In a one-off kids' charity concert in the windy city last Thursday night, Ryan Adams redeemed himself and won hearts back with a nearly 2 1/2 hour, 29-song set of Adams staples and Cardinals anthems, with just enough room left in-between to try out new material and even perform a Willie Nelson tune from his new Songbird record (which Adams produced, co-wrote and played on). Keeping with the Adams tradition, the stage lights were minimal and kept at a warm dim throughout the night. Microphones were positioned half back from the stage front, and Adams positioned himself slant-left as if to not show all his cards at once, a somewhat mysterious routine that continues to both intrigue and test the patience of critics and fans.
The sour grape left in Chicago's mouth dates back to an infamous night at the Riviera Theater in 2004. A packed house waited over an hour for a drunk and bratty, pissed off Adams to storm out and play what was a great set of songs from his Rock N' Roll record, then cut short with Adams and band walking offstage. The fire would be fueled right after when Chicago Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis jumped at the chance to hand Adams his ass both in print and on his syndicated radio show "Sound Opinions" (even a voicemail that Adams left on DeRogatis's machine made the airwaves). The public was thrown into a fight that never should've started to begin with.
Now forget the paragraph above, it's old hat. What the crowd saw this time around was a relaxed, refined Cardinals 2.0 believing in the songs they played, creating a swing, chemistry and mood that allowed more dynamics and praised more guitar distortion. Opening act The Redwalls' singer Justin Baren watched from a stageside balcony and took notes, studying a well-oiled group that have been recording and performing together for two years now. And there have been changes made along the way. Bassist Catherine Popper quietly exited a few months back for personal reasons, with the big hole being filled by close friend and Cardinals collaborator Chris Feinstein. JP Bowersock was also replaced some time ago with Adams counterpart and songwriter Neal Casal-- a much needed edge that has since taken the live material to the next level. This was also a recently turned-sober Adams performance, with a clearer voice and masterful harmonies to prove it. The harmonies themselves became a focal point of the band's energy as the night went on, and the response was bliss. Acoustic guitars were left back in the tour bus this time around as the band kept everything plugged in; tinkering tones of Jerry Garcia and Co. were eagerly replaced with Allman Brothers guitar harmonies at Led Zeppelin volume and flare. Another move the audience didn't seem to mind one bit. Though there were fleeting glimpses of Dead-head jamming, this was a rock concert.
With no time spared for crowd banter between songs, the Cardinals lit a match with "Magnolia Mountain" as the opener. Drummer Brad Pemberton playing more like John Bonham than Levon Helm, he anchored the band throughout the night, not forcing the direction but rather allowing the songs to take a gasp for air when needed. As Adams and Casal took turns at the wheel (Adams even had Casal take the mic for a couple), pedal steel player Jon Graboff added colors to the canvas. They pulled no punches and blazed through new and old standards like "Let It Ride" and "Harder Now That It's Over," while songs like "New York, New York," "To Be Young," and "I See Monsters" took completely different shapes. And this is where Ryan Adams flourishes: song arrangements. He's consistently able to re-invent the tunes of his choosing, while never taking away from their message nor their feel. Sad waltzes become highway driving songs in 4/4. Slow ballads suddenly transform into double-time arena rockers. If anything, he adds to their stories, something even Dylan has always struggled with throughout his years on the road regardless of what band he's brought with him. The Cardinals proved to be not just a backing band of session dudes but an inventive sum of equal parts able to evolve a constantly growing song catalogue.
Chicago fans who wrote him off as a spoiled brat gave him a second chance. And it paid off. They saw a mature, focused, more confident bandleader enjoying himself in a quintet that he plans to keep around for a long time. Perhaps it was sobriety. Perhaps it was making the 29 album which felt more like a turning point for the songwriter with its vulnerable hindsight lyrics. Or perhaps it was simply age. At times there were random crowd whispers and balcony screams for the singer to take the stage Cardinal-less during the set, along with the inevitable plea for fan favorite "Dear Chicago," but a grinning Adams gave them neither. It was a marathon more than a set, and the crowd went the whole distance. All debts were paid, and it was time to move on. Void of encores (though the crowd stuck around), Adams made his peace with Chicago and took his sound a leap forward.
Here's a set list, new material not included:
Opening: "Magnolia Mountain"
"New York, New York"
"A Kiss Before I Go"
"Please Do Not Let Me Go"
"I See Monsters"
"Let It Ride"
"Trouble On Wheels"
Interlude: "Carribean Queen" (Billy Ocean)
"Blue Hotel" (Willie Nelson)
"To Be Young"
"Harder Now That It's Over"
Closing: "What Sin"
By Shawn Rios