The opportunity was there. The show started with a broken monitor and an obnoxious fan seized the moment to try and start a dialogue with what used to be considered rock ‘n’ roll’s most temperamental and gifted performers. Instead, Ryan Adams waited for the new monitor and took it out on the music, turning in a two hour set that announced that his new band, the Cardinals, had come to play.
Adams spent his early years in alt-country heroes Whiskeytown. As the genre faded so did his interest in the band. After an opening slot on a John Fogerty tour, he opted to go solo, and in 2000 he released Heartbreaker to great acclaim. A prodigious songwriter, Adams has been known to be temperamental. Dogged by fans who seem utterly amused by the similarity of his name to that of a Canadian Top 40 musician and his hit involving the warmer months of 1969, he has been involved in his fair share of walk-offs and meltdowns. His last three records have seen him embrace being a member of a band again. Though, for contractual reasons, Easy Tiger was titled a Ryan Adams record, it was a collaborative effort with his backing band, the Cardinals. His new album, Cardinology, will also bear the band’s name. A re-birth can be a very freeing experience and Adams’ immersion into the Cardinals has done just that, liberating him from the baggage of his years of solo performances and allowing him to re-invent himself as the frontman of an incredibly tight band.
Adams took the stage about 15 minutes after the announced time and fans filled the aisles as he played “Come Pick Me Up” from his first solo release. Vocally, he showed none of the wear and tear that the road can cause. His subtle and fan beloved take on Oasis’ “Wonderwall” left the crowd breathless. After the debacle with the monitor (which was the only technical issue of the night as the theater team created a pristine sound throughout) Adams took a moment to share a story about Diana Ross with guitarist, Neal Casal. Sensing the joke was over, Casal said, “let us do another song for you” and that was the last words the band shared before saying good night almost two hours later.
Casal proved to be a perfect foil for Adams. The competent guitar player and vocalist filled in for Sheryl Crow on the single ”Two”, while the guitar solo swaps between Adams and Casal in “Goodnight Rose” further demonstrated how invigorating this band setting is for Adams. This support allows him to wander in and out of songs far more than his previous line-ups since Whiskeytown’s demise. Next up was a three-song highpoint with “Go Easy”, Dear John”, and “Mockingbird”, and while Adams mentioned that he did not feel well, the first hour and a half blew by with incredible energy.
After “Freeway to the Canyon” Adams announced that they were going to take a break and come back and play until curfew. In this case his ambition exceeded his ability, as the few minutes off stage really seemed to allow his oncoming illness to catch up. Three years ago, the lights could have gone up right then. But it was Adams’ solo shows that courted that sort of catastrophe. The Cardinals don’t deliver bad shows. The band retook the stage and settled in for another set.
The second set’s highlights came fast with the modest hit “Everybody Knows”, as well as the often-covered “When the Stars Go Blue”. After 30 minutes, the Cardinals left the stage to thunderous applause from the Rochester crowd. As Adams left the stage, his tour manager announced to those in the wings that he felt too ill to go on. No matter. The two-hour set exceeded the expectations of the crowd who swallowed the merchandise tables as they left.
A number of songs from the upcoming Cardinology were clear crowd favorites. “Go Easy”, “Cobwebs”, and “Magick” all suggest a return to what Adams does best. Perhaps most surprising was the absolute clarity and tone in Adams’ voice. While the sound in the old theater played its part, his vocal delivery elevated average songs to great and great songs to magical. Throughout the evening, the Cardinals would complete songs with a four-part harmony that could raise the hairs on even the most jaded neck.
As the Cardinals left the theater, it was easy to think that this is what Whiskeytown could have become had it been built to last: an incredibly tight band, meaningful songs, and a tremendous rapport among those performing. But don’t waste your energy mourning what “could have been”. Get a tour schedule and get out and see what “is”.