Ryan Adams just might be clairvoyant. On “Two”, a song from this year’s Easy Tiger (his best album in years), he croons the line, “I’ve got a really good heart / I just can’t catch a break.” No, it isn’t about unrequited love: he’s referring to his forthcoming summer concert in Salt Lake City, where—in fact—he really couldn’t catch a break (despite well-meaning internal organs).
At the lovely Red Butte Gardens, fans brought in coolers, blankets, and folding chairs to make their lawn-sitting experience all the more enjoyable—and what a lawn! The sky was lightly overcast, and wind blowing through the lush, beautiful bushes behind the amphitheater stage gave the whole scene a certain grace. Of course, it was hard to see anything else: the venue was completely sold out, with everyone from aging hippies and college students mixing in with an NPR-type crowd. Over 2,000 people filled the grass-covered hill, and few of them seemed to be casual listeners. Teenage girls wore official Cardinals merchandise, while men in their ‘30s donned Grateful Dead tees with pride. Anxious ticket-holders were treated to the unusual pre-show music selection of Edith Piaf’s greatest hits, though the speakers did switch over to Madonna’s “Vogue” before Adams and band took the stage.
With the band seated in a straight line, Adams sandwiched himself between Jamie Candiloro’s piano and Brad Pemberton’s drum set—the singer donned a checkered button-down while the rest of his band wore darker semi-formal wear. Needless to say, Adams stood out from his bandmates, but not without reason. Launching into “Games”, the group seemed roaring to go. Adams’ donned sunglasses for the entire set (never removing them for a second), possibly to protect himself from Jon Graboff’s extraordinary pedal-steel work, a feat that came dangerously close to stealing the show. His powerful playing fleshed out the six-piece band’s sound, giving every song a slick, professional sheen. The band appeared in total sync as they launched into “Please Don’t Let Me Go”, a ballad from Adams’ old Love is Hell project. But, when that number ended, the problems began.
Adams seemed annoyed by something and appeared to be yelling directly at Pemberton, but—as we would later learn—he was actually yelling at the sound technician stage left. A few F-bombs found their way into the mic during this between-song break. Though “Wild Flowers” went off without a hitch, the audio problems really crept up on Easy Tiger track “God, Whatever, Etc.” (one of only two Tiger tracks he would play during the set). Right before the chorus, the mic snagged a nasty bit of feedback, causing Adams to tilt his head in pain. He still was able to make the chorus without missing a beat, but it was obvious he wasn’t happy.
It was then that we realized one of Adams’ strengths as a performer: even when he’s irked, he can go through his classics at full capacity. His voice hit every note on cue, on pitch, and without an ounce of road-fatigue. As a matter of fact, when he broke into a blistering electric-guitar solo from lesser-known track “What Sin (Replaces Love)?”, the crowd let out an uproarious cheer (one fan—perhaps seeing me take notes—asked me what the name of the song was, reveling in the wall of awesome just bestowed upon him).
The Cardinals’ are no second-rate supporting group either. Guitarist Neal Casal’s backing harmonies meshed perfectly with Adams’ gritty howls, and Pemberton was always glancing at the leading man to make sure they were on the same page when a blistering guitar solo jam was eminent (note: they were always on the same page). Two songs later, the crowd was giving another half-ovation. “Cold Roses” caused many in the audience to sing along, though their spiritual connection with the alt-country god was severed when—again—Adams began yelling at the sound technician (apparently because the vocals were being drowned out by his guitar).
After the song, a fan yelled out “C’mon!” Adams—in no good mood—spoke right into the mic to respond: “Where do you want me to go? Am I not going to the next song fast enough? I’ll try harder, sir.” To some, this banter would be funny, but, given the context, it fostered a brash tension in the air, making the whole audience wonder if a full-on verbal war was going to result. Adams plowed through the next three songs (“Mockingbird”, “Dear John”, and “Dear Chicago”) without taking as much as an audience-applause break. It was during this patch that the songs began to feel a bit jam-heavy, often going over six minutes and—ultimately—bringing the show’s momentum down. “Dear Chicago” was the late-game rally, as Adams turned the Demolition-era acoustic ballad into an up-tempo, bluesy-stomp. Fan favorites like “Magnolia Mountain” and “A Kiss Before I Go” followed shortly after, before he closed the evening with “Easy Plateau”. With the closing note of “Plateau”, Adams thanked the audience for this “exciting time” and sped off the stage like he couldn’t leave fast enough. Talking to some of the Red Butte Personnel an hour after the set had ended, it was obvious that Adams’ wasn’t pleased. He was upset about the sound mixing, so much so that he (apparently) told crew members he wouldn’t sign anything for waiting die-hards after the show.
Even though his on-stage presence was a bit apprehensive, Adams still managed to make some gorgeous music, giving us a few moments of complete guitar-rock brilliance. The 17-song managed to touch on at least one song from every album (except 29), including the superb “Blue House” from the Willie Nelson Songbird set that he produced. In the end, Adams delivered a good show. Not a spectacular show, and certainly not without its own set of problems, but still an excellent set from an artist who—for better or worse—refuses to settle for sub-par sound.