At Cirkus, Stockholm 10 March 2015.
Ryan Adams is a hugely talented musician, songwriter and performer. He is perhaps one of the best artists, in the very broad alternative country genre at least, around today.
This is evidenced by a prolificacy in album releases over the last 15 years which resembles days of old, when artists released albums yearly as opposed to the one new release every few years that we see from most contemporary acts.
Adams releases on average one new album every year, some of which are doubles, and though never breaking new ground, all are packed with solid well crafted and performed songs. His latest album, titled Ryan Adams, is not one of his best. But even a lesser Ryan Adams album is a solid listen.
His performing talent is also impressive as was evidenced at last night’s concert in Stockholm, which opened with the brilliant opener from the new album, Gimme Something Good, a catchy rocky number with swirling organ and crunchy guitars that set the tone of much of last night’s gig.
Touring this latest album, the setlist featured five tracks from it, but this was also very much a “greatest hits” collection. The 21 tracks played featured songs from across his healthy back-catalogue, albeit played for the most part in his current 1970s Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) style, with a four piece backing band of drums, bass, guitar and organ.
This current style is perhaps best compared to early Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, with third track in last night, Stay With Me, sounding even more Petty like than the studio version, with a clipped vocal delivery, high guitar riffs, plodding bass and organ back up.
An early highlight was Dirty Rain from Ashes and Fire, a great song that showcased Adam’s versatile vocals with a deep slow verse breaking out into a soaring high pitched and uplifting chorus. And like many of his songs, conjuring up images of lonely small town American nights.
This was followed by one of Adam’s greatest songs, Dear Chicago, though while it’s light, almost reggae band backed groove last night offered something a bit different, this was perhaps to the song’s detriment. However who can resist lines like “I been thinking some of suicide, but there’s bars out here for miles.”
Other great familiar Adams’ songs also suffered a little bit from slightly new, which is to be applauded, but detrimental arrangements. New York, New York, still retained its compulsive rhythmic acoustic guitar foundation but was a little too restrained musically. And La Cienga Just Smiled, which I once heard the legendary British radio DJ Bob Harris say was his second favourite song of all time (after Stand By Me), suffered from slightly intrusive drumming.
Magnolia Mountain however, from the ridiculously listenable alt-country Cold Roses album, broke out from its swirling spidery guitar riffs into a Doors like bluesy rock middle part jam, before returning again to the familiar arrangement with an added hint of early 70s Topanga Canyon singer-songwriter harmonies and Crosby Stills Nash and Young electric groove. The song’s lyrics, “there ain’t nothing but the truth up on the Magnolia Mountain,” also evoke the sentiments of the late 60s early 70s LA generation and offer a change from Adam’s usual lovelorn heavy content.
Adam’s competence in the genres he works in is immense. His songs, though never sounding like rip-offs, sound steeped in Americana musical knowledge.
And as well an impressive voice, Adams can really play guitar, with his musical talents seeming to get better and better with age. Be it with superb guitar playing on country soaked acoustic ballads, grungy AOR electric rhythm or high note riffs and solos. Or on his expressive harmonica playing which featured on the ever popular closer Come Pick Me Up and Winding Wheel, one of just two songs delivered solo, the other being a cover of his support act Natalie Prass’s song My Baby don’t Understand Me, which could almost have been one of Adam’s own songs.
He also looks like he is managing all this great playing and singing with little effort. Hunched over his guitars, which he holds quite high, dressed in denims, his leg occasionally bends and now and then the guitar is held aloft, but he looks in total control. He even indicated with his hands level changes to the sound guys while playing and singing at the same time.
As he has aged, he has also become a highly professional performer. Gone are the nervous shuffles, fiddling with instruments, complaints about the sound, and often quite highly charged audience berating from his earlier concerts. Or the wild abandon of his Rock n Roll tour which saw him swigging from wine bottles on stage and culminating in a tumbling of a stage and breaking his wrist.
While this is probably much better for him, it is a bit of a shame for the audience. Adams’ gigs used to be thrillingly exciting, with a raw but unstable talent baring his all with a wild recklessness. With concerts in general long having become fairly predictable, rehearsed events, you always felt with Adams anything could happen. He is also extremely funny and in a nervy way very chatty with the audience, telling funny stories and introducing songs with hilariously surreal explanations as to their meaning.
Last night, and at the last Adams concert I saw two years ago, he barely spoke to the crowd and whizzed through the setlist with total professionalism, packing in a very decent amount of songs in just under two hours. On paper, everything was great, including the playing, song selection and incredibly good sound levels, where every note could be heard and every phrase, no matter how softy sung understood.
But it was almost too good. Too perfect, too rehearsed (the setlist has barely changed over this tour which didn’t used to be the case) and too slick and professional.
The most playful aspect was the stage set-up, with a couple of old video arcade games flashing away and Neil Young Live Rust style giant decorative amplifiers that surely went up to 11.
Rarely did the band get up to 11 though. The intensity of earlier Adams’ gigs was most evident on the solo acoustic numbers. With total silence in the hall and every move on the guitar string heard.
The one time Adams’ actually got animated was during the solo delivery of Winding Wheel. He stopped playing after the first verse to shout at the crowd, in scenes reminiscent of the old Adams, for using flash photography, which he said, aggravates his Meniere’s disease by making him feel sick and dizzy. Apparently requests to not use flash photography had been widely made, though I hadn’t noticed myself. Cleary it is understandable for Adams to get annoyed by this. And his annoyance is not something to enjoy. It was enjoyable however to hear his rant move on to phone usage at concerts generally. “You are at a concert, put your fucking phone down and engage! Get a life!” he hollered. He then restarted the intimate softly song sung as if nothing had happened.
The final song of the main set, I See Monsters, was introduced as “a real slow jam.” Half way through it burst into life in an explosion of punk rock frenzied guitar solos. Brilliant. And a wild change of pace that was a real surprise.
Despite the polishing up of the edges, Adams is still brilliant. Last night’s gig was evidence of a musician on top of his game. While not as wild as days of old, his professionalism is to be admired and he remains a formidable live act.