It can't be easy, pouring your heart out every night and trying to maintain that ever-elusive sense of cool. Now that he's a few years sober, Ryan Adams' main goal as a performer seems to be walking that line, delivering delicate, poetic songs while tossing in enough wisecracks to make it seem like it all might be a big joke.
"I don't mean any of this shit. I put tacks in my shoes before the tour to feign earnestness," he insisted at one point, immediately before singing the devastating "Do I Wait."
The entire two-and-a-half-hour show alternated between the sad and the silly, starting with a pre-recorded message that sounded like Adams himself speaking in a fake British accent and insisting we turn off all our phones or else "one of the ushers will destroy you in a sacrificial ritual." There were no cameras at this show and no drinks, either (not even water), and the sound was turned just low enough that his music could be drowned out by a nearby person whispering. It was all designed to encourage pensiveness and stillness, and it was probably the longest many of us had given our undivided attention to something in quite some time.
Adams was joined on stage by only an upright piano and a pair of stubborn acoustic guitars that refused to stay in tune, which became one of many running jokes throughout the night as he struggled with the strings prior to nearly every song. "Literally, it's like Thurston Moore came over and borrowed by guitar," he scoffed at one point. "What should I play, 'Teenage Riot'?"
The set list pulled from many corners of his career, starting with Heartbreaker's "Oh My Sweet Carolina" and leading directly into the title track of his newest album Ashes & Fire. He spent most of the slower songs seated in a chair, and then would walk over to a standing microphone for the "faster" songs, which in this case meant the ones with continual strumming instead of sparser finger-picking.
But the real treat was seeing Adams play the piano, which he did on "My Blue Manhattan" and later for Gold's "Sylvia Plath" and "New York, New York." Adams plays piano like a rhythm guitarist, all plunking quarter notes and minor seventh chords, and it added a sense of stirring sadness to "Plath" in particular, which I had never seen him perform live.
As the set neared its end, Adams' self-consciousness about his material and mood became more and more pronounced, and right before the predictable, swaying closer "Come Pick Me Up," he spent nearly 10 minutes riffing through a fake song about Sarah Connor from the Terminator and how he always imagined that the bands here went ice fishing together and "wore those hats that you have to crochet to wear. What are those called?" To which an audience member simply replied, "Hats," cracking Adams up.
"Come Pick Me Up" was a beautiful, almost overwhelmingly blue song for the end of a night spent soaking in sadness, but Adams came back for an encore that brought the energy up to its highest point. He opened with Ratt's "Round and Round," a tongue-in-cheek cover he's been pulling out all tour, and then said he was going to end with a song "by a dude from here." Everyone cringed when an audience member yelled out "Skyway" (no one wanted another Westerberg meltdown like the one Adams experienced at First Ave back in 2003), but instead of a Replacements tune he pulled out Bob Mould's "Black Sheets of Rain" and played it fiercely and convincingly. By the end, you could tell he was releasing some pent-up aggression through the song, and it might have been the most sincere thing he played all night.
Personal bias: Listening to Ryan Adams turns me into a pile of mush.
The crowd: Lots of thirtysomethings, mostly very quiet and polite.
Overheard in the crowd: Random dude: "Freebird!" Ryan Adams: "There's already reverb on my guitar, I can't add any more."
Random notebook dump: Adams kept coming back to a story about an arcade he had visited in town years ago that had since closed. I couldn't figure out what the hell he was talking about. Maybe Gameworks?