Without resorting to glowing terms of hyperbole, Ryan Adams is quite simply one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. While his musical past is filled with enigmatic twists and turns, fans agree that Adams possesses the ability to create some of the greatest music of the last 20 years.
Last October, Adams released his thirteenth solo album, Ashes and Fire, on his own imprint, Pax-AM records. Much like his current tour, the intimacy of the record grabs the listener by the earlobe pulling them in close. While his troubles with drugs and alcohol are widely documented, the North Carolina native seems to have his wild years behind him after his marriage to his wife Mandy Moore and getting clean. Last night, St. Louis witnessed no trace of the antagonistic performer that sometimes showed up over the past 10 to 15 years to spar with the audience. Adams played the part of consummate professional artist sharing quick asides between songs and giving one terrific performance after another. He only showed his inner asshole at one point late in the set when a fan yelled for a song I couldn’t make out, he tersely said, “No” and moved on. That much, we can all agree, is well within his right as the performer on stage.
Welcoming the audience to the Peabody Opera House just after 8 p.m. Muscle Shoals, Ala native Jason Isbell advised the darkened hall in his southern accent, “You all look cold. I'm gonna play some songs to warm you up.” As he started “Go It Alone,” the audience politely refrained from playing weatherman to let Isbell know that it’s normally 30 degrees cooler here in January.
Working tirelessly over the past five-and-a-half years to establish himself as a solo artist, Isbell quickly found support from the audience for his efforts with a short acoustic set of six originals to introduce his songwriting. Playing his third show here in the last nine months, Isbell demonstrated his finely crafted work from his 2011 album Here We Rest and a couple of songs from his work during his tenure with the Drive-By Truckers. For those fans unfamiliar with Isbell, his sound is more country soul and southern rock owing to his roots growing up around the famous Fame Studios. This contrasts the punk rock country that Adams crafted in the ‘90s with Whiskeytown. Filled with southern imagery, Isbell’s songs tend to be more poignant than Adams’ catalog and not nearly as desperate.
One of the best things about a live performance from Isbell is his natural humor. He recounted a story from a stop through town years ago. Isbell told the audience how a Columbian girl had come back to his room in one of the nicer hotels in town and proceeded to throw up all over his room. He said he cleaned some of it up, but because of the incident he accidentally forgot his brand new pair of Nike Air Force One sneakers. After leaving the mess behind for the maid Isbell said, “I felt bad about calling back to claim them.” Later, in a related thought, he gave the crowd tips on how not to gross people out with your stinky feet.
Isbell told another story about how fans relentlessly request his song “Outfit,” a song he wrote for his dad’s birthday, and feel he’s only “fucking around” until he plays the song for them. He advised, “I will play that later in the set, but I’m gonna fuck around a bit first,” and began strumming the opening chords of the hit worthy “Alabama Pines;” a necessary song for any future road trip no matter the destination.
Next, a showcase for his light touch around the guitar fret board and intricate picking, Isbell delivered the delicate “Daisy Mae;” a song about a girl who’s just exited an abusive relationship and taken in by the narrator. Finally, as promised Isbell made his fans happy and ended his 30-minutes on stage with “Outfit” containing his best guitar solo of the evening.
After a 40 minute intermission, Adams entered from stage right about ten minutes after 9 p.m. to start his portion. Taking off his leather jacket and draping it on the back of the chair, he sat down. Armed with a pair of his red, white and blue Buck Owens American guitars at his side, Adams deadpanned, “I'm gonna sit down and see if I can't make you feel even more depressed.” He picked up a guitar and began the show with a beautiful version of “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” So beautiful in fact that even the original backing vocals by Emmylou Harris weren’t missed. The house was so quiet that you could hear his chair audibly squeaking as he shifted his weight.
For this solo performance, Adams used a sparse stage set up for the evening. From left to right: an upright piano, a seated area for guitar with a couple of chairs and a standing area for guitar with a music stand – all surrounded by monitors. Adams would occupy these three areas for the next two plus hours. To keep the moody atmosphere, no spotlight was used on the stage as only the low glow of amber-colored lights above the stage kept the hall from being shrouded in complete darkness. This atmosphere thankfully elicited a pin-drop quiet from the audience for the entire duration.
The 37-year-old Adams, clearly sober, gave the audience a gorgeous self-guided tour through his catalog much to the delight of everyone in attendance. Highlighting his new album, Ashes and Fire -- his first set of new original material under his own name since 2008’s Cardinology -- Adams played six songs from the new record and mixed in 14 other originals and a couple of covers for good measure. It was not until a few listens of the new album that I realized that Adams had essentially pushed the reset button and made another record in the vein of his 2001 classic, Heartbreaker. A decade later, with a mountain of work and the baggage to prove it behind him, Adams is in a much different place -- an established artist as he returns to his solo roots.
Before the show I made a conscious decision to go into the performance cold without reading a bunch of press accounts of the tour, but by all indications Adams had impressed all who came to see the shows and this was not a show to miss. Last night, Adams did not disappoint for one second. In fact, this performance is one of the more magical shows I’ve ever witnessed.
