I think that I have tried, or at least thought about trying, to attend a Ryan Adams concert at least three times without ever getting so far as actually buying a ticket. This time was different. I had a new job and was feeling less financially strapped than usual, and for the first time ever, my girlfriend likes Ryan Adams (instead of the cringing reaction that past girlfriends have been prone to). We bought tickets for the show in Salem at a theater we had never heard of, as Ryan was not playing in Portland. So, Friday after work, we trucked the hour south, got lost, and eventually wound up at the Elsinore Theater at 8:00, a half-hour before the scheduled start time.
Then something weird happened. At exactly 8:30 (I checked), Ryan Adams and the Cardinals walked on stage and started into Cold Roses. Half the audience was still drinking beer in the lobby. I guess there was a reason no opening band was listed anywhere.
I have a number of things to say about the show and not all of them are stellar, but let me start by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed myself at this concert. The music was good, the songs were well chosen and just different enough from the studio versions to be interesting (with an occasional leap into the Experimental–more on this later), and there was an intimate feeling between the band and the audience. Of course, I’m using the term ‘intimate’ in a somewhat unusual fashion, as I don’t think it typically includes the practice of mutual bitchy heckling, but I’ll get to that later. Firstly, let me drop the major bomb of my findings:
Ryan Adams is gay. He is, in fact, so flamingly, bitchily, cattily, hands-wavingly gay that I don’t know why I’ve never heard anyone point this out before. Maybe because he keeps talking about girls. And even asking to be taken home by some nice girl for tea and a night of playing Nintendo, because “I just need a night for me.” Everything about his physicality screams gay, from how much he plays with his hair (incessantly, which is messy and looks like the cover to “Gold”), to his knock-kneed, pigeon-toed posture that only accentuates his surprisingly womanly hips (my dyke girlfriend noticed this right away), to the way that he grips the mic stand with one hand while slightly stooped and hold his other hand out in front of his face and gently waving it around like Billy Holiday or Janis Joplin.
He is also simultaneously the bitchiest person I have ever seen on stage, and the most self-pitying person I have ever seen on stage, both of which he manages to play off humorously, to his credit. I should note that the audience was unusually vocal with the cat-calling, and that Ryan and the rest of the band were equally free in calling back. At one point, in response to a yelled song request, Ryan says (approximately) “We’ve got the song list pretty well covered, thanks. In fact, every time you holler out a song, if that song is already on the list, I’m going to take it off, just so that people in other cities don’t, you know. Every time you call out a song, think of that as a quarter that you are throwing down a well, a wishing well. Except that at the bottom of the well is shit. (Pause) Sorry, I’ve been listening to a lot of black metal recently, so I’m just, you know, tellin’ it like it is.” He did this kind of thing all night. He mentioned that he feels lonely, and that he continuously feels that his life is not adding up to anything. That at 33, he feels that he should feel more accomplished, but instead feels like a failure. He mentioned getting sober, and when the audience started clapping, he said “Oh c’mon. It’s not like it was working for me the other way. I mean, it isn’t like there’s really an option.” Ryan Adams talks to the audience as if he was doing a show in his own basement, and just happened to let 400 people stumble in to watch. 400 people who might, at any moment, pee on the rug and need to be tossed out on their ears. But funnier. The band stopped for about five minutes at one point so that the pedal steel player could tell a one-line joke from a list in his pocket (while Ryan sat cross-legged at the side of the stage and berated anyone who voiced impatience).
After about an hour and a half, at the end of an extended tripped-out guitar session, Ryan mumbles into the mic what I hear as “We’re gonna take a break. See you in a few.”and walked off stage with the band. Apparently, the majority of the audience (and the light tech) didn’t understand him, because they stood standing and clapping for several minutes before Ryan walks out alone and says into a mic, sounding exasperated: “Hey, we’ve got a lot of music, so we’re gonna play until this place closes. Maybe you didn’t hear me when I said ‘We’re taking intermission. See you for the next set.'” Then walked off again. Then the house lights come up. Ten minutes later, the lights went down, and the band walked out and started into Let It Ride, with a quarter of the audience still in the lobby.
On the music in general: it was fantastic. Live, the music sounds a little more Rock and a little less Country, without anything really being different. Ryan does indeed play lead guitar, and plays well. He is also obviously a musician of vision. There were several moments during the show when he would start waving at one or more of the Cardinals to either start or stop some activity because he wanted a specific sound at that moment (e.g. quieter drums, adding pedal steel solos or guitar fills, dropping the backup vocals, or changing the lyric structure). In this way, he reminded me somewhat of Keith Jarret, who you can hear groaning on some tracks when he is trying to get just the right sound from his piano.
Ryan also decided, obviously without having discussed it with anyone ahead of time, to do one song a cappella, which turned out to work surprisingly well, due in no small part to the quality of the guitar player’s falsetto.
A few other notes:
They covered Wonderwall. A slow, folky version that I liked at least as much as the original.
Ryan Adams is now the only musician I have ever seen sing a song with a cigarette in his mouth, and then a minute later, play a guitar solo with said cigarette between the fingers of his strumming hand.
There was no encore, nor even a tease that there would be one. These guys start on time and end on time.
Both sets ended with about seven minutes of non-melodic, experimental crap. Massive use of effects pedals, detuned guitars, the whole works. I started to fall asleep both times. Maybe it was Deep, Original Material, but those were easily the two low points of the concert for me.
If you get a chance to see Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, pay the thirty bucks or whatever and go. The music is excellent, even if Ryan is kinda drunk and short-tempered. The trick is to see it less as a Concert and more as Watching Some Guys Play Music. They aren’t playing for you, they’re just playing. Yes, Ryan is a bitchy drama-queen. But he is funny, surprisingly sharp, and an incredible musician.
And if you figure out what’s up with the Gay, let me know.