Ryan Adams. Red Rocks. 08.17.16
“This actually fucking happened! Mike, look at that! There are a bunch of people right there, look! They are right there!!!”
Ryan Adams was speaking to Mike Viola, the guitarist for his latest band, The Shining. The thing which had just happened (and was still happening) was the last performance of their short summer tour. The ‘bunch of people’ were made up of fans from across the country. The place was the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado. And while the exclamatory nature of his remark would have seemed a little unnecessary coming from anyone else who had already performed the fabled venue a few times prior, it was almost expected from Ryan Adams. The prolific singer-songwriter from North Carolina is notorious for finding the spectacular in the most mundane aspects of life. That’s not to say playing at Red Rocks is anything less than phenomenal, but I have personally witnessed the man show the same enthusiasm when speaking about his cat, or how he came to the decision to name his debut album after a Mariah Carey poster that hung in his room.
The last time I saw Ryan Adams headline a show was in 2008. My wife and I had just started dating and I took her to see him perform the Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley. Adams had recently been diagnosed with Ménière’s disease and had quit using hard drugs and alcohol. I remember the banter more than the music that night. Sobriety didn’t exactly equate to a newfound focus on stage. His stories were bizarre, hilarious, and sometimes completely incomprehensible. It was a sit-down show, and although the Cardinals were with him, it felt very much like a solo, mostly-acoustic set. Easy Tiger had been my favorite release in quite some time, but the disjointed performance (as entertaining as it was) left me questioning the overall health and well-being of the man behind the music. My concern was only heightened when I learned III/IV and the metal-experiment, Orion, were also the result of that period in his life.
Ryan Adams is many things to many people. There are those who will always pine for the Whiskeytown days. There are old-school fans who will continue to see every album through the impossible lens of Heartbreaker. Some people will always like the alt-country troubadour, while others prefer the unhinged punk and metal enthusiast. And in this time and age when the 80’s are remembered more fondly than they might deserve to be, some will applaud his unapologetic adoption of the soft rock popularized during that era. Critics lift him up, only to throw him down. Women pretend his lyrics were written just for them…that is, until he writes something they don’t like. Guys who can’t be pigeonholed into a defining label will relate to his no-fucks-to-give style. You can say what you want about Ryan Adams, but you can never accuse him of pandering to the masses. He is many things to many people, but he knows himself. He is confident in himself. Only a man with confidence and self-awareness could walk onto a stage, in front of thousands of people, and sing a song like “Trouble” while wearing a red flannel over a black Samhain t-shirt.
The weather was perfect. No clouds. No rain. And only a light breeze to cool the August air. The show wasn’t completely sold-out, but people were stacked pretty thick up to about Row 60. The psychedelic folk sounds of Kurt Vile & the Violators didn’t exactly light the place on fire, but their respectable attempt threw enough random sparks to allow embers of their presence to glow long after they were gone. The stage was set with relics from the past. Like a scene from Stranger Things, there was an old Dr. Pepper vending machine, a model DeLorean DMC-12, faux Fender stacks, and stand-up arcade versions of Berzerk and Asteroids. A stuffed cat watched over the stuffed tiger and bonsai tree. There was a simple rug on the ground and an American flag with a peace symbol draped over the keyboard.
“What’s going on? Ain’t this a dream?”
The band took the stage at 8:50pm and they were all business. “Trouble” and “Gimme Something Good” from Ryan Adams opened the set. Backed by a four-piece band, Adams stood center stage with his hair concealing the majority of the face. White lights created shadows of The Shining, while the rest of the stage was drowned in mellow, rotating, blue and red hues. “New York, New York” and “When the Stars Go Blue” followed, bringing us back to 2001’s Gold, before “Let It Ride” was dedicated to a guy named Josh “who couldn’t be here tonight.”
My first reactions were skewed because I couldn’t help compare what I was seeing and hearing to what I had witnessed in 2008. The sound was impeccable, the band was solid, and even when they took things into Grateful Dead territory, the music seemed to feed off the environment; as if it were a soundtrack written to the exact place (and exact moment in time) in which it was being performed. But there was no goofiness. There was no banter. This was a serious performance by a serious artist with a serious band. It was not at all what I had expected.
Then the full moon rose high enough in the sky to been seen by Ryan Adams.
“Oh my god, look at the moon right now! Yeah, what’s up moon? So weird up in the sky, looking at us. What’s up? This next song goes out to the friendly moon.”
