It’s the eve of my 33rd birthday at DC’s 9:30 Club in 2003 and Ryan Adams is standing 20 feet above me on a stack of Marshall amps. I am seriously wondering whether he, and it, will come crashing down upon us at any moment. The show, in support of his then-recent release Rock n Roll, was much like Ryan at that time: loud, edgy and out of control. It is also still one of the best live performances I have ever seen. Fortunately, Ryan climbs to the balcony over stage left without incident. Unfortunately, he then finds himself locked out and unable to get back to the stage. His roadie performs the closing guitar solo for the song, while Ryan watches from above. Classic. Seven weeks later, he fell from the stack during a show in Liverpool, England and broke his arm.
I had the chance to see Ryan on two other occasions prior to last night’s Performance at the usually classical-oriented Strathmore Music Center, both in 2007 and both with the Cardinals. Their show in Burlington, Vermont was a dramatic departure from 2003—clean, clear and beautifully arranged. Sublime. I have the soundboards for this performance and they are unbelievable every time I listen to them. I also caught him at D.A.R. Constitution Hall in 2007, where the acoustics were awful, a very far cry from the incredible acoustics of Strathmore last night…
Jason Isbell opened on Tuesday night—a role he has performed before and will be doing again as they embark upon a tour to Australia and New Zealand this March. His presence on the bill made the show an extra special double header. Jason’s positive impact on Ryan is palpable. Solo, with the 400 Unit and with the Drive-By Truckers, I have probably seen Jason more than 30 times and he has never sounded better.
Somebody take me home through those Alabama pines….
Jason’s songs evoke a lot of powerful images– one that keeps coming back to me is the concept of “home,” a place off the beaten path, leaving it, yet not ever being able to fully leave it, returning to it, and its place in your dreams and nightmares. Three of Jason’s seven songs—“Outfit,” “Tour of Duty” and the closer “We’ve Met” (set list below) last night certainly evoked this theme.
Home—and all that comes with it—is also a thread that runs prominently throughout the tapestry of Ryan’s prolific discography. Both have had to deal with all the blessings, breakthroughs and bruises that come along with realizing what many have (correctly) identified as real musical genius in them before either reached 20 years old. Both have been in bands, been on their own and made it through the other side (not unscathed) in dealing with everything each reality has to offer. It just makes sense that they track so seamlessly both personally and artistically.
“Sit around, dream away the place I’m from…”
It’s no secret that Ryan Adams has not always been comfortable interacting with his audience while onstage (to put it lightly). In years past, he has been known to react badly to comments from the crowd—even walking off stage at times. While it’s clear that his razor sharp wit and wildly creative, stream-of-consciousness sense of humor and storytelling are very much intact, it was also clear last night that many of the hard edges are gone. The rejoinders that he had with the audience (and himself) produced many moments of laugh-out-loud humor. Beyond the great performance of TWENTY-SIX songs, I couldn’t help be blown away by how revealing the evening was—offering great insight into where Mr. Adams has been, and where he is now through, a variety of verbal jabs, jokes, pantomimes and soliloquies…
Ryan moved among three separate settings on the stage—seated with guitar, at the piano and standing. He moved from set-up to set-up, shuffling papers like a mad scientist or perhaps even the Mozart of the film Amadeus. The songs he played at the piano – “My Blue Manhattan” and “Rescue Blues” could easily win top honors as the best musical gems of the night.
David Ryan Adams 4.0 is one funny, sarcastic motherfucker. Adams parodied himself throughout the night, and sardonically offered guidance for anyone interested in jumping in a mosh pit given the “up-tempo” pace of the show – which was of course filled with ballads and numbers befitting an acoustic show. The three-in-one stage suited him, even playing the “slow” songs, you get the feeling he is a man bursting with creative energy that needs to remain in constant motion, lest he implode. He also confessed that not doing the entire show seated had practical implications—sitting the entire time caused “his entire ass” to fall asleep a while back.
Searching through seemingly endless reams of songs within his book, Ryan shouts: “At one point, I had so much to say! Why didn’t anyone shut me up?” Later in the evening, after a fan had shouted a request from Rock n Roll, he retorted that he felt this album was basically a large piece of excrement made for expediency’s sake. He explained that this album, intended to be “commercially viable” was recorded as part of a deal he had to cut with the record label to get Love is Hell released. Wow. Writing and recording an album as solid as Rock n Roll while under duress and consciously feeding the industry beast? No wonder he climbed the stack and nearly jumped off in 2003….
One of the big highlights musically was of course the three Whiskeytown songs—“Houses on the Hill,” “16 Days” and “Jacksonville Skyline” (encore). Like many, I never saw this band live and like many, over the years have sacrificed goats and banged gongs in the hopes, that maybe, one day he will get this group back together and tour. It wasn’t surprising at all that Ryan chose such a poignant song about his hometown of Jacksonville, NC, for an encore. This song clearly shows how the muddy bed of the New River that flows through it, also flows through his veins, no matter how far he runs.
The encore, with both men on stage sharing a microphone, really tied the night together nicely. “Danko/Manuel” was a perfect arrangement for Ryan to compliment Jason with both chorus vocals and guitar solos…those two voices wrapped together were exquisite. The last time the hair stood up on my neck like that was when I saw Bob Dylan and Van Morrison perform “One Irish Rover” together at the Fleadh Festival in London in 1993. It was truly enjoyable watching Ryan and Jason on stage together, bantering back and forth like an Alt- Country troubadour version of Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. Clearly comfortable in their own skin and with each other:
Ryan [to Jason]: “If our songs were people, and they were hanging out in bar, your songs would kick my songs’ ass…”
Jason: “I disagree. My songs would be home getting drunk and passed out on the couch or the front lawn and would never make it to the bar in the first place…”
Ryan: “If my songs were a person they would be part poodle, part Cobra, a ‘Cobra-Doodle’.
Jason: “A real bitch to trim, eh?”
The final number, a very tongue-in-cheek version of Alabama’s “Love in the First Degree” was completely apropos given the levity vibe that was pervasive throughout the evening. Despite both of them hamming it up, it actually featured some pretty nice harmonies and guitar playing…the number went off just like two kids right before their 10:30 PM hard curfew was enforced….
We got a full dose of Cobra Doodle last night in North Bethesda. Venomous and inviting…fluffy and fanged…. A long way from its natural habitat…Exotic yet incredibly down-home… It is a rare and precious thing to see such a creature at work and at play.
There is only one, or maybe two, in the world.
Tour of Duty
Goddamn Lonely love
Ashes & Fire
If I Am a Stranger
My Winding Wheel
My Blue Manhattan (piano)
Rescue Blues (piano)
The Hardest Part (first few chords, then abandoned)
Wonderwall (Oasis cover)
Chains of Love
Houses on the Hill (Whiskeytown)
Crossed Out Name
New York, New York
Please Do Not Let Me Go
16 days (Whiskeytown)
Damn Sam. (I Love a Woman that Rains)
Plan Song (Reprise)
Come Pick Me Up
Encore (with Jason Isbell):
Danko/Manuel (Cobra Doodle)
Jacksonville Skyline (Whiskeytown)
Love in the First Degree (Alabama Cover)