It becomes apparent that Ryan has no plan for how the show is to unfold. There is no set list of hits to plow through or for that matter any cohesion to the evening’s musical script…”
by john richen
On Valentine’s Day 2001 Ryan 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 loopy 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 hair as the song concludes 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 full 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.”
It’s 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 a causticity towards the music industry’s artist-as-commodity attitude. He lets loose from his bow poison-tipped darts targeting grunge music, indie (“elf”) music, Radiohead and Whitney Houston, all to the delight of the crowd for whom Adams manifests something deeper than commercial validation and chart positions.
It becomes apparent that Ryan has no plan for how the show is to unfold. There is no set list of hits to plow through or for that matter any cohesion to the evening’s musical script. Loudmouths in the crowd howl for Whiskeytown favorites, but as the evening plays out not one tune from his former band is offered, nor is mention made of the band’s unreleased 3rd album. And 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 just toss musical and lyrical treasures into the air. 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 his cloud. 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 hush over the darkened room. St. Valentine’s Day be damned: the depth of the pain rooted in the song’s musical and lyrical structure is so compelling it seems for a moment that the assembled are afraid to breathe in fear of missing the slightest nuance of the 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 fidgety searching for his endlessly lost pack of smokes, the desolate landscapes of his material might overwhelm the crowds enthusiastic response. He blackly philosophizes about Valentine’s day, and love in general, but stops himself looking sheepishly towards the front row. “I should be at home listening to [the Cure’s] Disintegration.”
Through it all the crowd observes this contrast of conversational humor and musical despair– the yin / yang duality of communal warmth and the icy remains of the broken promise. We’re with him to be sure, but we don’t travel without some trepidation.
Still, this meandering patchwork collage of music, theater and muse delights the crowd. It’s an approach that could badly backfire, which makes it that much more impressive that it doesn’t. If at times the show seems unstructured to the point of being sloppy, the audience doesn’t take it personally. The artist challenges us in the same way he challenges the form and notion of how good performance is properly conducted. 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. Scratching. 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 unfinished ideas. Playing snippets, fragments of ideas not fully realized. Isn’t that really showing us a higher degree of 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 to be 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. I loved the liquor-drenched, bad-ass swagger of early Whiskeytown performances. And as much as watching the belligerent band bash their way through a final electric encore of the Stooges “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog” at Berbatis Pan in 1998 was about as close to rock and roll’s volcanic heart as you can get, Adams’ magnetism as a musician lies partially 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 real piece of his heart. Though he’s never been 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 Day concert at the Aladdin is that whatever road Ryan Adams shoulders that worn Guild guitar down, folks are sure to follow close behind. And for that we should all be grateful.