Two days in Brighton

From the moment you step outside the train station in Brighton you are greeted by the constant screeching chorus of the seagulls overhead.  That’s possibly why the local football team is nicknamed The Seagulls; they’re everywhere.

I’ve been to Brighton before, but never for more than a night, never by myself and not for almost four years.  The virtue of travelling alone is that you can do as you please and at your own pace – – which for me meant plenty of bars in a short number of hours.  There is such a cool vibe in the city which makes it easy to wander the streets and interact.

The layout is such that if you take the railway station as your starting point the iconic seafront is essentially directly south down the steep Queen’s Road, with a labyrinth of streets trailing off to the east and west.  Most of these narrow “Lanes” are lined with independent retailers, vintage clothes stores and all sorts of hidden treasures.  I only spent one full day exploring and I know that I barely scratched the surface of what Brighton has to offer.

Possibly the most bracing hangover cure known to man.

Unquestionably my favourite discovery was the Brighton Beer Dispensary on Dean Street.  Not only is it now my favourite bar in Brighton, but this place is certainly amongst my favourite bars ANYWHERE.  The decor is minimal – to say the least.  It was almost like walking through your own front door.  The main bar area was compact, although I believe they had a conservatory. But you don’t really come here for aesthetics, it’s all about the beer.  They had a cracking range of local craft beers and ales on tap, though unfortunately they’d changed the South Coast IPA they had on Wednesday night when I returned on Thursday.  The locals were friendly, the music was good and the salt & pepper chicken wings were immense.

The Craft Beer Company, just minutes away on Upper North Street, was also fondly received, without the intimate homely feel of the Dispensary.  The bartender was a real beer nerd, which I loved.  This dude knew what he was talking about.  The range on tap wasn’t so much local and had more of a wider English reach, but they were tasy nonetheless.  The chocolate porter was a treat.

Of course, the prime purpose for my trip to Brighton was to see Ryan Adams play at the Dome on Thursday night.  I love the area surrounding the Dome – the Royal Pavillion is an absolutely beautiful piece of architecture, a really lovely building.  The Dome itself is a very decent concert venue; the acoustics were pretty spot on.

Ryan is very much a settled performer these days.  Whereas at previous points in his career there was often the question as to which Ryan Adams would turn up tonight, you are now pretty much guaranteed a great show, and Thursday was no different.  It very much followed the same pattern as the last tour:  plenty of material from the most recent album, which has settled into the setlist very well.  His new band The Shining has really nailed the Cardinals material, and as such Let It Ride, Magnolia Mountain and Peaceful Vallley were amongst the highlights of a two-hour set.  I See Monsters went down well, and there were welcome appearences of La Cienega Just Smiled and the third, most recent version of New York, New York.  Such is the extent of Ryan’s back catalogue now there is usually room for a surprise or two, and Dear Chicago and This House Is Not For Sale were genuine WOW moments.  The latter has long been a favourite of mine.

This was one of my favourite trips.  I’d always enjoyed my previous visits to Brighton, but this week I fell in love with it.  There is such in infectuous vibe about the place.  It is compact enough to comfortably wander, the bars are brilliant with a real eclectic mix of people.  And those seagulls are music to you ears.

Ryan Adams @ Albert Hall, Manchester/Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow

You might think that after 11 years spent travelling up and down the country seeing this guy play fifteen times Ryan Adams wouldn’t have any more surprises in his guitar case, but two nights in Manchester and Glasgow this week thoroughly disproved any such thoughts.

Touring with a band for the first time in over five years clearly gives him a lot more leverage in the scope of his setlist, and the spreading of the burden with four others on stage had Ryan at his most visibly relaxed in years.  These were two excellent shows powered by a phenomenal energy – both on stage and off – and some big ass amps.  This was Ryan at his loudest and most confident.

As expected, the set list followed the same pattern as three previous shows in London, with its foundation built largely on his strong recent self-titled release.  Gimme Something Good has an almost grungey feel to it and works as a fine opener, Fix It has been reinvented with a brilliant bluesy sound, while Let It Ride has always been a superb live hit.  But it was the surprise introductions of songs long not heard at a Ryan Adams gig which really made these nights special.

