Pop review: Ryan Adams

Shepherds Bush Empire, London

Classic rock will never die - at least, not as long as Ryan Adams is around to preserve the check-shirted spirit of proper guitar music. Much of his set evokes Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young with its no-frills, good-time anthems. But it works best when the frontman has the confidence to cast off other musicians, and reaches out to the crowd on his own.

Unlike his namesake Bryan, Adams has always had ambitions beyond meat-and-potatoes rock anthems. Sharing more than a birthday with Gram Parsons, he has pursued a quirky brand of alt-country since his days in the critically lauded Whiskeytown. It's with varying degrees of success, however, that he manages to realise his vision tonight. The blame lies largely with Adams's backing band, the Sweetheart Revolution. At times their presence enhances the music, at others they simply get in the way. For instance, the mournful Nashville sway of When the Stars Go Blue is certainly augmented by Bucky Baxter's delicate steel guitar. But more upbeat numbers are doomed to witness a squalling, overbearing saxophone, which makes every song sound like the soundtrack to some 221980s high-school comedy.

Adams himself makes a decent enough attempt at rocking out, but the audience seems impatient for the sad stuff. The biggest cheer of the night comes when he shuffles onstage after a brief interval, alone. It soon becomes clear why. Adams's best songs are direct, honest and intimate; and, despite filling the Empire to the third balcony, he remains a club performer. He keeps up a steady stream of banter to deflate any superstar pretentions, telling the crowd: "I don't care if you hit me so long as you don't touch my hair." As soon as he begins strumming his acoustic guitar, people begin shushing each other. No one wants to miss any of this. In such an atmosphere, the piano-led The Bar is a Beautiful Place sounds extraordinary. Understated and unassuming, yet universal and affecting, it does everything a drinking song is meant to do.

It's true that Adams isn't a leader in his field. Wilco are much tighter, punchier bar-room rockers, while Will Oldham and Smog's Bill Callahan get more out of acoustic alt-country with their dark, dry wit. But Adams excels at putting across powerful sentiments in a no-fuss, straightforward manner. Let's hope next time he doesn't have to rely on the band.

· Ryan Adams is at the Academy, Manchester (0161-832 1111), on Sunday, then tours.

Jon Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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