Near the end of Ryan Adams’s sold out City Arts Festival solo show at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, there was a moment that perfectly encapsulated the singer-songwriter’s schizophrenic brilliance. He was midway through a particularly spine-shivering rendition of “The End”, a gorgeous and agonizing meditation on the soul-killing routines of small town life, when he suddenly went off on an improvised tangent about the waitress in the song being a werewolf. It made no sense. It let the air out of one of the most emotionally pressurized moments of the show. It was annoying as hell. It was funny as hell too. In other words, it was vintage Ryan Adams.
For the most part, throughout the two-and-a-half hour show, Adams showed ample respect for his songs, and saved the hilarity for his between-song patter. He hit the stage at nine o’clock, wearing jeans and a t-shirt and leather jacket adorned with heavy metal band logos, his hair hanging down to the tip of his nose with a big smile spreading out just underneath. After shyly acknowledging the crowd’s enthusiastic ovation, he picked up a guitar, hung his jacket on the back of his chair, sat down and started playing “Oh My Sweet Carolina”, the most devastating ballad from his brilliant solo debut Heartbreaker. His frail vocal barely rose above the level of whispered conversation, but the room was so quiet, the audience so intensely focused on his every nuance, you could hear a pin drop — literally, perhaps: nearby, a woman typing away on her Blackberry was castigated by several audience members because the sound of her thumbs on the keyboard was all-too-audible.
Benaroya Hall is the home of the Seattle Symphony, and it’s a great place to see a show like this. A dozen microphones hang from the ceiling at the front of the stage, and the acoustics could not be more perfect. Adams took advantage of the setting to play a set consisting almost entirely of ballads. At one point in the show, as he made his way from his chair to a nearby piano, he joked, “Here are some more songs about my feelings”. Meanwhile, between songs, he turned into a standup comic, quipping that he wanted to be known as the “Gallagher of alt. country”, and rambling hilariously about ninjas and heavy metal.
Gone, for the most part, was the petulant Adams of years past. He kidded gently with the crowd, but his mood was so carefree and upbeat it was hard to believe the guy talking between songs was the same one who wrote the heart-rending lyrics and gorgeous melodies. There was one glimpse, though, of the old Ryan: when one insistent fan repeatedly shouted out for the eight-minute ballad “Strawberry Wine”, Adams tried to warn him off, saying, “Just let it happen”. When the fan responded with a shout of “Bullshit!”, you could see the old, naughty twinkle come into Adams’ eyes, and he started banging out chords and shrieking a death metal version of the song in question. It was yet another moment of sheer comic brilliance.
As for the actual songs Adams played, there was something for all his fans, including three from his old band Whiskeytown (“16 Days”, “Jacksonville Skyline”, “Avenues”), all the big solo hits (“Come Pick Me Up”, “Firecracker”, “New York, New York”, “Two”), a few rarities (“English Girls Approximately”, “Withering Heights”), and most of his new album, the frighteningly good Ashes and Fire. A few people grumbled and left early, disappointed that they weren’t seeing the rocking Ryan Adams of 2001 and Gold. The loss was entirely theirs, though they lacked the sensitivity to realize it. For everyone else, it was an unforgettable opportunity to witness a masterful artist working at the peak of his talents.
Adams at Benaroya (from his Facebook)