Be-caped and beguiling, Ryan Adams stages a triumphant solo return at the Barbican.
There’s his habit of releasing everything he records, often for free, simply because he feels like it. For the record, I love it, but it drives some people nuts, and just confuses others. If mellow country classic Heartbreaker is your all-time favourite album, chances are you probably won’t be spinning his death-metal sci-fi concept album Orion all that often.
Then there’s his personal life and his well documented spiral into drinks and drugs which pretty much everybody assumed would end with him choking on his own vomit in a hotel room, a la Gram Parsons. Erratic, angry, funny to himself but not others, stoned Ryan was a sad spectacle, even if the music kept flowing at a startling rate.
Then there are the fans. Every fandom has a small core of nutters with a hugely inflated sense of entitlement, who make way more noise than they should and seek to spoil it for the quieter majority. The tiny coterie of fuckwits who sit at the heart of Ryan’s fanbase like some malignant tumour composed entirely of self-regard and pressure-cooker spite are as bad as the worst Doctor Who fans, and trust me, that’s some benchmark.
Ryan struggles to deal with these prats, engaging with his fanbase online for periods until overwhelmed by the bile of a vocal few and retreating, shutting down accounts and websites, retreating into his shell to lick his wounds. Eventually he pops up somewhere else in some other guise, Quixotic, hopeful that this time the loonies won’t bring him down. His persistence is endearing.
Then there are the concerts.
It’s okay if you don’t like the Sad Dracula records; they were free. But if you fork out £25 for an evening’s entertainment and you are presented with a guy who stares at the floor and sings a set composed entirely of songs he wrote that day, then you’re entitled, perhaps, to feel a little short changed.
Six years ago I took my wife, on one of our first dates, to see Ryan perform in Kentish Town. He had a band with him – I think it was an early Cardinals lineup – and it was in the middle of the Rock N Roll rebellion, where he was dealing with a record company that refused to release his double album Love Is Hell, spurring him to deliver a balls-to-the wall rock record that took everybody by surprise and which divided his fans and critics alike.
It was, to be honest, not a good concert.
To begin with, the band were all over the fucking shop. False starts, false middles, fumbled endings – it was like an early rehearsal rather than a practised professional performance. I’m all for a bit of punk attitude, but this was, frankly, taking the piss. Ryan was off his tits, so it’s hard to say how much of the fault lay with him or his band, but playing the same song twice, the second time with vocals by the Cookie Monster, is the kind of thing that’s hilarious if you’re high, but which just pisses an audience off.
After a few shambolic numbers, the band left the stage. Ten minutes later Ryan re-appeared with his acoustic guitar, a bottle of wine and a stool and did a few quiet solo numbers. And just for a few moments, he conjured real magic. His delicate performance of Jacksonville Skyline remains one of the best moments of any concert I’ve ever seen. This was a true artist playing the hell out of a brilliant song.
But then, having apparently calmed himself, he disappeared again for ten more minutes, before returning with the band. It was better than their first spasm, but it was still barely controlled, self-indulgent and just not very good.
Eventually, her patience exhausted, not-yet-wifey dragged me out as the band played on. We had a bit of a row about it, to be honest. As we neared the exit, there was a loud crash from behind us and a few shouts. Finally succumbing to whatever cocktail of crap was driving him that night, Ryan had plunged off the stage.
A few nights later he repeated this manoeuvre, shattering his hand and, we all pretty much assumed, finishing his career.
However, this incident seems to have been the moment he bottomed out. Following this, he got better, learnt to play again, got a stable backing band, gradually cleaned himself up, and produced a flurry of albums – three in a year, for God’s sake – that ranged from solo acoustic, via honky-tonk country to Grateful Dead noodling. It was a brilliant realisation of early promise and a huge relief.
But he couldn’t sustain it. A band is a capricious beast, and The Cardinals’ ever shifting lineup testifies to how hard it was to keep the ball rolling. Eventually it imploded.
But, on the upside, Ryan married Mandy Moore.
I remember Ryan’s friend Adam Duritz once being taken to task by an idiot fan about his friendship with the one-time teen pop sensation. To paraphrase his reply to this twerp, it basically read ‘I hang out with Mandy because she’s cool, clever and talented. And also: fuck you.’
I thought that was fair. When your fanbase starts trying to dictate who you can and cannot befriend or marry, then really, they cease to be fans and become little more than borderline psycho stalkers. Ryan seemed happy. After all he’d gone through, it was hard not to feel that he bloody deserved it. (Also: she’s super-hot! Go Ryan!)
Then Ryan was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease, which just felt so damned unfair. He was finally getting it together, but his inner ear was crumbling and the tinnitus and dizziness knocked him off track. In a blaze of burn out, he announced his retirement from the music business.
Even in retreat, however, the famously prolific Ryan couldn’t seem to stop art pouring out of him. Poems, paintings, rap records released for fun on his website, gaming columns and even an as-yet-unfinished novel.
Two years after his retreat from the stage, after settling into married life, learning to live with his medical condition, and generally just taking a well-earned break, Ryan began a staged re-entry. First he released a few archive recordings, to wide acclaim, then he recorded an as-yet unreleased new album (or perhaps, rumours suggest, in typical Ryan fashion, two albums) and now has taken to the stage for a short series of solo acoustic concerts across Europe.
Last night I took my seat in the balcony at the Barbican, unsure what to expect. The reviews had been good, the tour was going well, but still, that old uncertainty about just what I was going to witness lingered.
I needn’t have worried.
Taking the stage to rapturous applause, he launched straight into a trilogy of numbers from Heartbreaker. You could hear a pin drop. The audience were rapt, hanging on his every word. Some lines were little more than whispered, his guitar picking delicate and soft. Somehow he managed to turn that cavernous space into a tiny cellar club, cashing in an overwhelming wave of goodwill to conjure real intimacy against the odds.
A few songs in he began to relax with the audience, bantering, joking, basically being the loveable geek he is online. And this time, unlike six years ago, he was proper funny – self deprecating, witty, and knowing.
When one fan shouted out requests during a tuning break, another audience member shouted at them to shut the fuck up, which got a loud laugh and applause. ‘I was going to respond,’ said Ryan, ‘but it seems Old Me is in the audience tonight.’ More laughs. Then he leaned into the mike and whispered: ‘Hey, Old Me, don’t take the brown acid!’
With a song book in front of him (it must contain only a smattering of his output, otherwise it would have to be the size of the unedited OED) he composed a setlist apparently on the fly, playing songs from all stages of his career, eschewing a set composed of unfamiliar new material; it was a crowd pleasing choice.
Because I was sitting in such a high vantage point, Ryan was little more than a distant blur to me, so I ended up closing my eyes during the songs, savouring each note.
About six songs in, in the middle of ‘Firecracker’ I found myself with a huge, stupid grin on my face, and it stayed there for pretty much the whole of the evening. He performed for two solid hours – brilliant, focused, funny, heartbreaking, triumphant.
As I left the gig, slightly baffled by how deeply happy I was at witnessing the rehabilitation of someone I haven’t ever met, and with whom I have no real personal connection other than through his music, I heard another audience member say to their date: “It was just so great to see him happy, you know?”
Yeah, I thought. It really was.