Ryan Adams, Union Chapel, London


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The Independent Culture

Alongside two guitars and a piano, there is also a thick, heavy black folder on stage with Ryan Adams tonight. Flipping through its well-organised pages, it's possible to see the deliberations and doubts on the singer's face as he decides what to play next.

Prolific without being profligate, Adams is renowned for his work rate: he's released a dozen full albums in the past decade. As he opens tonight's show with the tender strains of haunting home-state hymn "Oh My Sweet Carolina", a song from his debut album, it's clear his earliest tracks have lost none of their intimacy or splendour over time. As the set continues, it's equally obvious that since then, he's amassed an enviably deep catalogue of marvellous songs.

The crowd gathered under Union Chapel's cavernous, sculpted roof are almost to a man Adams devotees, and lap up the peculiar magnetism of the slender North Carolina songsmith. The entire set is performed alone, reflecting a renewed penchant for solo touring, and every softly plucked guitar string echoes through the venue: when Adams begins to sing, the audience falls utterly silent. His lyrics, able to convey a lot in very few words, linger in the mind long after they've been sung, from the reflective lament of "Why Do They Leave?" to the sumptuous storytelling of the old Whiskeytown standout "Houses on the Hill".

Between songs, there's an incessant deluge of shouted requests, which Adams bats off with a combination of humour and grace. "He's not a jukebox!" retorts an aggravated audience member, to an onslaught of cheers: this respect for the material, and the man behind it, is a motif of tonight's magnetic performance.

Adams's tobacco-stained Southern vocals shine as brightly on new tracks "Ashes & Fire" and "Rocks" as they do on older numbers such as "If I Am a Stranger" or the tear-inducing "Please Do Not Let Me Go", while his patter contains a wry wit which belies his lyrics' often maudlin subjects.

In the songs themselves, there's an emotional power which seems to pour from every pore of the singer's lanky frame, reaching its zenith in closer "Come Pick Me Up", surely one of the most heart-rending break-up songs of recent years.

For Adams fans, this show is manna: for others, it's a gateway to the contents of that vast song folder. Given his compulsive productivity, its contents are likely only to swell, which – based on tonight's bewitching performance – is welcome news indeed.