Ryan Adams Live
By Anthony Kuzminski
Cadillac Palace, Chicago, IL – December 11th, 2011
“He may not be the Ryan Adams I imagined back in 2001, but he’s without question the Ryan Adams that he was always meant to be.”
“This concert is a prelude to pizza”, Ryan Adams told in a wry deadpan manner to the sold-out Chicago crowd on a wintry December evening. Right from the introduction, Adams appeared to be in high spirits which he channeled rapaciously through his voice and guitar.
The shows for Adams current solo tour are more than splendid performances but arguably the most invigorating and spot on performances of his career.
In the not too distant past, there were numerous people who looked to Ryan Adams to be more than just “Ryan Adams”. They had titanic hopes for him, wanting him to ascend to the rock throne previously inhabited by the likes of Townshend, Springsteen and Dylan but Adams confounded them by releasing record after record with little or no thought to old school marketing strategies and concert performances. This infuriated many, but maybe it was because we were trying to shackle him into what we wanted instead of letting him become who he is?
Inside the Cadillac Palace Theater in Chicago, it wasn’t an arena rock spectacle but simply a man, a pair of guitars, a piano, a notebook and a soul wanting to break through and articulate itself.
It may not have been what those record executives wanted but what I saw was an artist who has never been more relaxed in his own shoes than at this very moment.
I’ve said it before and will say it again; it’s wrong to want so much from music. Those of us who are scholars of the art want it to transcend boundaries, penetrate young minds with radical ideas and ultimately revolutionize the world. We want grand Beatles-esque achievements, but are we right?
The Ryan Adams I saw on the Chicago stage was full of wit, charm and in possession of some of the most gorgeous songs composed over the last dozen years. There’s a refined splendor to Adam’s lyrics few can touch; Bob Dylan, Patti Griffin and maybe a handful of others. He paints the most magnificent pictures and is able to draw us into his world as he did during what I feel what may be his best tour to date.
Opening with the Heartbreaker cut “Oh My Sweet Carolina” Adams dug deep into a solemn prayer like trance where nary a pin drop could be heard. For the next 135-minutes, he kept the concentration up despite the fact that there was no backing band. On a dimly lit stage with an acoustic and harmonica around his neck, he sung lyrics so visceral and dreamy they literally cut one from their life and place them in a Terrence Malick film.
“Ashes & Fire”, “If I Am A Stranger” and “Carolina Rain” proved that sometimes it’s the soft spoken songs that can open eyes because the picturesque the lyrics cut right through you. “Dirty Rain” is lyrically evocative, emotionally wrenching and finding exhilarated mental state in life’s simplicities. Whether it is nature or the simple spinning of a record, Adams beautifully weaves these tales that take you and transport you in a time machine to precise situations from our past. He reminds us of the good and bad and as a result, we feel tapped into the heartbeat of life.
This was the first time where Adams dug deep into the entire breadth of his career, going as far back to Whiskeytown all the way through Ashes and Fire.
In the past, he has tended to draw his set from a two year window of his latest material. There’s nothing wrong with this as it illuminated much of his 2005 output when I saw him in 2007, making me take in the loveliness of these records I had not previously recognized. However, as much as artists strive forward hoping to leave their past in the dust, it’s always there in the rearview mirror haunting and taunting them. The same could be said of our past where we’re never truly free or at peace until we embrace it.
The most spectacular facet of Ryan Adams at this moment in time is that he doesn’t appear to be running from his past but rather acknowledging it as a foundation from which he’s still building on to this very day. He didn’t glide through the old numbers either, but they were enlivening performances brimming with the same emotional euphoria and turmoil Adams is best known for.