As if feeding off that moon, the way it did the sun, Ryan Adams suddenly became animated. “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” stoked those embers left behind by Kurt Vile, causing arms like flames to flicker in the air. “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.” Large clouds of spent marijuana floated harmlessly as “Cold Roses” transitioned through “Fix It” into another barnburner, “Shakedown on 9th Street”.
“Alright, we’re gonna take it all the way back to the 80’s. If you leave here with a hickey, it means you made out with this song for too long.”
There was a lot of slow dancing during “Stay With Me”, and the junior prom theme continued with a half disco-ball for “Dear Chicago”. A good chunk of Love Is Hell, including his cover of “Wonderwall”, was interlaced with extended jams (“Magnolia Mountain” and “Peaceful Valley”) and one of my favorite songs from his latest album, “Kim”.
Despite having found his speaking voice, the set really did have a My Morning Jacket/Wilco feel to it. When the band left him alone to perform, it was hardly the acoustic set I’d seen in years past. I’m sure there were many people in the audience who weren’t so taken aback by that fact, but having been so long since I’d seen him live, it was something I was having a hard time getting over. Even “Oh My Sweet Carolina” sounded more like the Eagles than it ever had before, although that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it was actually one of my favorite renditions of the entire evening.
“You guys are the best audience in the fucking world. I can feel your energy now. I am singing and I get this feeling someone is staring at me. I feel like I’m in my house because it’s haunted, but they are cool ghosts and they put things away. It’s like I’m subletting.”
People started exiting the venue around 10:30pm. The older crowd; people with little kids; people who had to work early the next morning or who had a long commute home. Those people were making a big mistake though. There was still so much to come.
“Alright you guys, I love this state so much. It’s such an honor to play here. We’re gonna play a new song and then a fuckload of songs we haven’t played in awhile. Then we are going to play some more. We’re gonna play until we can’t play no more. Then we are gonna play Shakedown again, since we fucked it up the first time.”
Band introductions were extremely outlandish and included something about the keyboardist growing up on Virginia cheese and then starting a hat store that sold hats and mustaches and Siamese cats. Then came the new song; “Do You Still Love Me” was some straight-up AOR-style Foreigner shit that wouldn’t have been out of place on 4. I mean that in the best way possible. For me, it was the second wind I needed to sail through the rest of the performance; a performance Adams used to showcase his multiple personalities. The beautifully depressive “Nobody Girl” was followed by the blasting garage rocker, “When The Summer Ends”, and then the twangy “Easy Plateau” led into a rare appearance of “Mockingbird”.
(in his best hair metal voice) Are you people drinking alcohol?! Smoking marijuana?! Or just clinically depressed?
(in a concerned voice, to a guy who responded from the front rows) Oh, you’re tripping? This is the worst music for that. Just look at your hands all night and you’ll be alright.”
The sole song from Ashes & Fire, “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say”, was the perfect comedown track. “Halloweenhead” brought me back to the show in Berkeley. The little “Black Sabbath” riff at the end just solidified the schizophrenia that had taken hold as the night got late, so “I See Monsters” was like finding that one last puzzle piece to complete the perfect picture. And if you thought he was joking when he said they were going to perform “Shakedown” again, the joke was on you. They just had to get it right. I might have missed what went wrong the first time around, but I wasn’t going to complain about hearing it again, especially when it came with a promise…
“We are gonna do Shakedown again because our drummer has OCD, but we will do Come Pick Me Up after. It’s like you have to watch The Outsiders again, but then you get to watch Star Wars.”
The déjà vu of “Shakedown on 9th Street” ended successfully, then Adams improvised a love letter to Colorado and to his band (“brotherhood is special and brotherhood is binding, I’ll never love a band more than I love The Shining”) before taking to the harmonica for “Come Pick Me Up”. And while I’ll always love that one more than any other song the man is likely to write, it was just another great song in a night absolutely filled with them.
Last time I saw Ryan Adams, it was almost like he was trying to figure himself out in front of the audience. I felt like he should have been laying on a couch and we should have been taking notes. This time around, no matter how bizarre his banter, he was in complete control of himself; in complete control of his voice, his instrument, his band, his audience, and all those people living inside his head.
Gimme Something Good
New York, New York
When The Stars Go Blue
Let It Ride
To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)
Shakedown on 9th Street
Stay With Me
This House Is Not For Sale
Oh My Sweet Carolina
Do You Still Love Me
When the Summer Ends
I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say
I See Monsters
Shakedown on 9th Street
Improvised song about Colorado and The Shining
Come Pick Me Up