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….

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