Live Music + Gig Reviews

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London

30 September 2006

Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams

This is not going to be an objective review, so those of you against advocacy journalism or fawning and sycophantic music reviews, please look away now. For Ryan Adams is a songwriter, singer and performer of unfathomable genius, rivalled in our time by only the Wainwrights, the late Elliott Smith and a few other wonderful American miserablists like Will Oldham.

But he does seem to be hated in some circles. An outrageous and hilarious hip-hop track he recorded for his website was bombarded with criticism from such “esteemed” quarters as Pitchfork. Adams and his Cardinals performed about a minute of it tonight, to a collective and knowing guffaw.

There were those who didn’t want to get into the spirit of things, as there always is for some reason at Ryan Adams concerts, and they were met with his regular disdain. One unpleasant thug (why are they always Scottish?) was shouting his little heart out while Ryan was extolling the virtues of Mcvities biscuits (“the best cookies in the world… after two packets you’re flying high”). Adams replied, with a point and a glare, “I’m fucking talking and you shut the fuck up while I’m talking. If I can’t kick your ass I’ll get someone who can.”

I don’t think it’s heresy to compare Adams with Bob Dylan. And Neil Young. Here’s why: throughout his career Dylan has made a point of seeing just how far he can distort and transform his songs in a live setting from what they were rendered as on record. With heavy grunge reworkings of romantic acoustic songs from Heartbreaker such as To Be Young (Is To Be High, Is To Be Sad) and Bartering Lines, Adams is doing a similar thing. There’s also an epic, Faith No More-esque, pounding out of I See Monsters, a normally quiet ballad from Love Is Hell.

And like Neil Young, Ryan Adams has developed two styles to his music that he alternates between, both in the studio and on stage. Last year he released two albums characterised by the lush and celebratory sound of The Cardinals (Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights). He balanced these with 29: a return to Heartbreaker and Love Is Hell’s solitary introspection with little more than a piano or guitar for company. It was understandable but sad that no material from 29 was performed tonight. But that’s for another time – a solo gig, the like of which we saw earlier this year. Ah, the duality of man.

In the past year or so, he’s been hanging out and playing with Phil Lesh, former bass player in The Grateful Dead. The impression this collaboration and indeed the ‘Dead in general have had on Ryan is obvious tonight, as he and The Cardinals frequently meander off into space jams that are directly descended from Anthem Of The Sun. Indeed, the highpoint of the whole show was, at 10 minutes plus, Magnolia Mountain. Not only is the opener to Cold Roses perhaps his best ever song, but has also evolved into his very own Dazed and Confused. That is, a vehicle for improvisation that has become a signature live event.

He has always had a slightly uneasy relationship with audiences on these shores, due to his perceived arrogance on stage and devotion to weirdifying the songs we all loved on record. But like I say, he is a talent we are unworthy of (I did warn you about the fawning). Let him let it all hang out, I say. And no one understands him like I do.

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