[14 July 2003]
PopMatters Associate Interviews Editor
It seems everyone has a “Ryan Adams live story” these days. There’s the story of the concertgoer who decided to test Mr. Adams’ patience with sarcasm. As the tale is told, the aforementioned concertgoer yelled requests for “Summer of ‘69” throughout a concert in Nashville, Tennessee. Problem was, this Adams wasn’t named Bryan and didn’t come equipped with the sense of humor that suffers lame spelling jokes with aplomb. So, Ryan accosted the concertgoer and said he wouldn’t play another song until the young man was ushered out. Furthermore, Ryan even handed the young man $30 as a refund for the ticket. Headlines ensued, though not the kind Ryan wanted.
There’s the story of a concert in Chicago in which Mr. Adams tested the patience of his audience with a heavy dose of incoherence. Much of the night, he read aloud from a jokebook and embarked on several unorganized monologues. Somewhere in there he managed to bring out a record player to spin Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” while he played guitar. According to devotees, this experience was basically par for the course.
There’s the story of certain United Kingdom gigs in which Mr. Adams performed covers of White Stripes songs, thereby incurring the candy-cane coated wrath of one Mr. Jack White, who claims to have not appreciated the arrangements. Adams shot back at White in NME and a cold war of the biggest hype in UK press history ensued.
Finally, there is the story this writer fondly tells of a Ryan Adams concert in Iowa City, Iowa—home of “the Hawkeyes”. In a show at the student union, Mr. Adams handed out bottles of Budweiser to the crowd from his personal “backstage stash”. When informed by the powers-that-be that he wasn’t allowed to perform the service of bartender, Mr. Adams asked the crowd to meet him at a bar after the show for drinks. In order to find the correct establishment for this foray, Adams simply took a suggestion from one audience member to meet up at “Gabe’s”. Sure enough, about an hour after the show, in walked Ryan Adams to the pre-selected watering hole. We stayed until the wee hours drinking pints and shaking hands as Adams proved to be quite the party-coordinator.
So, with the DVD release of Ryan Adams: Live in Jamaica for the Music in High Places series comes some serious anticipation for which personality has been committed to the digital video format.
Billing itself as “the ultimate international music and travel adventure series”, Music in High Places prides itself on matching acoustic sounds with cultured scenes. In this case, a trip to the sands and streets of Jamaica is the backdrop for the tourist known as Ryan Adams (and three-piece band). The “Caucasian Rock Trip to Jamaica” is almost a cliché by this point, with the Clash and the Rolling Stones both putting in studio time in Kingston and thereabouts. But in this journey to the land of Marley, we get an entirely new look at the country and its relationship to the music from up north.
Sadly, we don’t get any shots of Ryan hang-gliding over the ocean, for this DVD is more about the music than the “travel adventure” aspect. Nevertheless, the focus is where it needs to be. Showcasing loose renditions of eight tunes, Live in Jamaica brings out the best in Ryan Adams. There’s not a hint of rock star posing as the setting of Jamaica collaborates with the innate modesty of the people to bring a certain amount of perspective to the young American songwriter. Most of the interviews with Adams focus on his happy reaction to the complete lack of pretension in the air. We follow him through a market in Port Antonio in which he purchases an umbrella, jewelry, shirts and the hat he showcases for much of the DVD. He converses easily with the locals and claims that, “there’s just something about Jamaica that really chills you out”.
Especially relaxed is the solo acoustic take on “You Will Always Be the Same”, a dulcet ballad off of last year’s Demolition. Adams sits on a stool in the middle of the shopping market, singing and strumming while life continues on around him. Surprisingly, there are no odd looks or befuddled statements like, “Who’s the white boy?” Rather, the man with the guitar is just a piece of singing scenery. This sense of diffidence permeates otherwise bombastic songs like “The Rescue Blues” or “Touch, Feel & Lose”, the latter of which provides the centerpiece of the DVD. The search and selection of the right backing vocals becomes the thrust for the bluesy song. Adams chooses wisely by enlisting the help of fifteen local children (dubbed “the Kingston Choir”) to sing the simple chorus of “Cry, cry, cry”. The performance is everything Music in High Places promises to deliver. It is indeed a portrait of music in the midst of the culture, history, and people of Jamaica. The setting is the “shanty-town”, a collection of ramshackle houses that becomes an underdone stage for the band and children. Overhead, a sign advertises for Gloria’s Rendezvous Bar and the promise of cold Red Stripe gives just the right atmosphere. Contributing to the playful vibe is a funny moment at the end of the song when the children yell out in unison, “Ryan is a nerd!” It’s a moment that fully represents the off-the-cuff success of a seemingly odd pairing.
In the same vein, “New York, New York” gets a totally new spin when it is performed with local conga players along the beach. What was once uniformly associated with the avenues and architecture of New York City becomes an organic rhythm from the beaches of Jamaica. There’s even a bit with a drunken donkey that you’ll just have to see for yourself.
Finally, we witness the meeting of Adams and the legendary reggae bandleader Toots Hibbert (of Toots & the Maytals fame). An intimate recording session at Anchor Studios is followed up by a performance of “Hard Time Situation” at Nature’s Paradise in Gamanas Bay. The worlds combine to make an impressive soup of what Bob Marley dubbed “roots, rock, reggae”.
Overall, the look and sound throughout the DVD is expertly photographed and recorded. Long tracking shots allow the viewer to take in the scope of Jamaica and the band collective all at once. Each song is in its own way a perfect music video/commercial for Ryan Adams and Jamaica. And the sound really jumps within the might of the 5.1 Surround format.
Rounding out the DVD are two behind-the-scenes featurettes. “Jamaica - The Real Story” details the experience of the American crew in their attempts to capture the country. The second one, entitled “Ryan & Toots”, is a further document of the twosome’s time in the recording studio as they try to connect their distant backgrounds through the immediacy of music. This featurette is a successful template for the rest of the DVD in that its scope is broad yet intimate, all the while capturing an unfiltered look at one of the most promising musicians around, Ryan Adams.