October 10, 2011
Better than:...the sum total of every single stand-up comedy show concurrently happening in the greater Los Angeles metro area.
"How L.A. is it that you can see a concert in a funeral home...in a Masonic lodge...and get high on the way there?" Ryan Adams quipped last night.
In fact, beforehand I told about ten people familiar with the guy's work that I was seeing him in a graveyard, and maybe half joked about him playing to type. Another four speculated that he was making fun of the cliche of him playing in graveyard by actually doing it. The final person just wanted to talk about how Mandy Moore was never given a fair shake during the height of the teen-pop era.
All in all, the lengths to which everyone really seemed to care made it so hard to believe that Ryan Adams could be seen as someone who's alienated his fan base. Fortunately, even with his new LP Ashes & Fire due out the next day on Capitol/Pax-AM, you could shut out all of the critical talking points and just enjoy the fact that he can effortlessly fill about two and a half hours worth of top-shelf material in a live setting.
First and foremost, this having been my first time seeing Adams in at least five years, what initially struck me about him as a live performer is the same thing I found so compelling about his new record Ashes & Fire: dude's got pipes. Not so much in the "look at me" technical sense, but how rich and sonorous his vocals are as an instrument, and how it makes every performance feel fleshed out even when only accompanied by nothing more than his acoustic guitar, harmonica and piano.
You wonder why more shows can't be like this. Not just Ryan Adams shows that strip away the overproduction and the playacting, but concerts in general where no one's updating their Tumblr, no one's snapping photos, etc. And much to my relief, as Adams opened with the spare and gorgeous "Oh My Sweet Carolina," no one tried to sing along as if this was a fucking Dashboard Confessional show or something.
The strange thing is, even for a show that appeared to be catering to the superfan, the two-hour set itself tended to adhere to a casual fan's idea of what a great Ryan Adams set should be. Maybe he is a great self-editor after all, because the breakdown of his discography couldn't have been more on point: lots of Heartbreaker, a judicious sprinkling of Gold, Love Is Hell and Ashes & Fire, stray representatives from 29 and Easy Tiger, absolutely nothing from Rock N Roll.
Of course, "Come Pick Me Up" and "AMY" were subject to the rousing applause of instant recognition, but there were also a couple of nice surprises: a piano rendering of "New York, New York," Love Is Hell outtake "Halloween," a tentative version of "I See Monsters," where Adams had to relearn the guitar parts on the spot. (Frankly, it's the same chords as "Champagne Supernova." If he's going to insist on covering Oasis, I'd prefer that over his stone-sober "Wonderwall.")
But truth be told, the music itself was secondary to Adams just absolutely killing it with the stage banter. I mean, this shouldn't be news - people forget that Heartbreaker begins with "An Argument With David Rawlings" - and yet the couple next to me wondered aloud what Adams talks about with Mandy Moore. Seriously, the guy can freestyle a track about pissing on your boombox with the Simple Minds tape still in it all while making it sound like it could fit somewhere within the 85-minute mark of Gold.
I mean, I'm torn between my duties as a reporter and my desire to keep the experience to myself, so that it inspires you to see him live at all costs: dude was dropping jewels all over the place. Did it lean a little heavy on the metal jokes? Certainly, but there's a huge gulf between Tenacious D bullshit and Adams' howlers about King Diamond's Christmas decorations. If those go over your head, don't worry. As Adams immediately pointed out, "that joke alienated my demographic. Which is my forte."
If I had to choose a winner, I'll go with how he bridged "Carolina Rain" and "Do I Wait" about an hour and a half into the set in an unseasonably hot church: "This is where the girlfriends get pissy...(to a guy in the front) you better go with her or you're gonna be writing these songs."
Seriously, dude's covered the entirety of Is This It on banjo; he can't rely on some intrepid superfan to catch his stage banter on tape and make what would not only be unquestionably be his best record since Heartbreaker, but also the runaway comedy album of the year? I mean, there is precedent: Having Fun On Stage With Elvis, as well as Robert Pollard'sRelaxation Of The Asshole, inspiration for what I consider the single greatest Pitchfork review in history.
Seriously, Ryan: I get the feeling you could be reading this. I mean, that part on "Political Scientist" where you start singing like Secret Samadhi-era Ed Kowalczyk was pure comic genius, but work on that bit about Black Sabbath's space dreadlocks and you'll have Largo on smash in no time.
Critical bias: Of course, there will always be some asshole telling you he'd be doing backflips up and down La Cienega and/or Hollywood Boulevard if his new album was at the level of Gold, let alone Heartbreaker.
Set list below.
Oh My Sweet Carolina
Damn, Sam (I Love A Woman That Rains)
Ashes & Fire
Please Do Not Let Me Go
Sweet Lil Gal (23rd/1st)
My Winding Wheel
New York, New York (piano version)
Let It Ride
Do I Wait
Houses On The Hill
English Girls Approximately
I See Monsters
This House Is Not For Sale
Come Pick Me Up
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Wasted Years (Iron Maiden cover)