Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Thursday June 23rd, 2011
It’s been five years since my first Ryan Adams show in this city, in this very venue. Then it was an erratic, red-wine-fuelled, inspired yet frustrating show in support of his 29 record. Tonight he’s on bottled water. Someone down the front suggests whisky. He answers: "No, tried that, didn’t work out too great for me." Sober Ryan, minus his backing band The Cardinals, puts on an epic performance tonight which is possibly the finest of the six times I’ve seen him. Looking healthy, young and fresh-faced at the grand-old age of 36, he smiles when entering and exiting the stage, waving to his adoring audience.
The way Adams interacts with his public has calmed over the years. No longer lashing out at the hecklers, he merely humiliates them. He is funny, charming and charismatic and the audience are on his side tonight. The drunkards at the front (one of whom is ejected later on) are dismissed with witty, cutting remarks. One guy asks "How you doing, Ryan?" to which he responds "Kind of busy right now." He whispers to his constantly out-of-tune guitar all night: "Why the fuck are you so out of tune? Do you want me to turn you to firewood?" He looks happy though, and even some of the song choices tonight are closer to the positive end of the spectrum.
Ryan's voice is still in fine fettle and his raspy vocals are the best part of his performance. Personal favourites 'AMY', 'This House Is Not For Sale' and set highlight 'English Girls Approximately' are perfect, while his soaring falsetto on the hauntingly tragic 'Sweet Lil Gal' genuinely sends a shiver down the spine and sets a tear in the eye when he sings the line '# When you’re lonely, she makes you feel nice #'. 'If I’m A Stranger' and 'Everybody Knows' both sound superior performed solo than with the full-band treatment, and his harmonica shrilly resonates into the rafters on 'Firecracker' and 'Oh My Sweet Carolina'.
'New York New York' is transformed from the Dylan-esque acoustic shuffle that opens Gold, to a tender piano homage to his city, and it’s quite remarkable how poignant the lyrics are in this arrangement. And therein lies the magic of Ryan Adams – with the same words and the same chords, he can make a happy song sad, or vice versa. It’s almost as though the song, about breaking up with his then girlfriend and leaving New York due to a lack of money, is in its true heartbreaking form tonight and the album version we know so well has been deceiving us for a decade. It’s this superb craft and musicianship that sets him apart from other singer songwriters, making him such an exciting performer to watch.
Other bands and artists will traipse around the country/the continent/the world with the same predictable set list, the same songs in the same arrangement every night, pleasing the crowd. When someone yells out for him to play 'La Cienega Just Smiled', he simply ignores them whereas many others would buckle and give in. Flicking through his little black book of songs, muttering under his breath "nah, not that one", makes every show different and totally unique.
Of course I’m biased, so trust me at your peril, but I can’t recommend Adams highly enough. It would take a very bitter person to walk out of here tonight and not be impressed or satisfied in any way. Tickets for this show sold out in no time and they were going for hundreds of pounds on Ebay. It’s Glastonbury weekend, but I’d trade the entire line-up for an evening watching Ryan Adams. Whether solo or with band, drinking water or wine, he is an institution, a maverick who will survive long beyond other transitory artists.
words: Ste Grindrod