When Ryan began tuning his guitar under the gaze of a gigantic organ in what was once a Methodist church in Manchester, telling the audience that he was going to play a song he hadn’t played in years, little would anyone have guessed he and his band were going to dust off Rock N Roll’s Anybody Wanna Take Me Home?, a song not played since 2006.  It was a revelation, perfectly suited to the occasion and a performance which ranked as a true highlight from the two nights.

But even that was nothing when compared to what would come the following night.  I’ve long suspected that Ryan Adams saves his best performances for Glasgow – the city has almost always provided the best night on his UK tours.  His statement of love for the city on Thursday night is one he doesn’t make often – if at all.  It felt genuine, and he followed it with a song he claimed the band had been working on all day specially for the occasion – a glorious harmonica-driven version of New York, New York.  It was breathtaking; a truly spine-tingling moment.  This is the this different version of this song I’ve heard Ryan play, and it may have been the best.  To then come up with La Cienega Just Smiled later in the set, one of the most bitter and beautiful songs in his extensive back catalogue and another rarely played, was almost overwhelming.  It was a very fine point in as close to a flawless performance as you could imagine.  His appreciation of Glasgow even extended to affording us the opportunity to select the “encore” song (after a long fake encore which concluded with the audience singing the same not) – it was a decision almost as contentious as the referendum, with Come Pick Me Up gaining a louder applause than Political Scientist.  I voted for both.

These two nights offered everything you’ve come to expect from a Ryan Adams gig over the last 11 years – and just a little bit more:  The hilarious improvised song in Glasgow about “Mr Stage Secrity Right” – who Ryan had earlier berated for shining a torch in his direction, an act which he later felt so bad about that he composed an off-the-cuff song as way of apology; the frequent Star Wars references; the tight, almost perfectly selected set lists; the voice which seems to get better with age; complaints about sound quality in Manchester (he still seemed pissed about this the next night).  It was all here – with a couple of phenomenal surprises on top.

Ryan Adams (with band) @ Royal Albert Hall, London for Teenage Cancer Trust

 

  • Ryan’s first show with band in over four years
  • Benmont Tench on piano, introduced by Ryan:  “We’ll be playing some songs from Heartbreaker tonight, but this man is a real fucking Heartbreaker.”  Don Was on bass, Cindy Cashdollar played pedal steel, Jeremy Stacey was on drums and, naturally, Ethan Johns was on guitar.
  • I’m not sure how long the band have been playing together, or if they ever will again, but they sounded tight as fuck.  Like this was their thousandth performance with Ryan, rather than the first.
  • I liked how the new songs were tweaked and given a new personna.  Do I Wait was played electric and had this great Crazy Horse vibe to it.  Don Wass nailed the double bass on Invisible Riverside and Tench did this beautiful little water fill thing on Dirty Rain.
  • The old songs were brought back and given new life, too.  Nobody Girl was an unexpected treat and Ethan pulled off this fucking incredible solo at the end of it which totally rocked.  Even Fix It was enjoyable, and I loathe Cardinlology.  I think Ryan funked it up a little with his solo.
  • They played a couple of new songs from the proposed Autumn album.  Where I Meet You In My Mind (possibly) was a beautiful track with a pretty little riff. It reminded me a LOT of early Dylan with Ryan doing a kind of soft talking blues thing where the words almost run into each other over the lines
  • The other, more a 50’s diner or a Twenty-Nine sound. Think it was called Shadows, or In The Shadows Again. He introduced it by asking us to “imagine you are a vampire and you’re driving across town to kill this werewolf, or something.” About sums it up.
  • Sometimes I’m not sure if the improvised songs are truly improvised. Like last night, as he often does, he mis-heard a call from the audience as “loaf of bread” which, naturally, led to a three minute ballad called Loaf of Bread. The band picked it up almost immediately – which was either because it wasn’t truly improvised or they’re really fucking good. I did kinda like the line “our love turned to rust, I always told you I like to cut off the crust.”
  • It wasn’t all band and he did a couple of solo songs too, including the most magnificent performance of English Girls Approximately I think he’s ever given. His vocals were superb, and I think their impact was greatened by some deftly understated guitar.
  • I think I expected a bit more from the setlist. Too much Ashes & Fire and not enough Gold or Whiskeytown. I thought there might have been a bit more variety than at the acoustic shows the last two years. But that’s being picky, because this was a really, really great gig. The band were incredible and the new album sounds promising on the evidence of the two tracks showcased here. Praying these guys play with him again.

