Moments of improvisation among the new and old, this was a supergroup at their very best
This show was the US singer-songwriter’s first with a full backing band since 2009 – and what a band he assembled for the occasion.
Noel Gallagher, curator of this year’s Teenager Cancer Trust gigs, joked as he introduced the show: “Ryan Adams has brought a supergroup with him. Except for the drummer… he’s my drummer. He’s nobody…”
The five-piece line-up was the kind to make any clued-in fan salivate with anticipation: Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers) on keyboards, Don Was (of Was Not Was, also a hot-shot producer) on bass, Cindy Cashdollar (previous employers Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Asleep at the Wheel) on steel guitar, Ethan Johns (hot-shot producer, multi-instrumental prodigy) on guitar and Jeremy Stacey (who in fact has played with Sheryl Crow, Zero 7 and Joe Cocker as well as Mr Gallagher’s High Flying Birds) on the drums.
What they all have in common is the ability to NOT play. To leave gaps, to be restrained, understated and tasteful. Between them the guitar, steel and keyboard players played fewer notes than one average lead guitarist. But they were the best notes anyone could have played.
With a song selection that favoured the slow, downbeat and heartbroken end of the vast Ryan Adams catalogue, the result was nothing less than nirvana for a sell-out crowd of diehards who recognised each number from the first chord.
(By the way, if you’ve stumbled into this review by mistake and think there’s a “B” missing from the artist’s name and are going to start shouting for Summer Of 69… then just get out of here. Get out now).*
The show began with the first two tracks from 2011’s Ashes and Fire and it looked for a moment as if this was going to be a full-album gig. But then we zoomed back to the year 2000 for My Winding Wheel from his first solo release, Heartbreaker.
Those two albums, bookending his solo career so far, provided nine of the night’s 18 songs. He played nothing from his early days with Whiskeytown, three numbers from his five LPs with The Cardinals, two from 2003’s Love Is Hell and just one from his biggest commercial success to date, 2001’s Gold.
There were also two new songs from a forthcoming album he’s been recording with legendary Beatles, Stones and Eagles producer Glyn Johns (father of Ethan).
Where I Meet You In My Mind wouldn’t have been out of place on Ashes and Fire, but In The Shadows was very different, more uptempo and electric and with a horror movie storyline.
“Let’s set the scene,” said Ryan. “You’re a vampire and you’re in a car late at night, driving across town to go and maybe… kill a werewolf.”
There was a one-off bonus too. When someone in crowd yelled out a request that Ryan misheard as “Loaf Of Bread” he improvised a song of that name on the spot and the band stayed with him through chord changes, a chorus, and a big finish. He managed to rhyme “they bit the dust” with “cut off the crust” too. Incredible.
The most surprising song on the set list was English Girls Approximately, his bitter-sweet kiss-off to English folk princess Beth Orton after they had a brief relationship years ago.
Why surprising? Because Beth Orton was the support act… in very good form too. She’s a mum now and her husband Sam Amidon was on guitar. With Ryan married to US singer-actress Mandy Moore, I guess it’s all water under the bridge.
The highest of the high points came when the band left the stage and Ryan played the exquisite Oh My Sweet Carolina on his own. It was a moment of musical bliss that could only have been topped if the great Emmylou Harris had walked out of the wings to add her original harmony vocals.
“Outstanding!” said a fan as the applause died down. “Thanks Dad,” deadpanned Ryan.
With his wry, semi-surreal banter while tuning his guitar (even though the guitar tech handed him a fresh one nearly every time), the atmosphere was happy, relaxed and for the audience, close to ecstatic.
Online comments afterwards included “best gig of my life” and “this was the show I always knew Ryan had in him”.
Paying tribute to his musicians at the end of the gig, the man himself said: “Thanks so much to these guys. They’ve never played these songs and it’s best I’ve ever heard them played.”
Let’s hope this dream line-up was more than a one-off… but if that’s the way it turns out, I’m just happy I was there to see it.
* Only joking: Legend has it that Ryan once had an audience member thrown out of a gig for repeatedly yelling out a request for Summer of 69 by Canadian soft-rocker Bryan Adams.