Ahhhh, the enigma that is Ryan Adams. It’s hard to talk about his live performances without harking back to the bad-boy image he was long burdened with – the nitroglycerin reputation, the hair-trigger sensitivity to any little thing that might not be just right on stage – but I’ll give it a try. He has taken a giant step away from that part of his past, and deserves to be judged on the music alone (which, of course, was never the problem).
Playing to a sold-out crowd at Boston’s Orpheum Theater, Adams teetered a few times on his own personal tight rope, but never fell. Never really even lost his balance. Sure, he couldn’t get the monitors quite right, and had to go off stage once or twice to discuss this. A few times there was awful buzzing feedback from one of the speakers. The audience was talking a little too much at the start of the show. But he played through it all – played through the pain, as the athletes say – and treated the audience to a beautiful show. A little ragged around the edges, just like Adams himself. But beautiful nonetheless.
Dressed in black jeans, long-sleeve black Motorhead t-shirt and black leather jacket, Adams walked onto the unadorned stage with little fanfare just after 9 pm. There was a chair, two guitars, a piano – and nothing else. Is there anything more challenging for an artist than to play an acoustic show, by themselves, on a blank stage, before a large audience? Nothing hung between performer and crowd, save for Adams’ unruly black bangs, which drape down over his eyes when he plays and offer his only protection from the madding crowd. There’s no band on stage to take attention away, no wall of sound to hide behind. As Adams himself pointed out, “It’s sonically easier to play exorbitantly loud concerts…getting this right is a lot harder.”
He opened the show with a slightly tentative version of “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” perhaps holding himself back a little because there was still too much pre-concert chatter going on from latecomers who appeared unaware that the show had started. But – and this is a sign of the New Ryan – about five songs into the show, he stopped and said, “You know what, I’m going to play that first song again, because I think there may have been some people who missed it,” an announcement greeted by wild cheers from the crowd.
Adams sprinkled five songs from his stellar new album, Ashes & Fire, into the 20-song set, including the title track, “Dirty Rain,” “Invisible Riverside,” “Chains of Love,” and “Lucky Now.” And he roamed throughout the rest of his prolific catalog, ranging from his Whiskeytown days (“16 Days,” “Houses on the Hill”) to tracks off his various albums with the Cardinals (“If I Am a Stranger,” “Let It Ride,” “Crossed Out Name,” “When Will You Come Back Home,” “Two,” and “Everybody Knows”).
Adams is well-aware of his own reputation, joking with the crowd at one point as he attempted to solve his monitor travails that, “In the old days, I would have been all like ‘This is bullshit!’ and put my fist through the monitor. If I played a wrong note, it would have been all your fault, as if the audience is all one person.” Watching that kind of a meltdown might have sort of a perverse appeal, but far more enjoyable is to see the tightrope walker succeed, not fall.