Ryan Adams @ Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow

Glasgow loves Ryan Adams. The wild applause which greeted his arrival on stage was as loud as some you might hear at the end of a great set. Before long, Ryan realised that in this city he’ll be clapped just for walking across the stage.

And unlike the “existential hopelessness” in the relationships he sings about, Ryan seems to love Glasgow too. Whether it’s at the Barrowlands, the Academy or the more genteel environment of the Concert Hall, Ryan always has a great time playing in Glasgow.

“This is a song about rain.  I know you don’t get a lot of that here…so just try to imagine,” he joked as he led into the fourth song of the evening, Dirty Rain – which is growing in stature with every performance.  An early precedent to joke with the audience – missing from his polished performance the previous night – had been set, though it didn’t detract from the quality of the show.

For a self-professed sad bastard, Ryan Adams does humour like a seasoned stand-up.  He couldn’t help but ponder, following the recent holographic performance of Tupac, how crazy it would be for an artist to walk out on stage to see the audience is just one giant hologram.  “We should play that joke on KISS,” he mused.  “They deserve it, they’re always playing jokes on us, coming out dressed like rock clowns from Mars.”

The “greatest hits” setlist established on this European tour was tweaked slightly for a receptive Glasgow audience.  Out went Let It Ride, replaced by the superior Why Do They Leave?  Ryan’s voice aches with despondancy here in harmony with a ghostly harmonica.

There was also room for an airing of the hushed ode to his cat in “Mr. Cat” before the gig resumed an air of seriousness with New York, New York.

These shows, with their “greatist hits” feel, do a fine job in encapsulating the career of Ryan Adams.  Almost all of his best work is showcased here (you could, if you were being picky, make a case for some of the few albums not represented; Strawberry Wine from 29, for example, but as he remarked, you’d need two concerts for him to play everything) and on a night like this, when his humour subtly compliments the extraordinary voice and the increasingly ambitious guitar, the very best qualities of Ryan Adams are presented to the audience.

It’s why Glasgow adourns him with such love, and why Ryan almost immediately took to Twitter to declare it his “FAV show of the tour!!!!”

Ryan Adams @ Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham

Consistency, as defined by Dictionary.com, is “steadfast adherence to the same principles, course, form,”

Pretty soon they’re going to have to accompany that entry with a picture of Ryan Adams, for consistency is the noun which best describes the current run of live performances by the singer-songwriter.

No longer do you attend a Ryan Adams gig with the old “which Ryan is going to turn up tonight?” joke in mind.  Indeed, on this Spring tour at least, you don’t even enter the theatre venues – which seem to be growing in size with each visit he makes to these shores – with the guessing game of which songs will make it onto the setlist.

You could gather three Ryan Adams fans together in a room – actually, make it a bar – and ask them to come up with a ‘greatest hits’ setlist and they would return to you with seven different variations.  But this tour undeniably has the feel of a ‘greatest hits’ tour, and Ryan has been sticking rigidly, consistantly, to that set from city to city.

From the harmonica-laden opening duo of Oh My Sweet Carolina and Ashes & Fire into If I Am A Stranger, followed by the brilliant combination of Dirty Rain and My Winding Wheel.  Over to the piano for Rescue Blues and then to the other side of the stage for “another bucket of sunshine” with Please Do Not Let Me Go.  Ryan likes to “play depressing songs on all sides of the stage,” you see.

Last night in Rain City Ryan had his serious hat on.  There was minimal chatter, no references to dragons and no improvised songs about cats.  This was all about letting the quality of the songs, the strength of his voice and the sublime intricacy of his guitar playing do all the talking.

Three European tours since June 2011 have given him the platform to hone his solo acoustic shows.  The rough edges have been sanded down and the joking around, as quirky and welcome as it often was, is now minimal.  His technique on the guitar has grown into a confidence previously unseen; every pluck of the strings reverborates around the theatre like a delicate heartbeat.  The playing on Please Do Not Let Me Go was especially beautiful.

The reinvention of New York, New York as a piano ballad continues to be the high water mark of Ryan’s talent, featuring in a run towards the end of the set that showcases some of his best work:  the stunning English Girls Approximately; sole Whiskeytown number 16 Days and the now standard set closer Come Pick Me Up.

