Many years ago (okay 2001) there was an album called Gold by Ryan Adams which attracted some rave reviews. There were some very good reasons for this; the album was sixteen tracks long without a dud in sight and some truly brilliant songs within the sprawl. Amazingly it was Ryan Adams’ second album in as many years following on from the almost equally acclaimed Heartbreaker. For many people Ryan Adams, similarity of name to a Canadian soft rock icon nonwithstanding, marked a return to the days when the Beatles and Bob Dylan (the most frequent comparison) were pumping out near perfect records twice yearly. There were rumours that Ryan Adams was producing whole albums in his downtime that were being shelved solely because the record company couldn’t keep up.
Unfortunately Ryan Adams couldn’t quite sustain the momentum. Demolition, a compilation of offcuts, had its moments but didn’t do justice to the hype. He found himself at loggerheads with his record company when it rejected his proposed new record, Love Is Hell, for being too depressing. Rock and Roll, a straight up rock album produced as a sarcastic response, alienated some critics and fans. Love Is Hell itself, eventually released over two EPs and finally as a full album, proved a worthy follow up to Gold but also marked the end of his imperial phase. This was 2004.
2005 arguably saw overkill with three albums, one a double set. While there were some great songs buried among the sprawl the overall impression was quantity over quality and the casual fan found it impossible to keep up. That year Ryan Adams turned 30. The superstardom promised by Gold hadn’t materialised and probably he never wanted it. The decade ahead would prove less fertile with bouts of ill health caused by Meniere’s disease. There was a steady stream of albums, some of which (Easy Tiger, Ashes and Fire) hinted at a partial return to form – it’s fair to say that none of his records were actively bad but all dwelt in the shadow of Gold.
Last year he released Ryan Adams. At first there was little to suggest to me that this would be much different to what came before – until I heard the record and realised that in one respect talk of this being the best record since Gold wasn’t true. Ryan Adams was at least as good and arguably the record of his life; he’s certainly never risen higher than the opening blast of Gimme Something Good, the slow burning Kim and – best of all – the almost impossibly haunting Shadows which falls almost midway through the album and forms its centrepiece. Ryan Adams the album had me dusting off that old copy of Gold and rifling through the catalogue to see what I’d missed. When he announced a show in Leeds I decided to check it out.
The show itself consisted of five songs from Ryan Adams (surprisingly few for such a recent work) and three apiece from Heartbreaker and Gold, the rest being picked from across the lesser albums. There was also an improvised song, Concierge, made up on the spot after a mishearing of an audience request. Given that the resulting song would have made a more than passable album filler it’s no probably wonder that he produces records so quickly. Inevitably it was the better known songs that stood out, particularly the aforementioned Shadows and La Cienega Just Smiled which is my favourite cut from Gold.
In the queue ticket holders were asked by stewards not to use flash photography at the request of the artist. Further signs repeating this request were pasted across the venue. When Ryan Adams came on stage it was obvious that a fair few in the crowd either hadn’t heard the instruction and felt it didn’t apply to them. The man himself promptly repeated the request, explaining that it was due to a side effect of Meniere’s disease. Needless to say there was one audience member who still ignored the request prompting an understandable but extraordinary outburst (`that guy there who keeps flashing me, fuck him, I asked you nicely`). The result was slightly startled applause and I suspect that it will be the thing many who attended the gig remember. He was joking about it by the end – the songs immediately after were played with a stony lack of interaction – but artists have walked off stage for less. It will be interesting to hear if this was a recurring incident at every gig.
There was lower level aggro later when I overheard somebody (correctly) ordering those talking loudly during some of the quieter numbers to be silent. I must admit that I left musing on the relationship between performer and audience. Tickets weren’t cheap and one could argue that the ticket buyer (note this does not necessarily mean fan) was consumer and customer and thus entitled to their money’s worth. However I’ve long been of the opinion that people who insist on taking photos/ filming short snatches and talking during songs don’t really care about music. Would I have felt short changed if further flash photos had caused RA to walk off? Dissappointed maybe but not with the artist.
To be fair to everybody concerned Ryan Adams’ audience has always been slightly split between alt rock and singer/ songwriter fans and perhaps such artists suffer when they have to take their work out on the road and face the resulting melting pot. It may take Ryan Adams another thirteen years to produce his next masterpiece (although let’s hope not) but as somebody who follows his own muse without fear of the consequences he’s an artist music fans need to keep faith with.