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Ryan Adams and the Cardinals

(5 Mar 2009: The River Center Theatre — Baton rouge, LA)

One has to wonder whether people attend a Ryan Adams show to experience great music or to, perchance, witness an epic artist meltdown. The stories of his growing battle with deafness and on-stage equilibrium migraines from Meniere’s Disease are heartbreaking, but tales of him verbally abusing crowds before quitting the stage make Adams a far less sympathetic character. The giant Cardinology cardinal that graces the stage preshow could as easily be the symbolic Phoenix ready to rescue Adams from the ashes. But which version of the artist would arise?


As the stage goes dark, then lava blue with the help of two subtle neon rose lights, the Cardinals enter. A mop-topped Adams strolls on stage and begins playing “Everybody Knows” without acknowledging the crowd. For the first several songs, no hint of an angry or suffering man appears. Although he continually adjusts his earpiece, Adams doesn’t appear pained, and from my seat in row S, I can see him smiling between vocal lines.


Sound problems will plague the audience for the entirety of the evening, but not Adams and the band. Adams’ guitar is considerably louder than anything else on stage, and his vocals are too quiet and lost in reverb to cut through the five-piece band. Whether Adams’ guitar volume is an accident, the panacea of a deaf musician, or ego sublimation doesn’t really matter. Adams is the most interesting thing on stage. His vocals, muddy and soft, still plead their emotional case if the listener is willing to strain to hear it through the din. His voice, his songs, and his personality are the stars of the evening. Even his electric rhythm playing, purposely pinched with behind-the-beat slop, shimmers as a rhythmic and aesthetic counterpoint to the session men constituting the Cardinals, and Adams’ rhythm playing stands out as an edgier voice murmuring in a community of well-rehearsed conversation. The Cardinals by themselves don’t rock, or at least they don’t rock hard. Their performance aesthetic is one of control, not abandon. Later, they, along with their leader, will explode during the encore. But none of them explode individually at any point during the night, leaving little doubt that their suggested continuance without Adams may be short-lived.


That being said, tonight’s show is worth the price. Between songs, Adams’ speaks in funny voices, cracks jokes, and mocks young girls’ screams with teenage screams of his own. At one point, pedal steel player Jon Graboff will jokingly list potential Law and Order spinoffs he expects to see, such as Law and Order SUV and Law and Order Enough Already. And it works. The band’s banter helps break the potential high art pretension that comes with Adams’ persona. Comedy and mimicry aside, an unexpectedly loose feel accompanies most of the up-tempo songs. Adams and the Cardinals are a band, not a star plus guns for hire, and it is obvious that these musicians enjoy the personal experience of playing with each other. Tunes such as “I See Monsters” find the band more willing to give up studio ghosts, perhaps because there is less pressure to “reproduce” the tear-inducing ballads such as “Two” or “Everybody Knows” in all their somber glory. “Wonderwall” a perennial concert favorite, marries the balladeer, former punkster, and rock guitar wrangler in Adams, allowing his stick figure to contort and subsume the Strat beneath him, and allowing both band and crowd to share in evolving improvisations of well-trodden material.


“What a kick ass audience you are,” Adams yells, smiling, playing the role of the rock star giving the audience that highest of compliment—being “kick-ass.” Yet Adams means it, and his dedication to playing an energetic show seals an honesty rather than cynicism in his compliment. Tonight, Adams intends on enjoying his waning time with the Cardinals and the huddled masses of fans that he has jeered and insulted in the past.


The band play a brief rendition of “Two”, sounding album perfect, followed by “Sink Ships” from their latest album, Cardinology. “Sink Ships” typifies the artist’s process: A narrative of loss. Verses filled with memories. A chorus that judges the memories. Images of shining sun in empty rooms splashed across the story to guarantee both the judged and the judge lose.  Live, “Sink Ships” and other mid-tempo material from Cardinology  breathe better than their studio counterparts. A more democratic live sound mix strips the studio perfectionism of Adams, and the songwriter’s precociousness disappears into a less self-conscious live performance that emphasizes the moment and mood, not the critical posterity Adams has shown an acute awareness of during blogs and interviews.


Many of Cardinology’s songs are short and remain so live. One could make accusations that even without the constraints of radio play, the songs remain underdeveloped in their live form. However, the band tends to save development for particular tunes, such as “Wonderwall” and the night’s closer, “Bartering Lines”. Between these mood setters, the band jabs you with four-minute pop songs. As if to prove this, Adams plays through an album-quick version of “Fix It”. His nasally vocals sound Tom Petty-ish during the verse, but return to a chorus of lush, cottony chords as he lifts the gloom and promises to fix your broken heart, all in four minutes.


As if to fire the imagination of audience members awaiting an epic Adams tantrum, one final pet peeve of the singer’s arrives after the band finishes “Fix It”. After backing to his amp and removing himself from the crowd, he begins laconically strumming his guitar until the stars begin to go blue. The sonically alert in the crowd cheer, recognizing the stirrings of a mega-hit. The rest of the crowd does not recognize the song until his clear voice begins to sing the first verse. This less sonically aware half of the crowd begins to cheer and whistle, disturbing the thick emo atmosphere born in laconic strums. In the past, Adams has openly “instructed” audiences on how to behave and criticized American rock audience’s penchant for football-stadium screams during the most intimate of concert moments. Tonight, Adams raises his hand to shush the crowd politely and continues singing.


By show’s end, Adams and the Cardinals have played a fair dose of songs from Cardinology and nearly every song you’d want them to play from their past. Clearly, newer “classic” tunes such as “Magick” hold up. “Magick”’s opening chords are rife in rock indulgence. Its lyrics, somewhere between pissed-off break-up song and promise of a muscular spiritual experience through radio, are a new addition to Adams-the-therapist’s lyrical offerings. This more hammer-like Adams bristles one’s guts and neck hairs with an emotional alternative to the spiny pensiveness of emo, and the evening’s dynamics are upgraded to “legitimate climax.”


The band retires the stage after a folk-naked “Oh My Sweet Carolina”, returning seconds later for a fifteen-minute rendition of “Bartering Lines” that sees the band more unified and powerful than during the four-minute pop tunes. The band, at its best when extending and bending long-term moods, recreate and sustain the earlier magic of “Wonderwall” and “I See Monsters”, but with the strange condition of Adam’s low-decibel murmurs and cawing into the mic as he flaps and rolls his arms to the beat, part Cardinal, part Phoenix in ashes.


After the caws and murmurs stop with the obligatory rock bang and the band exits, the state of Adams’ world seems one of contentedness and earnest rock ‘n’ rolling. Rumored to be at work on a new album, but with a performing career self-admittedly in doubt, the man witnessed tonight, most likely the true Ryan Adams, will be missed. And so will his Cardinals. May we hope for an upcoming stage to his career that equals his previous magic without the storm clouds and mushroom clouds of Adams’ personal fortunes interfering with his considerable talent.

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