The music of Ryan Adams has consistently served as a self-help guide to getting over a broken heart. But at this point in a prolific 20+ year career that has redefined alt-country, Adams seems more interested in turning up the volume and rocking out with friends than in openly mining the depths of his fractured emotions.
Throughout a two-hour show at the Palace Theatre on Friday night (the first of two sold-out shows there), Adams and his four-piece backing group (billed as the Unknown Band) avoided most of the hushed, vulnerable moments in his catalog and instead raised a glorious racket that affectionately echoed The Band, the Grateful Dead, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. The underlying pain and anguish was still there, just buried under a raucous din that heals in its own fiery way.
Anyone who has seen Adams live knows he can go off on weird, colorful tangents between songs, professing everything from his undying love of Glenn Danzig to his favorite flavor of Combos. Those comic discursions help make each show unique and bring levity to Adams’s melancholy material. But on Friday, Adams mostly did away with them during a focused set was more forceful than tender.
“Let’s have some fun,” Adams announced cheerfully as he took to the stage, following a pre-show mix of classic metal and an ominous introduction by the Grim Reaper. Adams and his tight band wasted little time between jams, tearing into rousing recent tunes (“Gimme Something Good,” “Do You Still Love Me?” and “Outbound Train”) and a rollicking reworking of the Heartbreaker gem “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” that sounded like Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue.
The stage (which had been cleared of any bad spirits by burning sage before the set) featured a towering pyramid of TVs that alternated between glowing static, serene nature images, and bombed-out destruction, as well as stacks of monstrous Fender amps (some just for show) looming behind the band. A tranquil backdrop of twinkling lights completed the jam space, along with a disco ball that appropriately turned the entire room a sparkling, moody blue during a heavenly take on “When the Stars Go Blue.” Gasps went up from the packed house when the disco ball kicked in.
Other than an exclamatory “Hell yeah! Thank you!” following a scorching “Stay With Me,” Adams was oddly silent between songs for much of the show. Instead, he condensed his banter into one improvisational song that allowed the band to fix a minor technical issue and Adams to catch his breath. During the hilarious improv, Adams riffed on getting chased by a dog while he went for a jog downtown, how all the stoplights were against him and he hit every red light, how romantically stable he is, and how he’s a walking Paxil commercial.
Following a spirited run-through of the unplanned anthem of post-9/11 unity, “New York, New York,” came a generous dose of Cold Roses material. (Almost as if he read that we just chose it as our favorite album in his vast catalog.) A 20-minute take on “Magnolia Mountain,” with a temporary detour into “Cold Roses,” served as Adams's ode to the Dead for the night, though it lost the attention of more casual fans as well as the Whiskeytown diehards who wanted something more countrified. “Let It Ride” continued the free and loose electric vibes, complete with the Grim Reaper chiming in on tambourine. The line “Tennessee’s a brother to my sister Carolina where they’re going to bury me” resonated that much more with the specter of death roaming about the stage.
But the set wasn’t all just rock ‘n’ roll bombast, as Adams took to a lit up microphone stand for a lovely solo acoustic version of “My Winding Wheel,” while also beginning “Prisoner” alone, trading in his acoustic for an electric as the song blossomed elegantly into a full band rendition. Another Heartbreaker classic ended the main set with a flourish: a high-octane version of “Shakedown on 9th Street” that grew louder and more unhinged as it wore on.
Ryan very rarely does encores, so many fans headed for the exits as the main set ended. But those who left early missed a very rare three-song finish to the show. Adams eased his way alone into the start of a gorgeous, haunting take on “I See Monsters,” with the band gradually joining in for the song’s graceful finish. And two tunes from 2011’s underrated Ashes & Fire, “Invisible Riverside” and “Do I Wait,” brought the encore to a stirring finish.
Ryan Adams may not bare his soul as openly as he once did on stage, choosing instead to express his anguish behind a wall of guitars. But sensitivity still pulses at the heart of his songs, like a battered lighthouse that will see you through a storm. There are plenty of squalls on the horizon at the moment, and for a couple of hours, Ryan Adams was able to sing away the concerns of the world for his fans and take us all somewhere special.
A note about the venue: This was my first time sitting in the balcony at the Palace, and both the sound and sightlines were fantastic from my dead center seats. The theater still maintains its intimacy even from the second level, and with a sellout show, it was a relief to have an assigned seat rather than fighting for space on the packed main floor. It also provided an ideal vantage point for the moment when the disco ball bathed the room luxuriantly in blue.
A note about Ryan Adams: I hope this weekend's two excellent shows finally put an end to the “Are we going to get the Good Ryan or the Bad Ryan?” debates that have unfairly plagued Adams for much of his career. Adams's past decade of Twin Cities performances (at least since his abbreviated 2007 State Theatre “beer hall” debacle) have all been excellent. May his notoriously shambolic early gigs gather dust as infamous tales of yore while we focus instead on the brilliant sets of recent years.
Gimme Something Good
Do You Still Love Me?
To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)
Stay With Me
Anything I Say To You Now
When The Stars Go Blue
New York, New York
Magnolia Mountain/ Cold Roses/ Magnolia Mountain
Let It Ride
My Winding Wheel
I Just Might
Am I Safe
To Be Without You
Shakedown On 9th Street
I See Monsters
Do I Wait