Gig review: Ryan Adams at O2 Academy Leeds

Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams
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“That’s where the moshpit will be,” Ryan Adams quips, pointing to a particularly enthusiastic member of tonight’s capacity audience.

There’s no shortage of stories about Adams’ alleged past unreliability as a performer. However, there are few signs of tantrums and well-lubricated stumbles tonight. Adams is entertaining company, happy to embark on improvised – and very funny – songs about inconsiderate complimentary hotel DVD box sets, as well as regularly making fun of the vast chunk of his legendarily prolific output that keeps doggedly on the un-sunny side of the street.

It all started very differently. A few songs into the generous two-hour set, the former leader of cult Americana brawlers Whiskeytown threatens to visit bodily harm on an audience member who’s managed to ignore both the dozens of signs and Adams’ friendly onstage request for no flash photography. It sounds worryingly Axl Rose-ian, but there’s a health reason behind the outburst. Adams has been diagnosed with a destabilising inner ear condition with similar triggers to epilepsy; recent interviews indicate that this chronic condition caused the odd career moves and less than professional on-stage demeanour that Adams’ back pages are littered with.

Unexpectedly, the unpleasant incident fires up the performance. Having launched the evening with a handful of accomplished but slightly sterile all-American rock anthems that aren’t all that far from Adams’ Canadian MOR-rocking near-namesake, a solo ‘My Winding Wheel’ off 2000’s solo debut Heartbreaker ingests some much-needed grit to the proceedings. The extended ramble around the yearning, Crazy Horse-esque country-rock of ‘Magnolia Mountain’ (off 2005’s Cold Roses) that follows proves even more impressive. The prospect of unadulterated jamming often provides an irresistible invitation to hit the bar queue, but loosening the hitherto tight leash on the four-piece band results in the evening’s most electrifying performance.

Once it’s been established, the connection between the stage and the crowd never wavers. However, too much of the set wounds up dedicated to material that champions melodically rich craftsmanship over passion. Last year’s self-titled album was pitched as a return to fully focused form after a string of genre-hopping records but the smooth arena rock glide of the fresh material can’t quite compete with the tear-stained shimmer of ‘When The Stars Go Blue’ (from 2001’s breakthrough Gold) or the country weeper ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’, with hotly tipped support act Natalie Prass on superb harmony duty. However, the jittery beat and New Wave-hued darkness of the new album’s ‘Shadows’ prove that even after 14 stylistically diverse albums in the same number of years, Adams remains capable of successfully conquering new musical territory.

“That was a strange show,” Adams states prior to the alt. country evergreen ‘Come Pick Me Up’ that closes tonight’s proceedings. As entertaining as the evening has been, musically it maybe just wasn’t quite strange enough.

Gig date: February 25