Several concert reviews of a younger, druggier Ryan Adams describe him as being a dick. But I’ll bet he was a funny dick. Amidst his prolific output, varying opinions of his albums, and quasi-hiatus from music, critics forgot to mention how goddamn hilarious he is. Oh yeah, and the man can play too. Both traits were on full display during Sunday night’s sold out solo performance at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace, where Adams definitely wasn’t being a dick, merely a highly imaginative smartass.
After strolling onto the enormous, yet humbly adorned stage (only a chair, end table, two guitars, and piano were present), the gangly singer-songwriter introduced the set as “a prelude to pizza,” going on to praise Chicago’s staple food for its taste and abundance of “information” packed within its flaky crust. Without missing a beat, he launched into ubiquitous tour opener “Oh My Sweet Carolina”. Despite the audience laughter during his pre-show speech, everything went dead quiet with the first creak of his guitar strings and hushed vocal rasp. Very few singers can captivate in a venue as cavernous as Cadillac Palace with merely their voice and one instrument in hand, but Adams is one of them.
What’s more is that the performance was in no way hindered by the absurd between-song banter. No emotion was sacrificed at the expense of humor, and vice-versa. In fact, the seemingly warring aesthetics ended up working in conjunction, showing that the audience was more than willing to go to both places with the performer at the drop of a guitar pick. This was, after all, part of a solo tour in support of a beautiful, yet downbeat album. It could easily have been a somber night of euphony, but Adams’ rapport kept things from ever getting too self-consciously melodramatic, while the singular majesty of the songs kept his clownish side in check. The recital hall piano of Gold deep cut “Sylvia Plath” was as heart-tugging as ever, but that didn’t keep the singer from tacking on a false story about the deceased writer. “I didn’t know her, but we were in the same homeroom,” he smirked. “She was hot.”
While many of the evening’s tunes are practically solo affairs on record (the studio versions of “My Blue Manhattan”, “My Winding Wheel”, and most of the Ashes & Fire material already contain minimal instrumentation), a handful of heavily produced tracks benefitted greatly from a more stripped down arrangement. I’ll always prefer the slow ivory rendition of “New York, New York” to the bongo and organ-drenched one on the album, and Easy Tiger‘s “Everybody Knows” took on new melancholy meaning with just vocals and acoustic plucking. Even the cover of Ratt’s “Round And Round” felt right at home, mainly due to Adams’ unironic vocal approach and unabashed admiration for the song. Journalists have unfairly criticized his genre-hopping in the past, but the tune’s newfound incarnation was a perfect example of the musician’s two worlds colliding; hair metal by way of country. And why can’t a person have a little Stephen Pearcy with their Emmylou Harris?
For the encore, Alice In Chain’s grunge classic “Nutshell” received the same rural bare bones treatment, as did Cold Roses‘ ”If I Am A Stranger”, played here in its simpler, restrained version from the Follow The Lights EP. The only piece that somewhat suffered from the more meditative approach was “Let It Ride”. It wasn’t bad by any means, but the pacing was a tad too sluggish, causing it to lose some of its tumbleweed rollick.
The set also included two improvised songs (a regular practice at Ryan Adams shows) centered around the most amusing event of the night. When Adams called out a young woman in the audience repeatedly checking her cell phone, one assumed his old self from all those past reviews would rear its frothing head and snap its jaws. But instead he complimented her, explaining how the blue light emitting from the screen made her look like “a sorceress”. He went on to detail how she could read all the pizza-centric thoughts in his mind, then created a scenario about her being forced to attend the show with her overly sensitive boyfriend, who digs Ryan Adams songs because they “help me with my feelings.” When the audience member shouted that she didn’t have a boyfriend, Adams wove this into the story as well, transforming it into a tale of half baked existentialism. Later on in a spontaneous farewell song, he brought up the woman again, sincerely apologizing for any embarrassment he may have caused. It was a running gag that grew weirder and weirder as the concert progressed, and as tangential as it was, the constantly evolving details proved Ryan Adams’ talent as a storyteller, regardless of form, subject matter, or completely acceptable love for Ratt.
Oh My Sweet Carolina
Ashes & Fire
If I Am A Stranger
My Winding Wheel
My Blue Manhattan
Let It Ride
Chains Of Love
16 Days (Whiskeytown song)
New York, New York
Crossed Out Name
Please Do Not Let Me Go
Improvised Song (sorceress woman with the phone)
Round And Round (Ratt cover)
Improvised Song #2 (farewell)
Come Pick Me Up
Nutshell (Alice In Chains cover)