Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Ryan Adams: Lettin' it ride in Baltimore

Last night, I attended one of the worst concerts of my life, and it was so cool, I’ll never forget it.
I’ve always said there’s no entertainment money I’d rather spend than going to a rock concert. A good show will change the way I feel about a band for the rest of my life. From that night on, every time I listen to that group’s music, the images and emotions from that show will inevitably flash back to my mind’s eye. It’s a beautiful thing.
For instance, every time I listen to U2’s “Mysterious Ways,” I picture Bono scampering along the catwalk during 2001’s Elevation tour. He grabs something from a fan at the rail and all of the sudden there’s all this glitter flying all over the place. When I hear “Elevation,” I picture the “Happy Birthday Bono!” message plastered across the video screens (I saw U2 the night of the frontman’s 41st birthday in Indianapolis).
There are so many stories like this bouncing around my brain, it would be too tedious to mention many more: Pearl Jam (seeing them from the front row in Chicago back in 2000 was the best concert of my life), The White Stripes, Bruce Springsteen, etc., etc.
But concerts also hold just as powerful a potential for bad memories. A poor show can ruin a band for me in the span of a couple hours. Consider my experience with the Red Hot Chili Peppers/Foo Fighters double bill in Columbus in 2000. Walking up to the venue, the announcement is made Dave Grohl (frontman for the Foos) is “sick” and the band won’t be playing tonight. Later we were shown a video of a rather hungover-looking Grohl from what I presume was his hotel room, telling us how sorry he was but he was just too depleted to go on that night. Bleh. Gimme a break.
Despite that disappointment, the Peppers could have gone to the top of my list if they had so desired. OK, so the Foo Fighters aren’t playing—at least that gives us more time with RHCP, right? Wrong. The Peppers still came on at the same time (after an interminable wait of more than 45 minutes following opening act Muse (who were pretty good)), and played their standard set for that tour. It was about 80 minutes, including one short encore, and that was it. Thanks for stepping up, guys. I have barely listened to them since.
So that brings me to Tuesday night’s Ryan Adams (no, not Bryan Adams, RYAN Adams—if you don’t know the difference, shame on you!) show in Baltimore. Adams is touring in support of his latest (stellar) album, “Cold Roses,” for which he drafted his first official backing band, the Cardinals. I had seen Adams once before back in 2002 and it was pretty good, but not great. I really love his music, though, so I wanted to give him a second chance.
Everything started off well Tuesday night. The band opened with its standard batch of uptempo numbers, including excellent versions of new gems “Easy Plateau” and “Let It Ride,” as well as “To Be Young” from Adams’ 2000 solo debut, “Heartbreaker.”
After “Let It Ride,” things started to get a little strange. A mic stand to the right of the stage lit up like Adams was going to use it for a song, but instead he went to a piano on the other side of and sat down for a version of “Call Me On Your Way Back Home” where he alternated between keyboard and guitar (very cool).
Upon finishing the song, he then moved back to the lit-up mic and seemed to wave the Cardinals off the stage. For the next half-hour or so, he proceeded to alternate between acoustic guitar and piano, playing a mellow, coffeehouse-style show without the band. The explanation finally came after the rarity “Just Like a Whore,” when Adams said his wrist (injured in an accident a couple years ago) was really giving him problems and he was going backstage to get a shot that would hopefully allow him to get back to playing the harder numbers in his catalog.
The house lights come up and the crowd was buzzing about what in the world is going to happen. After about 20 minutes, all of the sudden and with absolutely no fanfare, Adams is back again. He hops off the front of the stage and comes shuffling up one of the main aisles, acoustic guitar in hand. The lights are still on, and those that didn’t go out to grab a beer or hit the restrooms are basically sitting there stunned (myself included).
The venue—a symphony hall—was obviously a strange one for Adams, who made several comments about how he felt like he was in a Stanley Kubrick movie. But it did allow for a space between the front section of seats and the next section back where he set up shop on a simple wooden stool. I was lucky enough to be only a few rows from him at this point so I didn’t need to move to hear, but fans started flooding back into the hall as word spread like wildfire and within a few seconds the wide aisles were jammed and while others jumped over seats to get close.
Adams played four songs from this position, with quite a bit of chatter between each. It was wonderful and tense all at the same time, as several drunken Baltimore geniuses started yelling that they couldn’t hear—from the upper balconies (duh!). Adams simply flipped them off and/or invited them to come closer. Classic. He did try to spin in a slow circle while playing so that his voice would hopefully reach the entire room; for the last two—“Rosebud” and “My Winding Wheel”—he actually stood up on the stool, which made it even easier to hear (these two are now tattooed on my brain). He then wandered back onstage for a couple more songs before mumbling a “goodnight” just after 11 p.m.—more than two and a half hours after his first appearance.
I don’t know when I’ve been more impressed with a musician. Adams could have pulled a Dave Grohl and called it quits after the first few minutes when it was clear he couldn’t play in the flamboyant style he’s used to. Instead, he sucked it up and tried to do something special regardless of his physical condition, hoping to atone for the fact that the few thousand fans in attendance obviously weren’t getting what they paid for. The music last night certainly wasn’t what I was hoping for, but I’ve been to a lot of concerts and I’ve never, never, not ever seen any musician do what Ryan Adams did last night. The show may have been disappointing in one sense, but I wouldn’t trade that surreal experience for some standard set on another night. He’s made a fan for life.