The towering Gold album opener, “New York, New York” has transformed into a somber piano ballad as did “My Blue Manhattan” where Adams voice soared. The forward momentum of his strumming and the terse strumming made “Chains of Love” a standout for more than the Danzig mentions that preceded the performance which houses indelible Ryan Adams lyrics and a wholly contagious melody. It’s possibly the best cut on Ashes & Fire. “Crossed Out Name” featured a punctured and staggering strumming. On “Firecracker” the harmonica danced along with the audience’s shuffling feet while in stark contrast “SYLVIA PLATH” was toe-curling startling on a spare piano. “Let It Ride” he confessed the opening acoustic riff was a take on the Britney Fox cut “Long Way To Love” and he even went back o his Whiskeytown days for “16 Days”. As he insatiably sung “My Winding Wheel” you couldn’t help but feel that Adams set list is a syllabus in the University of Life, ready-made for survival where through our pain we find strength.
Anyone who has followed Adams on Twitter and Facebook in recent years has seen his comments and posts about hard rock and metal from the 1980’s. He even recorded a vinyl only album inspired by Voivod’s “Angel Rat” in 2010.
The Chicago concert featured Adams wearing a Motorhead t-shirt, an Iron Maiden jacket and included shout outs to former Badlands and Ozzy Osborne guitarist Jake E. Lee, Britney Fox (and their song “Long Way To Love”) and even included a brief snippet sample of the Bullet Boys “Smooth Up”. The music ironically is embedded is much of the audience’s DNA whether they want it or not.
For years I’ve often felt ostracized by friends as my taste in music runs far and wide. My alternative fans raised their pierced eyebrows at my love for hard rock from the 1980’s and those muscular metal riffers often stuck their now pierced noses up at me.
Seeing Adams perform Ratt’s “Round and Round” alongside the dramatic encore of “Nutshell” by Alice in Chains validates my love and admiration not just for hard rock and grunge, but for all types of music. His inner child who dreamed of being a rock star came out.
Say what you want about Ratt, but more kids probably played air guitar to Ratt in their bedroom mirrors than anyone will admit. Ratt has never been a band with any critical acclaim and now that Ryan Adams has brilliantly re-imagined their biggest hit people are beginning to see the need for their music and the purpose it served. The performance wasn’t turgid but hypnotically earnest. He sung from his gut as if he had written the words himself.
The main set closer “Come Pick Me Up” was a fall-to-your-knees performance with Adams perfectly emulating the anguish and desperation in the song. If there is any one thing I am sure of in this universe, we are not destined to walk through it alone. That doesn’t mean you have to be married or in a relationship for it to have meaning, it simply means sharing your life with someone and having them open up the world for you. The road to too treacherous, the terrain is too winding and the ache too colossal to mount alone.
Often we find someone or something that allows us to let go of our desperation, dislocation, desolation and isolation as we’re reminded that life’s travails contain extreme pain but also joy…and the elation outweighs it all. The greatest gift any artist can give any listener is to nudge them towards the dark side within. Not to embrace it but to tame it, understand it and above all else learn from it. They’re cinematic in scope where we don’t see a tiny portion of our life, but where it comes through in widescreen ambitious awesomeness.
Ryan Adams took the Chicago crowd to an intersection where his wondrous catalog converged. The performance flourished under the dimply lit stage as Adams joked, laughed and yearned with the audience in tandem. His banter with a female audience member in the balcony verged on hysterics as he made up a back story for her life and he even made up a song for her on the spot. This wasn’t a purging of demons so much as it was a group of friends reconnecting after not seeing each other for years. This was more than an artist at ease, but a man at peace.
Adams sung with all his heart and performed with all his gusto and above all else, both he and the audience relished each other’s company. The agony, dejection, euphoria and anxiety that embody his songs were on full display. This was a rare breaking bread moment where the artist pulls back the curtain and lets us in. Not only was the audience thankful, but we were grateful to be allowed so close to someone who spent the last decade guarding himself. He may not be the Ryan Adams I imagined back in 2001, but he’s without question the Ryan Adams that he was always meant to be.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door.
Ryan Adams – Come Pick Me Up
Ryan Adams singing Come Pick Me Up with Neil Finn and Janis Ian on BBC 4’s Songwriters’ Circle on October 21st 2011.
Pure poetry. The harmonica part in the beginning is awesome. I like how it slows down after that, just an over all great song. ~AA