Ryan Adams, Bush Hall, London<img src="http://www.independent.co.uk/template/ver/gfx/threestar.gif"></img >

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The Independent Culture

"Just bear with me," says Ryan Adams as he takes the stage tonight. And you think to yourself: that sounds familiar. It takes patience, being an Adams fan. The former boy wonder of alt-country caused much hoo-ha in the early Noughties, thanks to a great debut solo album of sublime Americana, Heartbreaker, and its vibrant, luminous follow-up, Gold. On top of famous friends and girlfriends, and oodles of press, he played great gigs to boot. But then he went AWOL, releasing a bloody-minded album of Eighties-styled rock, tumbling drunkenly off stages, and cancelling tours.

Happily, he seems to be back on track, albeit a meandering one. He's doing less interviews, the music on the three albums he made in 2005 has reverted to a rootsy sound, and he tours incessantly. The quality control on the 2005 releases is mixed, but he's focusing on the music rather than his wayward image.

He's certainly reconnected to his fanbase, who snapped up tickets for this "secret" gig at a rapid rate. They hang on every word he says - and he does a lot of wry yacking (winningly at first). They turn as one when he ploughs through the crowd to play a song at a piano in the middle of the audience. And, despite fansite-based rumours that he would play Heartbreaker, they stick with him during a solo set of largely piano-based new material.

You can see why, too, as songs such as the Broadway-ish "Don't Get Sentimental" and the pleading "Two" are a fine showcase for his broken-hearted balladeering. "Funny Face" hints at a potential new direction, mining another seam of Americana with Tin-Pan-Alley-ish vim. And when he digs into his back catalogue, much of it is starkly lovely, from Heartbreaker's "Sweet Lil' Gal", to the plaintive "Strawberry Wine" and "Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part" from his best album of 2005, 29.

The lachrymose balladry does pall. "More sad-bastard songs," Adams quips. He's joking, but the self-satire isn't off the mark. When fellow members of his band, the Cardinals, join him, the chitchat gets equally wearing. "When you're ready!", someone shouts, as Adams and the guitarist Neal Casal sap any sense of momentum by debating the set-list among themselves.

The middling moments frustrate because the more focused flashes of Adams's talent do, finally, light up the joint. "A Kiss Before I Go" prompts a rousing singalong. A fluidly finger-picked "Cold Roses", aided by Jolie Holland, formerly of the Be Good Tanyas, on violin, sees Adams at his folk-country finest. But after all the faffing about, there's no time for an encore. Adams has still got it, but, boy, he can be exasperating.

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