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Ryan Adams is sober. Ryan Adams is no longer any fun. Do you remember that short-lived but fairly entertaining figure in Friends, Fun Bobby? Ryan is the ultimate encapsulation of that well-observed character: stick a bottle of booze in his hand and he’s the life and soul of the party. Put him on the straight and narrow, though, and the entertainment factor diminishes dramatically.
The Ryan Adams of old was loved a great deal because, on and off the stage, he was intrinsically an entertainer. A great song writer and a good singer, yes, but frankly there’s a lot of those out there. Ryan Adams was like the Jacksonville Pete Doherty (hear me out): falling over, drinking too much and prone to fits of utterly enjoyable rebellious and creative urges. The main difference was that he didn’t get plastered all over the rock pages and, subsequently, the tabloids. In short, Adams was a loveable idiot.
For the past four records though, the man who entertained, not least by his wayward swings of musical direction, has settled down to a path of earnest, accomplished, middle-of-the-road country rock. There’s very little fun to be had, just an appreciation of a set of songs played by a highly accomplished if unremarkable backing band, The Cardinals.
Problem is, the eradication of feats of stage diving, crowd heckling and massive doobies smoked to debilitating effect halfway through a show has come at a time where the music he’s producing is sub-par, at least in comparison to his records up to Cold Roses. The skids, to be honest, were on well before that though: ever since his shot at world domination with Gold (the record that everyone in the room tonight owns, although they probably don’t own much after it), sales have decreased and outside interest has continually reduced. What you’re left with is a group of sycophants who will happily cheer every shoddy nuance of a Ryan performance and wax lyrical over every uneven collection of songs; people who still buy into the notion of the man as an uneven messiah, or a modern day Dylan. Come on. Faced with that, no wonder his standards and subsequent output have slipped. Who’s editing this guy? Who’s telling him to up his game again? Sadly, nobody.
Tonight’s set is criminally short, performed in an overheated, oversold venue with less sightlines for the crowd than is surely morally acceptable, even for the most unscrupulous venue owner. It doesn’t help that the band are sat down for the duration, hunched over acoustic guitar, pedal steel, drums, bass and piano in a set-up that screams ‘sensible songs only tonight, folks’. Material is largely garnered (like last winter’s tour) from Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights, 29_ and Adams’ new record, _Easy Tiger. It’s an under-nourishing affair. Of course, it’s better than your average country-rock melange, but decidedly less than you expect – or used to expect – from a full-tilt Adams. ‘Dear John’ from 29_ is quite lovely, and set closer ‘Two’ from his new record stands out. Thrown in during the set are a handful of older tracks that, depressingly, remain the highlights: ‘Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard’ and ‘Winding Wheel’ are the only survivors from _Gold and Heartbreaker respectively, while song of the evening goes to ‘I See Monsters’ from the Love Is Hell collection.
But it’s over barely an hour and a quarter after it’s begun, and leaves us none the wiser as to whether we’ll ever see Ryan strap on an electric guitar again, hurl whiny expletives into the crowd, fall over and play two and a half hours of extraordinary rock music. You hope so, because the myth of Ryan Adams is fast overshadowing the reality of a man in a mid-season slump. At the moment, the myth is a hell of a lot more appealing.
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