"Ryan has no plan for how the show is to unfold. There is no set list of greatest hits to plow through or for that matter any cohesion to the evening’s musical script. That would be too easy. The obligatory loudmouths in the audience howl for Whiskeytown favorites, but as the evening plays out not a single tune from his former band is offered, nor is mention made of the band’s unreleased 3rd album. Strangely enough, on this night that’s okay..."

the valentine killer
ryan adams live at the aladdin theater


Valentines Day with Ryan Adams? What the hell am I thinking here anyway? My wife’s at work and I'm solo as I drop into my balcony seat realizing that I’m the unnecessary third crashing a date with a friend and his wife at a concert. What's more, I have a sneaking suspicion it’s going to give me a dandy perch for viewing the personal exorcism of some axe-weilding insurgent country cupid from North Carolina.

Adams emerges from a part in the contours of the blood-red curtains framing the Aladdin Theater’s wooden stage to thunderous applause. With a loose wave to the crowd and a crooked grin the ex-Whiskeytown frontman takes his seat on one of the chairs set haphazardly in a beam of light and grabs an old guitar set on a stand to his left. He strums it a couple, of times and quickly moves into the jumpy hillbilly rave-up "Too Be Young (is to be sad, is to be high)".

"You’ll have to forgive me, I’m a little nervous up here by myself." The singer scratches his scalp at the songs conclusion and searches for a cigarette.

It’s true, he’s up there all alone. Just him, a couple of guitars, some tablets that look like old choir books from church, an upright piano and a pack of smokes. There’s a glass of water on the floor which the singer kicks over a couple of songs in, and seems mildly alarmed, glancing around for "Mr. Man", the multi-purpose roadie, sound man and light guy. "I think I’m about to be electrocuted," Adams says, rising quickly and stepping gingerly over some patch cords underfoot. "My hair’s fucked-up enough as it is."

What’s this? Only the first of a series of self-deprecating remarks -- cornerstones anchoring the evening’s ramshackle feel. Not to worry that Adams arrows are all self-aimed, however. He demonstrates throughout the evening his trademark causticity towards the music industry’s artist-as-commodity attitudes and latent superficiality. He lets loose from his bow poison tipped spears targeting grunge music, indie ("elf") music, Radiohead and Whitney Houston, all to the delight of the crowd for whom Adams manifests something deeper and more profound than commercial acceptance and chart positions.

It becomes quickly apparent that Ryan has no plan for how the show is to unfold. There is no set list of greatest hits to plow through or for that matter any cohesion to the evening’s musical script. That would be too easy. The obligatory loudmouths in the audience howl for Whiskeytown favorites, but as the evening plays out not a single tune from his former band is offered, nor is mention made of the band’s unreleased 3rd album. Strangely enough, on this night that’s okay.

This show isn’t even about Adams recent history. He plays only a handful of songs from his imposing 2000 solo effort Heartbreaker (reviewed in Smokebox Two). Instead the focus is on Ryan's emergence as a guitar-slinging, harp-wailing troubadour with an uncanny ability to toss out musical and lyrical gems. This he does seemingly without effort. Only moments into the set the singer, as he will do countless times over the course of the evening, gets up from his chair, and rests a weather beaten Guild Acoustic on it’s stand. He lights another cigarette after fumbling about for matches, and takes the scenic route over to the upright piano. "Mr. Man, I’m going to the piano now." He points to the upright while searching out the utilitarian who seems to be the hardest working man in show business this evening. We wait until Mr. Man’s spot light hits the piano where Ryan now sits quietly in a cloud of blue-grey smoke. He chats briefly about his next project – a double album he’s considering calling Commercial Suicide. But even before the laughter fades, Adams leans into the melancholy opening notes of "Sweet Li' Gal (23rd/1st)," dropping an arctic winter’s hush over the darkened room like a blanket. Valentines day be damned: the depth of the despondency rooted in the song's musical theme and structure is so compelling it seems for a moment that the assembled are afraid to breathe and miss the slightest nuance of the artist’s shattered poem.

Adams knows full well he’s delivering the soundtrack of a heart being torn apart, and he doesn’t appear entirely comfortable with it. Were it not for the amusing stage banter and endless fidgety searching for a lost pack of smokes, the desolate landscape of his material might overwhelm the crowds enthusiastic response. He blackly philosophizes about Valentine's day, and love in general, but stops himself and looks sheepishly towards the front row. "I should be at home listening to [the Cure’s] Disintegration."

And through it all the crowd observes this clever contrasting of conversational humor and muscial heartbreak-- the yin / yang coupling of communal warmth with the icy remains of broken promises. We’re with him to be sure, but we don’t travel without some trepidation.

Still, it is this patchwork collage of music and muse that lights the crowd. It’s an approach that could easily backfire, which makes it that much more impressive. If at times the show seems unstructured to the point of being sloppy, the crowd doesn’t seem to take it personally. The artist challenges us in the same way he challenges the form and notion of how a show is properly conducted. It is a testament to his talents that he can pull it off so seamlessly. Adams presents himself as a work in progress. His play list is randomly generated as he grabs notebooks off of chairs with chin rested in palm. Scatching. Endlessly scratching. There are periods of silence as he contemplates his next move. To the piano perhaps? He glances at the piano with a furrowed brow and reaches for a cigarette. Back to the notebook… pages shuffled…no wait, how about this one….

"Did you like that?" Adams says to the crowd with a quizzical shrug. "It’s cool to be able to play this stuff for you to see what works."

Here’s the guy who won’t play us the popular songs we holler to hear, but he’s asking us how we feel about works in progress. Playing snippets of unfinished tunes, fragments of ideas not fully realized. Isn’t that really showing us more respect than playing another version of "Inn Town" or ‘Avenues"? There’s something genuine in the air on an evening that a songwriter challenges his fans as part of the creative process that drives him.

In the end what is most fascinating about the whole affair is the fearlessness in which Adams moves forward. As much as I loved the liquor-drenched, bad-boy swagger of early Whiskeytown performances -- and as much as watching the belligerent band bash their way through the Stooges "Now I Wanna Be Your Dog" at Berbatis in 1998 was as close to rock and roll’s volcanic heart as I’ve ever found myself -- his magnetism as a musician lies in the fact that he has made such a profound musical and personal transition. There is palpable strength in tonight’s show of vulnerability, another of the many contrasts that earmark the performance. Ryan’s being honest with us, and tonight this Valentine killer has given us a piece of his heart. Though he’s never appeared shy about announcing his intentions, it's almost as though he’s embarked on a journey with no tangible destination in sight. One thing made clear by the Valentine’s concert at the Aladdin is that whatever road Ryan Adams shoulders that worn Guild guitar down, folks are sure to follow close behind. We should all be grateful he’s got the balls to take us along for the ride.

--john richen

(photos and art by john richen)


John Richen is an on again, off again writer and graphic artist living in Portland, Oregon. He produces Smokebox with his abundant free time. Mail him at mr.grant here at the box.

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