Last Friday night, rock & roll chameleon Ryan Adams made his way to Chicago and, as usual, no one quite knew what to expect. Ryan has spent the last few months recovering from a wicked stage diving accident that left his wrist with more breaks than a unionized city of Chicago employee, so would his guitar playing be affected? He's not really touring in support of a specific album, so would he play mostly acoustic songs? Would he play electrified? Would he play new stuff? What would his band be like? And of course, the question one must always ask when checking out a Ryan Adams show - would he be wasted? Read on to find the answers to all of these questions and more.
After a long Friday's worth of work, I crossed the street to my favorite local watering hole, a friendly music-centric dive bar in the oasis of Wrigleyville sports bar-tastic meat markets known as The Gingerman. There, some pals and I tossed back a few moderately-priced beverages knowing that the $6 cans of brew at the Riv were the cause of many a bank-breaking night. The pre-show festivities ran a tad long, so we missed the first couple of songs from opener Jesse Malin. Ryan Adams' drinking buddy, bar owner, and ex D-Generation frontman turned incredible singing/songwriting solo artist, Jesse Malin, braved the 2000+ audience with nothing but an acoustic guitar and his vocal chords. Running his set like an episode of "Storytellers", an approach he routinely takes, Malin told us about the time he whipped his penis out in third grade and his teachers told his mom he was going to be a rapist. Somehow, that was a segue into a song. I forget which one, but it was a great story! Malin played songs from both his debut The Fine Art Of Self Destruction and his latest, The Heat, the latter of which he threw a free copy of into the crowd (why don't more peeps do this? It was cool.) Malin kept the energy high throughout, regardless of his lack of a backing band, and left the stage to some inspired cheering.
The house lights then went up to give people some time to move around and talk before Ryan came out. Little did we know that the intermission would be nearly an hour long! By the 45th minute or so, the rowdy crowd were getting tired of waiting and chants of "START THE SHOW" began erupting. But when the lights went down and Adams walked onto the stage, all was instantly forgiven. Sporting a Grateful Dead t shirt, blazer, jeans, sunglasses and hair that seems to have grown in length and volume substantially since his last tour, Adams and company began with "To Be Young", wasting no time in getting to the fan favs.
The last time through, Adams was supporting his Rock & Roll album and his band was a clear reflection of that. They all had the NYC hipster rock band outfit and the stage moves to match. Adams' new band, which they arbitrarily gave the name of The Cardinals (because they liked how it sounded), was completely at the other end of the spectrum. Apart from the "hot chick" bass player who is from NYC and looks it, the others were older and looked like Nashvillians. The drummer and guitarist wore suits and the female lap steel player... well I'm not really sure what she was wearing, but she played a mean slide guitar.
By the look of the band and the opening song, it was clear that we were in store for some classic Ryan Adams. He didn't play a single song from Rock & Roll, instead pulling his material from Love Is Hell, Gold and everyone's favorite break-up record, Heartbreaker. The band was spectacular. There were no rock jumps or back to back guitar wailing. They were seasoned veterans who let their musicianship do all the talking. Some might contend that that translates into a boring show, but that was not the case. It may not have been a wild and crazy, stage-diving, hard rocking experience, but fans of Adams are mostly fans of the songs he writes, not how many times he jumps into the crowd at his shows. And the songs sounded better than ever. The band, especially the lap steel, filled out the songs and returned the hint of country/rock-a-billy that first drew fans to Ryan Adams. Songs like "Anybody Want To Take Me Home", "When The Stars Go Blue", "Oh My Sweet Caroline", "Chin Up, Cheer Up!" "My Winding Wheel" and a new, mellow version of "New York, New York" were all given an extra boost by the pure talent of the band.
An interesting and unexpected twist was the fact that the Grateful Dead t-shirt was more than just a fashion accessory. Towards the end of the set, Adams and co. incorporated some jammy guitar solos and extended, improvisational elements into some of the previously mentioned old favorites and even played a cover the Dead's "Warf Rat".
There was a piano on stage for the entire show as well, but it didn't get much use. Late in the set, the band left the stage and Adams walked over the piano, lit a cigarette, and began tickling the ivories. At this point, the crowd was absolutely not up for quite time. The crowd chatter grew and grew through the first verse of the song, so loud in fact that I have no idea what the tune was. However, rather than flip out and walk off stage or yell at the crowd for being rude (which they were), Adams just stopped in the middle of the song, signaled to the side of the stage where his band was waiting for them to come back out, strapped his electric guitar back on and said, "OK then", with a smile.
For the encore, Adams and Jesse Malin took the stage together. Adams played guitar and sung backing vocals, while Malin handled lead vocals for his own "Solitaire". If you are a fan of Ryan Adams the songwriter, Friday's show was a blessing. He played some of his best material and most beloved songs. Fans of the Ryan Adams portrayed in the press - the whiney guy who talks shit about other artists, gets wasted and falls off the stage at his gigs - may have been a little disappointed at the uneventful evening. I however, am a fan of the undeniable talent of this songwriter and had a blast.