Ryan Adams – Live at Union Chapel, London

A trip down memory pain

It’s hard to envisage any other artist holding the attention of an 800-strong crowd for over two hours, armed only with a couple of acoustic guitars, a piano and a scrapbook full of songs, some of which are so slow that by the author’s admission they would be “literally impossible to dance to”. Add to this the fact that the audience are seated in rows of pews facing a stage that was designed for religious preaching and even the most seasoned of musician may feel more than a twang of panic; well, if Ryan Adams does harbour any sense of trepidation, it certainly doesn’t show.

After Chris Stills’ entertaining support slot that mainly consisted of raunchy blues numbers and a fairly impressive acoustic reinterpretation of the Fab Four’s Eleanor Rigby, alt. country’s former wunderkind takes to the stage to warm applause, donned in his trademark casual T-Shirt and leather biker jacket.

Opening with one of the many standout tracks from his debut solo album ‘Heartbreaker’, ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’ dusty chords are picked at with meticulous precision, supporting Adams’ self-mythologising tale of his early years as a struggling songwriter, “So I went on to Cleveland and I ended up insane, I bought a borrowed suit and learned to dance.”

Peppering the set with a few tracks from his latest LP ‘Ashes & Fire’, latest single ‘Lucky Now’ is a master class in just how powerful a simple set of chords strummed over plaintive and nostalgic lyrics can be; no one else can take a musical trip down memory pain quite like Adams.

Switching to piano for a couple of tunes, ‘Gold’s’ opener ‘New York, New York’ enjoys a gentle revisit, with the visceral guitar and striking Hammond Organ that drive the album’s version being replaced by sparse piano notes that ring out to the very top of the church’s vast ceiling. Sylvia Plath was a welcome addition to the set list, with its minor key morosity rescued by the lucid honesty of the lyrics, “She’d ash on the carpets and slip me a pill then she’d get pretty loaded on gin.”

Responding cheerfully to banter from the audience, it’s a testament to how much Adams has matured as a performer that he obliges a request for haunting ‘Dear Chicago’, a song so sad that he describes it as, “the musical equivalent of watching a glacier slide into a sea, taking with it the world’s supply of fruit loops, leaving only me: Captain Fruit Loop.” This is the man who once stopped a show and offered a refund to a heckler who had jokingly requested ‘Summer of ‘69’.

With a voice that oscillates between wistful croon and triumphant rasp, often within the same note, it is in this stripped-bare setting that Adams talent with a melody and songwriting ability really shines through. With a trio of his Whiskytown numbers thrown in before his encore, almost as a treat for the true aficionados amongst the audience, (of which there are many), his former band’s songs are handled with loving care and greeted with some of the loudest applause of the evening.

Ending with the ultimate kiss off song ‘Come Pick Me Up’, as he sings, “Screw all my friends, they’re all full of shit”, Adams delivers a sarcastic nod to his entourage who are watching him from the wings. Perhaps this very public form of soul baring and self-flagellation may count as atonement for his alleged history of hell-raising, or maybe he is simply acknowledging the follies of his youth with a wry eyebrow arched at his past; to be honest, it really doesn’t seem as if he cares what we think in the slightest.

Words by David Harfield

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