by Michael Gerber
Ryan Adams at the Tabernacle, March 8
Unlike Ryan Adams two previous Atlanta concerts, there were no boos last Sunday night. Although there were times when a repeat of his October walk-off seemed inevitable. Again, Adams complained that he wasn't feeling well and was having trouble with his voice. There also seemed to be problems with the microphone.
To the listener, the struggle put an extra layer of sorrow to painful lines like, "Oh, Jacksonville! How you burn in my soul! How you hold all my dreams captive!" He could barely get the words out, and the exclamation points weren't screamed, but could be felt by the missing notes and unheard lyrics. There was a sense of desperateness that enhanced the first few songs. Last October, after a handful of songs in a similar vein, he made an affectless apology and called it a night. Four and a half months later, it felt like it was happening again.
Adams warned he might have to go backstage and hurl. Then he began a "my voice sounds like" tangent. But instead the dismissive Goo Goo Dolls comment from last time, he said he sounded more like the lead singer of Napalm, and was enjoying this new take on old songs. Then he walked off stage, saying it was time for the slide guitarist to tell a joke.
A joke was told, followed by a moment of awkward silence, which the band recognized and had fun with in between glances backstage to see if their leader was coming back. Eventually Adams came back out and the playful banter continued. Still, no song for over 10 minutes. Adams got up, and I thought that was it. But instead of taking another leave, he headed straight to the piano for a version of "Rescue Blues" from Gold. That, and the opener, "Come Pick Me Up," from Heartbreaker, where the only hints that his catalogue went further back than 2005.
The set was heavy with the lonely twang/Grateful Dead-inspired albums, Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights as well as the more Dave-FM friendly vibe of his last two releases, Easy Tiger and Cardinology. Within those four records lies an incredible collection of songs, which were enhanced by the ethos of the night: mostly acoustic and nothing going beyond mid-tempo. The concert was billed as an acoustic evening with the Cardinals. Some of the songs were extended with folksy noodling that took beautiful ballads into a spacey trajectory where pain eased into joy. Adam's expression reflected the transformation.
On "Let It Ride," the Cardinals hit their stride. Adams sang, "Twenty-seven years of nothing but failure and promises I couldn't keep," as if it were a message of inspiration, a stark contrast to the mood of similar downtrodden lyrics earlier in the show. And then came "Peaceful Valley" with a tagged-on jam that turned into "Beautiful Sorta." This is how country and rock can get together and sound naturally American with no BS.
The more intimate setting (more intimate than the Fox or Verizon Amphitheatre at least) led to some special moments, like every time the band stopped playing instruments mid-song and let their vocal harmonies take over. They first broke it out in the middle of "Cold Roses." They went back to this trick on a few occasions, each time whipping the crowd into an appropriately mid-tempo frenzy. By the end of the set, Adams was smiling, joking with the rest of the Cardinals, and admitted that he was having a great time. The band had found a perfect balance of finding a quiet reverence for gorgeous songs with enough of a free spirit to have fun with them.
What changed? It could have been the natural course of gutting out the tough moments with the music naturally carrying Adams into another dimension. Or, and this is all ignorant speculation, he could be off the wagon and may have taken whatever was necessary to get up for the show. His newfound sobriety was well documented in the press leading up to Easy Tiger.
That recovery mindset could explain the inspiration behind two safe-sounding albums, followed up by an ornery stage presence. In AA terms, he was a "dry drunk." Now that he's back to entertaining us with an engaging stage show that lasts as long as he wants and he wants it to last long I can't help but speculate about what caused the dramatic change in mood. The audience is better off for it, but is it at the performer's expense?
Set List, courtesy GrimFish on the Ryan Adams Archive message board:
Come Pick Me Up
Please Do Not Let Me Go
Oh, My God, Whatever, Etc.
Let it Ride
Peaceful Valley >
Down in a Hole (Alice In Chains Cover)
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