well, but still, that old uncertainty about just what I was going to witness lingered.

I needn’t have worried.

Taking the stage to rapturous applause, he launched straight into a trilogy of numbers from Heartbreaker. You could hear a pin drop. The audience were rapt, hanging on his every word. Some lines were little more than whispered, his guitar picking delicate and soft. Somehow he managed to turn that cavernous space into a tiny cellar club, cashing in an overwhelming wave of goodwill to conjure real intimacy against the odds.

A few songs in he began to relax with the audience, bantering, joking, basically being the loveable geek he is online. And this time, unlike six years ago, he was proper funny – self deprecating, witty, and knowing.

When one fan shouted out requests during a tuning break, another audience member shouted at them to shut the fuck up, which got a loud laugh and applause. ‘I was going to respond,’ said Ryan, ‘but it seems Old Me is in the audience tonight.’ More laughs. Then he leaned into the mike and whispered: ‘Hey, Old Me, don’t take the brown acid!’

With a song book in front of him (it must contain only a smattering of his output, otherwise it would have to be the size of the unedited OED) he composed a setlist apparently on the fly, playing songs from all stages of his career, eschewing a set composed of unfamiliar new material; it was a crowd pleasing choice.

Because I was sitting in such a high vantage point, Ryan was little more than a distant blur to me, so I ended up closing my eyes during the songs, savouring each note.

About six songs in, in the middle of ‘Firecracker’ I found myself with a huge, stupid grin on my face, and it stayed there for pretty much the whole of the evening. He performed for two solid hours – brilliant, focused, funny, heartbreaking, triumphant.

As I left the gig, slightly baffled by how deeply happy I was at witnessing the rehabilitation of someone I haven’t ever met, and with whom I have no real personal connection other than through his music, I heard another audience member say to their date: “It was just so great to see him happy, you know?”

Yeah, I thought. It really was.

Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire (In Studio Acoustic Version) – YouTube.

Setlist

Ryan Adams, Barbican, 20 July 2011

(Thanks to Lodestar at www.ryanadamsarchive.com)

1. To Be Young
2. Oh My Sweet Carolina
3. Damn, Sam
4. Everybody Knows
5. If I Am a Stranger
6. Firecracker
7. My Winding Wheel
8. Invisible Riverside
9. New York, New York (piano)
10. Ashes and Fire
11. Let it Ride
12. Desire
13. Rescue Blues (piano)
14. English Girls Approximately
15. Blue Hotel
16. AMY
—–
17. 16 Days
18. Two
19. This House is Not for Sale
20. Stop (piano)

He then disappeared briefly and came out with a cape and queued some funky lighting and played an improv farewell song to the tune of “Gorgon, Master of War.”

9 Comments

  1. Great. Post.

    As a Ryan fan I immensely enjoyed reading that and am so glad you got to experience that.

  2. Thanks, that’s some of the best writing on Ryan Adams I’ve come across.

    I’m so pleased (like you) that he’s found some happiness, maybe the fact that he ended the set with his recovery song ‘Stop’ is an accurate indicator of his spiritual and mental well being. If he does an identical show in Manchester on Thursday I”ll have a similar sized grin on my face to you.

    Thanks again.

  3. Perfect write up. I’m a big Ryan Adams fan – right from the early days. I fell a little out of love for him after a while… But I always wanted to see him live. Last Monday was my first Ryan Adams gig. It was awe inspiring… i love how it was so utterly quiet, I could hear his foot tapping on the stage – even from the balcony. That gig will remain in my mind for ever. Beautiful to hear some of the songs so stripped back – it really showcases his incredible song writing.

  4. Solid review. I’ve been following him for 15 years from the time I stumbled into a bar in Utah in the middle of a Whiskeytown set and along w a buddy proceeded to get drunk w DRA. He muttered something about going solo and I waited in anticipation of his rise. He’s always been an ornery cuss but only bc he gives as good as he gets. His biting sarcasm and craft at managing hecklers in the audience has gone from leaping off stage to beat the shit out of some a-hole asking to hear Summer of ’69 to your quip about Old Me showing up. He’s much more gentle now and at piece. That’s a true pleasure to see.

    Most of the tour has been in more highbrow venues (no Forum or Academy but the Barbican). Since he’s sobered up, he’s become a more professional musician. 3 years ago he played at the Albert Hall w the Cowboy Junkies. You could hear a pindrop on both Sun and Mon nights, probably in part due to the venue, but mostly due to the gratitude toward his return and the thrill of seeing a professional at work. Last time I saw a solo performance was at the Victoria Apollo. He was shitfaced. The show was hilarious and entertaining and musically he was impressive bouncing between half a dozen instruments, stopping in the middle to return harrassment from hecklers, then without missing a beat returning to the song. It was a show but it wasn’t beautiful music. This was.

    Probably the most important symbolic point of the evening was him playing 16 Days. Don’t think I’ve seen him play that since 1997 or ’98. The point here is that he’s much more at piece w himself, his past, his demons. Whiskeytown having lit the spark of his several year long binge and him having put down much of the Whiskeytown repertoire.

    I’ve probably seen him play 15 times or more. His shows are always different, so tough to compare and rank. This was not just entertaining, it was beautiful. Perfect venue for a perfect show.

  5. Hi, I’d like to second/third the other commenters and say great writing and very on the money with your write-u – I actually went to the Sunday night Barbican show, having not seen him since Rock N Roll era shows in 2004 I think (mine was in Glasgow Barrowlands where apart from near-falling off stage and leaning off the stage in rockstar pose, he also stopped halfway to paw his then-girlfriend actress Parker Posey who was filming the entire show, from head to toe. Prior to that I’d seen him solo, tottering around the stage at Usher Hall in Edinburgh downing alternate red wine & whisky bottles and being his usual chaotic self but still playing some of his most beautiful songs and charming everybody there; it was amazing to see him on Sunday sober, articulate and playing those ‘hits’ as you said, it felt like an extremely intimate setting. Our hecklers were pretty vocal too and he responded to pretty much every one (which only encouraged them, really…) – including blessing the sneezers in the house!

    Wonderful show and a great review, and interesting to see different setlist (he opened with Oh My Sweet Carolina on the Sunday – I heard a few gasps as he started playing it – myself included – and I think closed with Strawberry Wine oddly, though I might be wrong about that)

    Anyway, here’s to RA, and at risk of sounding like one of the more controlling superfans…..more of the same please! (songs and shows)

  6. p.s. cape?! i wanna see pictures – we didn’t get that!

  7. Spot on review and assessment of Ryan’s career thus far. I’ve been burnt before at his gigs but Monday night at the Barbican was superb. Let’s hope he continues in such a positive vein.

  8. Ryans career is on the up, slowly but surely. Some of the gigs in the past have been disapointing but the last one was much better

  9. Thanks for writing such a wonderful, and perceptive, review. It was a stunning evening: his vocals and song selection were just perfect, his banter was funny and he got the hushed audience and setting that his music deserves. Long may it continue.