Oscar Wilde once said that “consistency is the last refuge for the unimaginative.”  He was wrong.  For Ryan Adams, the consistency of his live performances, this sustained period of excellence on the stage, is one of the most imaginative and (for us) enjoyable twists in his ever-evolving career.

Ryan Adams @ The Sage, Gateshead

“I’m here to make you sad,” Ryan purred as he armed himself with his harmonica and Buck Owens guitar in response to a meow from a member of the audience, presumably a reference to Ryan’s recent fascination with re-Tweeting pictures of cats.

The thing is that despite the content of his songs, a Ryan Adams performance rarely leaves you feeling sad, at least not now that he has regained his focus and found his Heartbreaker voice again.

This much is evident from the outset as he opens with two songs from the albums which currently bookend his solo career; the always breathtaking Oh My Sweet Carolina and Ashes & Fire, the latter sang with a passion and a vitriol which echoed around the seashell-shaped Sage.  The title track from his current record has quickly become one of my favourite live songs, the harmonica adding a new layer to it.

The Dirty Rain into My Winding Wheel sequence proved again to be a highlight, as it was on the Autumn tour, as Ryan started the show with a professionalism deeply in contrast to his stumbling performance in the same building six years ago, only stepping out of his stride to briefly admonish the wannabe photographers in the hall.

Early flashes of Ansel Adams inspiration aside, the Gateshead audience was largely hushed and reverent as the musical Adams produced a setlist furnished largely with offerings from his latest release, with smatterings of Heartbreaker, Gold and Love is Hell weaved throughout the evening.  “I’ve always wanted to play the Death Star,” he quipped as he took to the piano for Rescue Blues.

Lucky enough to have found myself in the front row, I was able to fully appreciate the truly delicate guitar playing that Ryan has been spoiling us with on these tours over the last year.  There were some really subtle additions to some songs, noticably Firecracker, and Ryan seems to be in a place where he’s happy and comfortable on stage playing.

Of course, as slick and professional as the newly-focussed Ryan is, there is always the chance that the tempestuous character of old will come to the fore, and one sure-fire way of ensuring that is to call out from the audience, which is exactly what one fella dared do as Ryan attempted to tell us of his activities the previous evening.

“Just play the song,” some guy bellowed impatiently from the balcony, which was slightly uncalled for considering that this was one of Ryan’s less chattier sets.

“Sorry, did I interrupt you?”  Ryan remarked before going on to tell us about his search for food in Newcastle on a Saturday night, observing that some of the sights he witnessed were like a scene from the movie Animal House.  “Seriously, why do the girls even bother wearing heels?  They know they’re not walking home in them.”  Funny.

This somehow linked into the only Whiskeytown (or Space Maggot, as he referred to his former band) tune of the night, 16 Days, which Ryan paused mid-intro to flash a middle finger towards the balcony.

“Ryan, please play AMY!” called out a young lady moments later as he positioned himself at the piano for the ever gorgeous New York, New York.

“Talk to that guy there,” Ryan responded cooly, before thinking about it some more.  “The asshole of Gateshead.  You fucking prick.  That’s why you have no girlfriend and are here at this sad music show.”  Harsh.  We can’t all be married to Mandy Moore.

As he started with a song from Heartbreaker so he ended, with Come Pick Me Up providing a neat symmetry to the set, before he returned to “sweep up” with a cover of the Alice in Chains track Nutshell.

Six years ago when Ryan Adams last played The Sage he was a drunken (and/or high) shambles, spending as much time impersonating Billy Ocean as highlighting his own talents.  He would later reveal to a small group of us who had waited ourside to meet him theat he isn’t entirely comfortable playing solo shows.

Last night was an entirely different experience.  We were treated to a(n almost) serious Ryan, whose music spoke louder than anything else.

It may have been “a full concert of sad bastard songs” but no-one could have left The Sage unhappy with what they heard.

Well, expect maybe for that guy on the balcony….

Ryan Adams @ Edinburgh Festival Theatre

You know how I posted the other day about how I imagined that the encore of Friday’s gig in York couldn’t be bettered by any other artist?  Okay.  Well how about you “cut the charade of the encore” altogether (in an effort to beat the strict venue curfew) and instead play a two hour set which stormed towards its climax with five, that’s FIVE, Whiskeytown songs?  That would probably do it.

