Ryan Adams – London Palladium
Where: London Palladium, London WC1
The first time I ever saw Ryan Adams live, a particular conversation stayed in my mind. I asked a die-hard fan at the bar pre-show what his hopes were for the performance. This being his twentieth Ryan Adams gig, he grimaced and said "It depends on his mood. Sometimes he can be grumpy and half-arsed. I've seen him storm off stage mid-song more than once. But if he's feeling happy, it'll be amazing." It's a testament then to Adams' current state of mind that he's received rave reviews almost unanimously for this and his previous tour spanning several continents last year.
There's no doubt that Adams is a truly gifted performer. He arrived on stage with little fanfare, and spent the gig shuffling round the stage looking like an overgrown man-child, with wildly unkempt hair and an outfit consisting almost entirely of denim. And yet his stage presence was immense. He had the audience in the palm of his hand from the opening bars of 'Oh My Sweet Carolina' and held it perfectly throughout a mammoth 20-song set, with no backing band to support him - just himself, two guitars and a piano. He exuded a curious combination of shy boyish charm and swaggering, self-deprecating confidence, cracking jokes as he tuned his guitars - "Here comes another basket of fucking sunshine" he muttered before launching into 'Please Do Not Let Me Go'.
It's this self awareness and dry, sometimes surreal humour that kept the evening from being a depress-fest. Many of Adams' tracks are pretty damn sad, particularly anything taken from his Love Is Hell period, and this he conveyed simply, beautifully and convincingly. The tracks from latest album Ashes & Fire provided some uplifting moments along with the brashness of Gold-era 'Firecracker', and surprisingly one of the highlights of the evening proved to be a partially-improvised comedy song 'Mr Cat', a declaration of love to Ryan's pets back home. "Mr Cat you're soft as fuck, soft as fuck incorporated" he rasped over a delicate piano melody, leaving the audience in stitches, before launching into a genuinely heartrending version of 'New York, New York'. Few performers can cause an audience to be bent double with laughter one minute and bring them to the brink of tears the next, but this Adams did seamlessly.
It's a testament to how Adams has grown and matured (despite outward appearances to the contrary) that he is able to captivate an audience in this manner and to fill a huge stage like the Palladium's as a solitary performer. The sound quality was bang on, allowing his heartfelt vocals to fill the auditorium - and what a voice the man has. Recordings do not do the sheer emotion of his vocals justice. Highlights included a stunningly pared down 'Rescue Blues' and final song of the main set, the classic 'Come Pick Me Up' which earned him a standing ovation. The gig may have lacked some of the intimacy of last year's Union Chapel show, and consequently the audience was a little more subdued. But it was still a mesmerising show from one of the biggest talents in alternative music today.
This time around, a different pre-gig conversation stayed with me. I spoke to a man who had once sold Adams a guitar, and told me a story that sums up Adams perfectly. He had some words of wisdom for the aspiring musician. "Once you've been to the venue and done your soundcheck, you've got to get out of there. Take your guitar, and hide it in a closet, and get the fuck out of there. Go for a walk, clear your mind. Forget you're a musician. You're just a guy, going for a walk. Walk, and don't go back there til the last minute, til you're almost late and your tour manager is ringing you scared. Go back to the venue, find your guitar like it's the first time you've ever seen the damn thing. Walk out on stage. And then, only then do you let it hit you. You're a musician. And you fucking play."
All photos © David Black