The American songwriter rolls into town to play the old brewery in East London – our regular columnist Lisa Redford reports
The first time I heard Ryan Adam’s music was on a compilation CD. The CD included his track Oh My Sweet Carolina, and I was instantly struck by the beauty and longing of this evocative, wistful ballad with its beautiful melody, emotive lyrics, Emmylou Harris’s tender harmony vocal and soft piano by Wilco’s Pat Sansone. Here was clearly an outstanding songwriter. Listening to the raw emotion and honesty of his stunning debut album Heartbreaker while driving through Ryan’s home state of North Carolina cemented my love affair with his music.
Since then I’ve continued to be inspired and moved by his music. His unwavering love for music and passion for writing his innermost feelings instills huge devotion in fans, and upcoming album Prisoner in particular comes from an incredibly real and dark place. In Ryan’s own words: “It broke my soul in a zillion pieces writing this. This record mattered more to me than any record before it, and my life depended on making it. I would have died inside if I hadn’t. I was broken. I don’t know what it is, but I know I had to write it and I know I have to sing these songs so I can live and keep living and breathing. It’s all I know how to do. It’s who I am.”
Recently, I was among a very lucky crowd who got to see Ryan playing a special acoustic set of these very personal new songs at Rough Trade East. Having seen him perform solo before at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2011, I knew we were in for a treat. He thrilled the intimate crowd with songs not only from Prisoner, but also tracks not on the release.
He opened with the anthemic first single Do You Still Love Me?. Even in acoustic form, the song retains the immediacy of the album’s band version. This track, and much of the rest of the album, reveal an 80s rock influence, with echoes of AC/DC plus Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty’s heartland rock, as well as the classic sound explored on his acclaimed 2014 self-titled album. Doomsday followed and this is already a favourite, bringing to mind the timeless folk Americana sound of 2001’s Gold with its melodic, harmonic riff and romantic, heartfelt lyrics.
Throughout the show, Ryan seemed to be having fun and was full of self-deprecating humour. His voice was on fine form: at once pure and tender and then raw and impassioned. Each song drew me in: highlights included Breakdown with its great guitar riff and Outbound Train with its ‘I was so bored I was so sure’ refrain. It’s evident Ryan is comfortable being more vulnerable than ever on the new material.
Even songs omitted from Prisoner, Still A Cage and Was I Wrong (introduced as his “passive-aggressive” song) are strong and carry on this confessional emotional style. A real highlight from Prisoner for me is the tender second single To Be Without You, which already feels to me like one of his timeless heartache classics with its lyrics of lost love. So effortlessly and succinctly he describes the pain and helplessness of losing somebody and the accompanying longing, and this, he told the NME, is a major theme of Prisoner: “I think the theme of this record is that we’re all prisoners of some desires, in that the very things we love are the things that hold us hostage and keep us trapped.”
We were also rewarded with other songs from his extensive catalogue, including fan favourite Rats In The Wall from the EP 1984. Evoking mid-80s hardcore punk with its repeating “Rats in the wall/I can hear ’em crawl” lyric, it reveals his willingness to wear his inspirations and experiment with different styles. He closed with a Whiskeytown classic, 16 Days, and a very moving cover of Springsteen’s Streets Of Philadelphia which sounded uniquely Ryan. Leaving to rapturous applause, he was obviously buoyed by the intimate setting.
Ryan said earlier in the week during his session for BBC 6 Music that he hopes his music provides a map for those who may be lost. On this freezing cold night, he certainly warmed the hearts and souls of all there – he can come and sing about his feelings any time! With a tour and many festival appearances coming up, 2017 is going to be a glorious year for Ryan fans.
Words: Lisa Redford