Finding my way to the venue last night made me think of how much Edinburgh is like this dark and brooding yet ridiculously beautiful dream.  It’s a gothic old movie of a city; elements of a film noir and The Lord of the Rings mixed together to create this place which is so breathtaking that it’s almost impossible to believe that it even exists.

I’m not sure how I found the Festival Theatre, but I did, and I knew from the experience of just walking there that the night was going to be a special one.

I noted on Friday that Ryan has found a level of consistency with his live performances that has perhaps been missing previously in his career, and that consistency followed him to Edinburgh.  Once again the full-range of his incredible back catalogue was utilised here, starting and finishing with Heartbreaker classics Oh My Sweet Carolina and Come Pick Me Up.

Throughout the night Ryan struck up a rapport with the audience themed around a lion named Haggis (this came into being after he ‘misheard’ a cry of “go on yourself, big man!” from the stalls as “I’ve got a big lion”) the idea that Edinburgh Castle could be the world’s biggest waffle house (“I wonder how many hash browns it would take to fill that place”) and riding the lion to the giant waffle house through motorways of chocolate syrup.

This mutual respect was interrupted only briefly by the complaints of a heckler from Manchester who wanted to know why Ryan’s current tour wasn’t visiting his city.  He questioned if it was because he was “turning into a fucking lightweight.”  Ryan bided his time before later introducing Houses on the Hill with the line:  “This is for the Manchester guy.  You’re a dick.  But I still like you.”  One wonders how the Ryan Adams of ten years ago would have dealt with such a confrontation.

Set highlights included Crossed Out Name, which comes as a surprise even as I type these words because I absolutely hate the Cardinology record, but he played it with such a purpose last night (perhaps due to the tight curfew?) that it sort of blew me away.  Why Do They Leave? is always a welcome addition to any setlist, Ashes & Fire is quickly becoming one of my favourite Ryan Adams songs and, even after hearing it four times now, it never ceases to impress me the way Ryan has completely re-worked New York, New York into a beautiful piano ballad.

But nothing could come close to the feeling of pure disbelief and delight as the Whiskeytown numbers began to rack up towards the end of the set.  To hear three of them together on Friday night was a treat, but to add the hauntingly beautiful Houses on the Hill and the rarely-played Dancing With The Women At The Bar to 16 Days, Avenues and Jacksonville Skyline felt like a once in a lifetime sort of deal.  It was simply breathtaking – I was desperate last night to be able to tell someone who would understand just how special a thing that was.

My immediate reaction following the gig last night was that it was probably the best I have ever heard Ryan Adams live, and I’m going to stick to that today.  The venue was a vast improvement on the awkward York Grand Opera House and the audience had a great respect and reverence for Adams which was clearly appreciated by him.

A beautiful night in a beautiful city.

Ryan Adams @ York Grand Opera House

It used to be that Ryan Adams was called a “prolific songwriter”, as if that was some kind of flaw. But as prolific as his releases were his live performances were a bit like shooting ducks at the fairground. It became a running joke amongst gig-going Ryan Adams nerds: “which Ryan will turn up tonight?” I’ve seen him play some great shows, I saw him fall off the stage in Liverpool and drunkenly slur his way through a set in Gateshead. His ‘jams’ with the Cardinals were at times mind-numbing.

Now it would appear that Ryan is back on top form following his recent hiatus. He is in love with his music again and this year I’ve seen three wonderful performances.

Tonight’s highlight at the York Grand Opera House looked like it was going to be an early stretch of songs from Dirty Rain to My Winding Wheel to Sweet Lil Gal 23rd/1st and finally Firecracker.

The remainder of the setlist borrowed from just about all of Ryan’s sprawling back catalogue and was, naturally, loaded with tracks from his new record Ashes & Fire, all of which sound like they can be set staples for years to come.

Then the encore came. After a couple of rarely-played songs from Cold Roses and Jacksonville City nights came what was almost a mini-Whiskeytown set: Avenues, 16 Days and the incredible Jacksonville Skyline, topped off with Adams favourite Come Pick Me Up. I find it difficult to imagine a better encore from any other artist. Seriously.

A fine set in a creaky venue. The third in a row. It looks like Ryan Adams has found some consistency.