At age 26, Ryan Adams has already earned enough praise and criticism to last a career. When he was just 20 years old, Adams’ band Whiskeytown was given the responsibility of saving alternative country-rock. Yes, at an age when the biggest worry for most of us is trying to secure a credible fake ID, Ryan Adams was called upon to appease the masses left sad and lonely in the wake of Uncle Tupelo’s demise and The Jayhawks’ split. Although the young Adams insisted he had more to offer than rehashed country lyrics over half-time classic rock progressions, the plaintive, pedal-steel-accompanied tunes on the first two Whiskeytown records were enough to allow most critics to pigeonhole Adams as the poor man’s Jeff Tweedy. All this did was antagonize the brazen Adams (and start a bitter-enough feud between him and Tweedy, who had since started Wilco).
Within a few years of its inception, Whiskeytown split amidst internal bickering and Ryan’s penchant for red wine. But Ryan’s champions didn’t stray far. After the 2000 release of Ryan Adams’ first solo album, Heartbreaker, critics fell over themselves to declare the songwriter the new voice of American music, dubbing him “the next Dylan” (and also the next Neil Young and Gram Parsons).
If you hear enough comments like that, your ego’s certain to inflate a bit, but you’re also bound to attract your share of naysayers. Some critics began to write that Ryan Adams was too much the product of other people’s music, complaining that while Adams did a brilliant job of rehashing the songwriting styles of great musicians, he had no original, sincere voice of his own.
But after Ryan Adams’s breathtaking performance last Friday at the Paradise, his critics will at least have to dig a little deeper into their record collections to find everyone who’s influenced him. For certain, Ryan Adams can puff his chest out a little further and bring a few more rounds of ammunition to the Adams-Tweedy feud.
Departing from the solo, acoustic shows of his last few tours, Adams pinned back the ears of the Paradise crowd on Friday night, fronting his overdriven, six-piece rock ‘n’ roll band, LAX. Opening with a fully distorted, double-time version of 1960s rockabilly tune “Candy Girl”, Adams strutted, pranced, and moaned like a Let It Bleed-era Mick Jagger. Adams whipped the crowd into delirium before the opener’s second chorus, and kept them so wired that their cheers and screams almost drowned out the band’s entire second tune, “Firecracker”, off Adams’ latest release, Gold.
And then the fireworks really began. Once the applause for the first two songs finally subsided, Adams grinned to the crowd and declared “I’d like to introduce a friend of mine . . . this is my friend Adam”! Out strolled Adam Duritz of Counting Crows fame. Although a good 20 pounds over his usual fighting weight, Duritz’s voice was as emotive as ever, as he accompanied Ryan and the band on “Answering Bell”, another song off Gold. As the audience hollered, swooned, and sang along, Duritz and Adams harmonized with broad smiles on their faces, while the rhythm section held down the bottom. The crowd now firmly in his back pocket, Adams thanked and dismissed Duritz at the song’s end (oh, but Duritz would return . . .), and then proceeded to cover most of the musical spectrum of rock music over the past 40 years.
On Friday night, Ryan Adams with LAX was Dylan with the Rolling Thunder Review; he was Neil with the original Crazy Horse lineup, he was Mick and Iggy in their prime, and much more. Sweat dripping down his grinning face, Adams played current single “New York, New York”, like a young Lindsey Buckingham (of Fleetwood Mac fame), belting pop melodies over a driving, major-chord progression. And when the band left Ryan alone with his acoustic guitar for “My Winding Wheel”, off of Heartbreaker, Adams may as well have been Gram Parsons, minus Emmylou Harris (although she actually does appear on his first album). When Adam Duritz returned to the stage—with a potent yellow beverage that he passed to the drummer and bass player for sampling—to join the band for “Rocket Man”, Ryan Adams was like a young Elton John. I don’t mean the contemporary, drivel-spewing, self-promoting has-been, but the early ‘70s, ballsy Elton that put out such monster records as Tumbleweed Connection and Honky Chateau.
There’s no doubting that Adams wears his musical influences on his sleeve, but critics would be wise to stand back and let Ryan Adams show just how much music he’s capable of producing. The prolific 26-year-old has already released six full albums and over 100 songs in just five years, and he’s releasing a punk album early next year with backing band The Pink Hearts. He’s also sung the praises of speed metal band Slayer, and he made a point Friday night to praise Mariah Carey’s music (he also claimed that he’d “give her a packet of crackers and point her toward his bed”, but that seems to be another story), so “The Next Dylan” title may be a little premature!
Above all, it seems that Ryan Adams is a student and lover of music. And if it happens that we get a great song like “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)”, off Adams’ first solo effort, because he’d been listening to Blonde and Blonde for a few weeks before he wrote it, then maybe we should just be happy we get a great song.
Those lucky enough to see Friday’s show got a rare musical treat in this day of static set lists and 70-minute shows. Few songwriters are as prolific and talented as Ryan Adams; and of that group, perhaps only one or two can lead bands like LAX or the Pink Hearts as easily as they can serenade you with an acoustic guitar. I won’t be one to saddle him with cookie-cutter labels or doubt how far he can go.