Better than: Getting drunk and sitting on the porch with an acoustic guitar. Ryan Adams and the Cardinals played a low-key set at the Cedar Cultural Center Monday night. At least, I think that was Ryan Adams. Unfortunately for those hoping to see the alt.country star live and in person, Adams requested that the Cedar's lights be kept painfully low, making it difficult to see his face or even where he was on the stage. Adams joked about the lighting throughout the set, peering out from behind his sunglasses and pretending to shoot at the barely-glowing spotlights above the stage. Accompanied by his backing band, the Cardinals, the group eased into songs at a slow pace, creating a lush, organic country vibe that was punctuated perfectly with a heartbreaking pedal steel twang. Adams sat in line with the rest of the musicians and fidgeted while he sang, unsure of what to do with his hands in absence of his guitar. "I sometimes wish I was in Iron Maiden," Adams joked between songs. "Who could get nervous playing 'Aces High'?" The musicians worked their way through a nice selection of Adams' range of solo material, including a somber "Winding Wheel" and a particularly transcendent version of "How Do You Keep Love Alive?" At times, the band would slow down to a halt and let Adams wail away on a high note, and it was his most vulnerable, quavering moments that made this close-quarters performance memorable. It seemed at times that Adams was nervous playing the intimate venue without the aide of alcohol, the universal loosening agent. (Following a reported "extended period of substance abuse" that ended late last year, Adams has come clean, and this was his first major tour sober.) In the end, though, Adams's calmness and outright bashfulness toward the audience was quite endearing, not to mention surprising for those in the audience accustomed to his more raucous stage presence.
Personal Bias: Ryan Adams' Gold was on a constant loop in my dormroom freshman year of college, serenading my overly-dramatic, homesick breakdowns.
Random Detail: Local songstress JoAnna James told me her friend described the concert perfectly: "like one big, soothing massage."
By the way: The show was part of a small-venue tour in support of his latest album, Easy Tiger, which is due out June 26.