Gig goers had a surprise during the encore to Ryan Adams’ show at Shepherds Bush Empire last night as Johnny Depp slung on his guitar and joined the band. Sporting a wide-rimmed trilby, Depp threw some impressive shapes and even pulled off a guitar solo during set closer “Kim”.
Despite such a Hollywood stamp of approval (Depp plays on Adams’ latest album), 14 albums and a Brit award nomination, it is fair to say that Ryan Adams still has a cult rather than mainstream following. However, last night’s London show belied this below-the-radar appeal with a strong set showcasing the new album as well as digging out some old favourites, plus one song from an as-yet unreleased album.
Perhaps it has something to do with the “alt-country” box that Adams is associated with – and indeed helped to establish: anything country music related is still greeted with suspicion by a UK population still scarred by Garth Brooks’ inexplicable popularity. For the uninitiated, here’s a Bluffer’s guide to Ryan Adams:
- Began music career in 1994 as founder of Whiskeytown, a band that expanded the alt-country blueprint established by Gram Parsons in the seventies and which released three critically acclaimed albums.
- Released debut solo album, Heartbreaker, in May 2001, and followed up with a second, Gold, later that year. Adams shot a video set against the New York skyline for the song “New York, New York” just four days before 9/11, which brought him mainstream attention for the first time.
- Formed Ryan Adams and The Cardinals in 2004, touring and releasing records under this name for the next five years.
- After a break in which he married singer Mandy Moore, Adams returned as a solo artist, releasing Ashes & Fire in 2011 and, in 2014, Ryan Adams.
Adams has indeed given us something good* with his new album, albeit there is a passing resemblance on a couple of tracks to Adams’ near namesake Bryan Adams**. Both “Gimme Something Good” – which opened last night’s set and “Feels Like Fire” are standout cuts – but might have been so on 1985’s Reckless, not so much because of Ryan Adams’ voice, but because of the guitar tones, the shimmering production and, frankly, because they have great choruses.
It’s a funny thing when critically acclaimed albums are referencing music made in a decade previously viewed with distain (see also War On Drugs’ modern take on Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer”). Although Adams famously reacted badly at a concert in 2002 when a heckler requested “Summer of ’69”, he was in a far better mood last night, encouraging good-natured banter with the audience (“Sometimes when I’m over here I think I’m the audience and you’re the show”).
Meanwhile new songs also channelled Springsteen’s Nebraska (on the atmospheric and acoustic “Wrecking Ball, a show highlight), Tom Petty, and naturally there’s plenty of Ryan Adams too. The new songs sounded better live thanks to a great sound and solid band enhanced by the Hammond organ of Daniel Clarke, alongside drummer Freddie Bokkenheuser, bassist Charlie Stavish and guitarist Mike Viola.
Whilst the new album moves in a rockier direction Adams still retains his country roots – as evident on the best song of the night – a sublime “Oh My Sweet Carolina”. A Johnny Depp cameo is one thing, but with songs like that? Maybe the UK mainstream may yet embrace Ryan Adams…
** As an aside, I’m still trying to understand why, if you have a name so similar to Bryan Adams, you would sound anything remotely like him. If I was called Shania Train, I wouldn’t make a country/rock album. In fact I would do everything I could to avoid the comparison. I would even call my first single “Actually, That’s Very Impressive” just to set myself apart.
As a further aside, I can’t help feeling he’s brought it on himself a bit – Ryan was christened “David Adams”, but then “Dave Adams” doesn’t quite have the same alt-country ring to it…
* See what I did there….
Categories: Live Reviews