|Photo by David Black|
It’s hard for me to write about Ryan Adams without getting slightly sentimental with regard to what his music has meant to my life.
So, I’ll turn to the words of Neil Strauss, who once wrote this about Adams: “No one likes admitting to a guy who knows he’s a rare talent that he’s right.”
There are those, like Bob Dylan and Neil Young before him, who share Adams’ recording philosophy: honor the muse as it reveals itself, and worry about perceived results at a later time. This approach, while frustrating to many fans, may not always offer immediate beauty, but gives our attention-deficit society an ultimate challenge: whether or not the result is popular, we must find value in each moment where inspiration has us in its grasp.
Adams’ songs are snapshots from the years of his sometimes troubled life — his fall from a Liverpool stage that resulted in a severely broken wrist, drug addiction, failed relationships, new love, and a recent battle with hearing loss. Combine that with a strong perception of being a difficult artist, well, Adams has had plenty of battles.
I once met Adams on the streets of Columbia, Missouri. He sat down with me, smoked a cigarette, and talked about Gwyneth Paltrow’s ass (he had just met the actress on the set of Saturday Night Live). He was gracious with his time, funny, honest, and extremely polite. I’ve also asked other musicians about their working relationship with the singer-songwriter-metal enthusiast, and they have had nothing but nice things to say.
So, in my first-hand search to find out more about Adams, the “troubled” artist, I’ve yet to uncover any dirt or reservations, minus a show or two where he hasn’t lived up to his standards (or, my own personal standards that I’ve set for him in my mind). But, again, that’s relatively normal.
And after last night’s brilliant solo performance at the Peabody Opera House, I can only come to one conclusion about Ryan Adams: we all have different expectations of who we want him to be, or who we think he is.
To everyone complaining about the quiet nature of his current tour, in Adams’ defense, this show was not billed as “Ryan Adams and the Cardinals.” In the fans’ defense, the ones who wanted something louder and more upbeat, it certainly was not billed as “Ryan Adams: solo and acoustic with no electric bedazzlement and/or light show.” It was essentially just “Ryan Adams,” which, as I’ve already expalined, could mean anything.
But, there were hints about what was to come.
His latest album, Ashes & Fire, is more downbeat than upbeat. The Peabody’s stage, which was darkly lit, featured a rug, a chair, a lonesome piano, and two acoustic guitars. An announcement prior to Adams’ arrival mentioned the intimate, acoustic setting. And if you had done any homework before the show, there were plenty of blogs/reviews that would have informed you of the show that was to come.
And the biggest hint was Adams’ opening song, Heartbreaker’s “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” Singing the song as quietly as possible, Adams took his time and let the song breathe, at ease with his surroundings (it was so quiet, you could hear his chair squeaking). It was as unguarded as anything I’ve seen Adams do, which, to me was refreshing, as we live in a live-music age where playing louder and hiding behind an amp is considered cool and edgy, and (sometimes) sadly, the standard.
Adams, on this evening, instead chose to take a song like Cold Roses’ “If I Am a Stranger,” and turn it into a dramatic acoustic dose of self-reflection. “I will try to be there for you, if I can,” Adams sang, with a bit of despair. “What if I can’t?“
He sang Ashes & Fire’s best song, “Dirty Rain,” with such soul that you could feel the beauty and liberation of dancing in past places where there was once disappointment. To call his vocal range a gift is obvious, and he did not shy away from flirting with its breaking point, something that would not have been clearly noticed if he had a full band in tow.
Adams also didn’t shy away from picking songs from almost every album he’s recorded, following “Dirty Rain” with Heartbreaker’s “My Winding Wheel” and “Sweet Lil Gal (23rd/1st),” the latter which was performed on piano, and equally chilling as anything Adams did all night. “In the field where my plane went down,” he sang, voice breaking from one range to the next. “Sweet lil gal.”
He continued to slow down his repertoire, patiently focusing on vulnerable lyrics in songs like Gold’s “Firecracker,” Easy Tiger’s “Everybody Knows,” and Cold Roses’ “Let It Ride,” rather than highlight their usual faster pace. Perhaps this was the show’s breaking point for some: if Adams wasn’t going to pick up the pace here, then where?
But some reason, I don’t think Adams viewed this choice as a risk, but rather an opportunity to remain willingly unguarded. He took this approach a step further later in the show, performing his most well-known song, “New York, New York,” on piano — moody, bluesy, and slowly. Probably not what 3,000+ were expecting, but it was laced with beauty nonetheless.
At this point in the show, Adams had retreated from his seated comfort zone and began to perform a handful of songs standing up, namely Love is Hell’s “English Girls Approximately” and Easy Tiger’s “Two.” Another unexpected moment would soon follow: a solo version of Whiskeytown’s “16 Days,” taken from Strangers Almanac, which would be followed by “Come Pick Me Up,” the last song of the main set.
Adams used the encore to cover Alice in Chains’ “Nutshell,” and concluded the evening with Jason Isbell, as the duo absolutely nailed Drive By Truckers’ “Danko/Manuel,” a song written by Isbell, who had just been serenaded by Adams and the audience to an acoustic (then metal) version of “Happy Birthday.”
And finally, one thing was obvious: Ryan Adams does not take his songs on the road. He flies them through the air, scattering them across the sky, playing whatever that lands at his feet, waiting to be picked up, taken out, and stolen.
Only later to be found again, and to be played at whatever pace he desires… Some days ashes, some days fire.
Oh My Sweet Carolina (Heartbreaker)
Ashes and Fire (Ashes & Fire)
If I Am A Stranger (Cold Roses)
Dirty Rain (Ashes & Fire)
My Winding Wheel (Heartbreaker)
Sweet Lil Gal (23rd/1st) (Heartbreaker)
Invisible Riverside (Ashes & Fire)
Everybody Knows (Easy Tiger)
The Rescue Blues (Gold)
Let It Ride (Cold Roses)
Please Do Not Let Me Go (Love is Hell)
English Girls Approximately (Love is Hell)
Chains of Love (Ashes & Fire)
Two (Easy Tiger)
Lucky Now (Ashes & Fire)
Wonderwall (Oasis cover, Love is Hell)
New York, New York (Gold)
Do I Wait (Ashes & Fire)
16 Days (Whiskeyown, Strangers Almanac)
Come Pick Me Up (Heartbreaker)
Nutshell (Alice In Chains cover)
Danko/Manuel (Drive by Truckers cover, duo with opener Jason Isbell)