Reign of the Bummer King
Ryan Adams - Live At Sheffield City Hall

The stage is sparsely arranged with a solitary chair dead centre, a few microphones at sitting and standing height, and a piano in the dark corner of far stage left. Finally the house lights dim and the only pool of light rests on that empty central chair. It’s utterly silent now, until the footsteps in the dark suddenly reveal the dishevelled star of the show and the room erupts into raucous applause. The North Carolina native takes his tri-coloured acoustic guitar, mutters good evening and opens with the loving ode to his hometown, ‘Oh my Sweet Carolina’. Complete silence from the audience again.

Adams’ voice is note perfect and clear as a bell despite the emotional delicacy. Originally a duet with Emmylou Harris from the 2000 debut album ‘Heartbreaker’, it’s a compelling opener and is greeted with a deafening reception.

He follows with the title track from his latest album, ‘Ashes and Fire’. The eleven years of prolific music making between the penning of the first two songs may have resulted in diminished hearing, but Adams’ talent as a singer songwriter remains gloriously intact. It’s another deftly crafted classic, vivid with touching imagery and lifted with poignant harmonica.

The several thousand people present make their appreciation unequivocal and Adams takes a moment to acknowledge it. “Thanks for coming out to hear a bunch of sad bastard songs”

The third song continues in the fragile and vulnerable vein with ‘If I Am A Stranger’, from 2005’s ‘Cold Roses’ - Adams’ first album with The Cardinals. This is followed by another new song from the current album, the instant classic ‘Dirty Rain’. Having described the song as “being about ladies metaphorically”, it’s a typically soulful gem, as catchy as it is heartrending. Then again we revert back to his debut album and a song of equal beauty, feted by none other than Bob Dylan, the magnificent ‘My Winding Wheel’.

Apart from the occasional fast number such as ‘Firecracker’ and ‘New York, New York’, and a dubious comedy moment where he sings a song called ‘Mr. Cat’, the concert doesn’t stray from impassioned renditions of some of Adams’ finest balladry. He shares the occasional joke with the audience, and that contact seems to be appreciated. He even goes so far as sing an entire song about one audience member.

Ryan Adams has a staggering work ethic. As well as producing other artists and finding time to publish three books of poetry and short stories, he makes a huge amount of music. He now has his own record label called PAX-AM on which he continues to release his own material following the fulfillment of his contractual obligations with Lost Highway in 2008. To call him prolific is an understatement.

Adams is like a musical Wurzel Gummidge - able to change his head whenever he chooses to assume a new identity and talents. There’s the bloke-rock bluster of his ‘Rock N Roll’ album, the five alt-country albums as Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, the ‘Orion’ heavy metal album he made in 2010, plus the more extreme black metal material recorded as Werewolph and the hard rock tracks made as Sleazy Handshake. There was even a confounding detour into hip hop in 2006. But tonight we are privileged to watch the “bummer king” do what he does best. Even the most ardent detractors would have had a job remaining untouched as he graced the hall with eat-your-heart-out ballads and songs which don’t gently pull your heartstrings, but wallop them in submission.

Words by Nick Rice

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