Adams played through the title track to his new album, a slow version of “If I Am a Stranger” from Cold Roses and did a 180-degree turn back to the new record for “Dirty Rain” before speaking to the audience again. Reacting to the crowd’s enthusiastic clapping as he started the next song Adams joked, "Thank you. I don't know what I'm playing yet. Half my songs have the same intro.” He made a list of his formula of his lyrics in that they must be reflective, contain a reference to bad weather, a cliché and a made up dessert before launching into the Heartbreaker classic “My Winding Wheel.”
Adams, playing loose with tempos, slowed down some of his well-known songs and threw in a couple of surprises by shifting songs to piano. As with his best work, his voice was soulful and clear perfectly; a compliment to his guitar work and his bluesy harmonica playing.
Staying with his classic album, Adams, for the first time of the evening, shifted to piano for a version of a deep track, “Sweet Li'l Gal (23rd & 1st). With his back turned to the audience Adams’ sparse piano playing was haunting in the large hall. His focus moved back to guitar for another new song, “Invisible Riverside.” After the song Adams noticed the some of crowd rustling and heading for the doors in the back. His focus broken a bit he mumbled, “Guess people have to go to the bathroom.” He starts playing a light riff on his guitar to which he thinks it kind of sounds like something from the Lord of the Rings and eventually got back on task with “Everybody Knows.”
Next, Adams chose to end this second guitar set with a slightly slower version of “Firecracker” which seemed almost too upbeat for this set, but his best bluesy harmonica work of the evening burned brightly. He stayed with his album Gold and moved back to the piano for “The Rescue Blues” that became even more desperate without the backing instruments.
Returning to the seated position with his guitar he admitted he was making up most of the set list as he was going along. He lamented, “Wish I was ripping more silos tonight” and proceeded to dig back a few years for “Let it Ride” and “Please Do Not Let Me Go.”
The unpredictable factor kicked in next as Adams started collecting all of his stuff and moving it to stage left position. He whispered into the microphone, “I'm just going over there.” Even taking a couple of seconds to wipe off the chairs, Adams relocated and moved to the standing position with the music stand. He admitted, “Nothing's really gonna change. I'll just be standing here. Large parts of my ass won’t fall asleep.”
Using his notes Adams dipped back into the past for the Love is Hell classic “English Girls Approximately” followed by “Chains of Love,” “Two”, “Lucky Now” and his fine version of the Oasis classic “Wonderwall.”
By this point the show was so good it was already starting to remind me of the 1971 Neil Young show from Massey Hall in Toronto released a few years ago in his Archives series. Just then, Adams decided to turn the surprise level up a notch. He moved back to the piano for a third and final time and killed a slow version of “New York New York.” Adams embodied Young and early Tom Waits all in one as he had the crowd in the palm of his hand.
A fourth section on guitar started with “Do I Wait” followed by two classics. First, Adams dug into the Whiskeytown discography for “16 Days” from Strangers Almanac, though this acoustic version more resembled an earlier version of the song that was on the re-released edition of Faithless Street. Adams ended the main set with a downright stunning version of “Come Pick Me Up” that brought the house down and sounded just as good if not better than the first time I heard it over 10 years ago.
For the encore Adams came back and advised he was “gonna play a song and bring Jason out since it’s his birthday tomorrow.” He complimented the Alabama born songwriter with, “I should really hate Jason because his songs are so fucking good. If my songs got into a bar fight with his songs, his songs would kick my songs ass.” The song Adams chose ended up as a cover of the Alice In Chains song, “Nutshell,” though it was not clear to me at the time.
Bringing Isbell on stage Adams led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” and the two settled in the chairs in the middle of the stage to play a duet of a Drive-By Truckers song Isbell penned, “Danko/Manuel.” Even though Adams forgot his capo had to go back and get it as Isbell kept playing the song came off. As Isbell played and sang, Adams played a colorful second guitar to fill in the gaps, and added rich, high harmonies as their two voices blending perfectly together. Imagine being Jason Isbell waiting offstage each night as the 37-year-old Ryan Adams dazzles audience night after night only to be called up to perform and nailing it with Adams helping out on backing vocals – a great birthday memory.
Last night Adams demonstrated the true measure of an artist. He played his hits next to deep cuts from his prolific catalog with dexterity, versatility and deep talent. Adams showed that when in the right state of mind he can be incredible. But, as any artist is wont to do there was one final jab for the evening to the hipsters. As the lights came up at the end of the show, Adams lifted an appropriate proverbial middle finger to show his true roots as the speakers played “Lick It Up” by Kiss.
Jason Isbell set list
Go It Alone
Goddamn Lonely Love
Ryan Adams set list
Oh My Sweet Carolina
Ashes & Fire
If I Am A Stranger
My Winding Wheel
Sweet Li'l Gal (23rd & 1st) [piano]
The Rescue Blues [piano]
Let it Ride
Please Do Not Let Me Go
English Girls Approximately
Chains of Love
Two Lucky Now
Wonderwall (Oasis cover)
New York, New York [piano]
Do I Wait
Come Pick Me Up
Encore Nutshell (Alice In Chains cover)
Happy Birthday (Traditional)
Danko/Manuel (Isbell/Adams duet) (Drive-By Truckers cover)
To give you a taste of what you missed last night here's a couple of clips of Adams performing last October in England. Amazing.
"Ashes & Fire" - Ryan Adams performing on Later with Jools Holland