Live review

Solid Gold Easy Action

Ryan Adams/Jesse Malin

Royal Festival Hall, London

MONDAY NOVEMBER 11 2002

Not since Hüsker Dü opened for Black Flag in the mid-'80s has London witnessed such a stupendous double bill. First up, we get recovering Ramones fan Jesse Malin, a Queens-born brudder who takes to the stage armed with an acoustic guitar and a Clash T-shirt. The rip-roaring band that make his debut solo album, The Fine Art Of Self Destruction, such a sloppy rock masterpiece are back in New York. Without them, the songs sound even more vulnerable. Whether peeling off the pretty melodies of "Wendy", strumming the solemn "Brooklyn" or breaking hearts with "X-Mas", it's obvious why Ryan Adams is lending his name and patronage to this star in the making.

Headliner Adams appears on stage wearing a pin-stripe jacket, his Beetlejuice hairstyle obscuring half his face, puffing on the first of many cigarettes, smoke rising about him like a scale model of Hiroshima. Accompanied by a cellist and pianist/violinist, he proceeds to play a version of "Oh My Sweet Carolina" so hushed, so beautiful, that the loudest thing in the Royal Festival Hall is the static coming from Adams' guitar amp. After the raucous rock'n' roll tour in support of Gold, it's quiet time. The emphasis tonight is on understatement, shading, his lovely voice, the evocative power of a single, simple note. In many ways, it's a glorious exercise in deconstruction. He takes the songs apart to see what holds them together, then rebuilds them before our eyes.

Alternating between piano, acoustic and electric guitar, Adams delivers one gem after another: "My Winding Wheel", "Come Pick Me Up", "La Cienega Just Smiled", "When The Stars Go Blue", "Oh My Sweet Carolina", "Sylvia Plath", "Rescue Blues", "Call Me On Your Way Back Home", "Sweet Lil' Gal". All of these songs are so imagistic, so cinematic, so widescreen on record that in this stark context they take on the feel of six-string Super-8 home movies, Adams working the projector, not a dry eye in the house.

Halfway through the show, rather surreally, during a swamped-up "To Be Young", a spotlight moves way up high behind Adams where a Ma Rainey lookalike appears reading a newspaper, sipping whiskey, chain-smoking. She stays for the rest of the set, giving the stage the look and feel of a Sam Shepard play. Her arrival calms Adams' stage-fright and he settles into Tom Waits/Mark Eitzel mode, cracking hilarious gags about Christina Aguilera's "Dirrty" video, Justin Timberlake, kebab vans and Liam Gallagher.

Seemingly still in one piece after the media blitz surrounding Gold, tonight saw Ryan Adams going back to basics, grounding himself, in the process playing some of the most remarkable, astonishing music I've heard live in a long, long time.


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