Ryan Adams returned to Carnegie Hall in New York in November 2014 for two shows, after last performing there in the winter of 2011. The 2014 shows were part of the ongoing tour for his self-titled album; unusually, these two gigs were solo affairs during a period in which Adams had been performing with his new electric band, the Shining, but they served to show Adams’ incredible versatility as a musician.
Of late Adams fans have had a lot to keep up with; as well as wide ranging European and American tours, there has been a flurry of 7” vinyl releases through his label PAX-AM (most recently Blue Light and I Do Not Feel Like Being Good, as well as additional releases from band mates and other associates). Adams’ previous live release, 2012’s Live After Deaf (also released on PAX-AM) was a fifteen vinyl box set, with performances taken from Adams’ June 2011 “Acoustic Nightmare” tour. In an extremely limited edition, Live After Deaf caused somewhat of a commotion; the website initially crashed for pre-orders, and the box was so limited it sold out almost instantly, with many not getting their hands on the physical product. Fortunately a downloadable version became available.
Things have been easier for Live at Carnegie Hall, although this six-LP vinyl box set version is again limited. PAX-AM have released two pressings (the first with yellow labels, the second with blue labels – other than that, there’s no difference), and there is also an abbreviated vinyl and CD version. Adams is certainly looking after his fans; PAX-AM have spent time and money on their website, and seem to have listened to their customers by providing a European as well as an American store. Admittedly some online music retailers leaked news of the release ahead of time causing some fan consternation, but this is hardly a big deal, and overall the work and consideration put in to logistics surely counts for a lot, especially when Adams has such a committed group of followers.
Delivering two shows (15 November and 17 November) in one release, as opposed to a single performance, also acknowledges that fans would clamour for both, and avoids any harping over whether Adams should have released one instead of the other. It also permits the super-fan and completist to analyse set lists and decide which set was preferable (not attempted here).
Night one stretches over the first three discs, and it’s immediately apparent from “Gimme Something Good”, which has more often than not been opening the recent electric shows, that the acoustic format permits more of a focus on the lyrical content of the songs. Adams is a fine songwriter, and his lyrics are often poetic and inventive. This record requires some concentration though; Adams accompanies himself with either guitar or piano only, and the emphasis is on quiet introspection. Effort is rewarded because there is a lot to appreciate, from the quirky “Damn, Sam” and the dark, brooding “Trouble” to the enigmatic “My Winding Wheel”, a song even Bob Dylan has puzzled over.
On the first night, Adams tells the audience before “Nobody’s Girl” that the show is about to get weird due to the choice of songs, and then delivers a flawless version of this track from Gold. However the eclectic set list serves us well. By my count, only five songs (out of a total of 42 performances over the two nights, 20 songs on night one and 22 songs on night two) are repeated over the two shows, and there is a good mix of old and new material (with a handful of songs from his self-titled album and Ashes and Fire), together with some rarities: On night one Adams pulls out an impressive version of “Rats in the Wall” from recent PAX-AM single 1984, the reflective “Avenues” from Whiskeytown album Strangers Almanac and the previously unreleased “This Is Where We Meet in My Mind’”, a propulsive blues gem. At times Adams sounds like an early Bob Dylan (“Halloween”), but perhaps less so when he takes to the piano for the beautiful “Sylvia Plath”. A stand-out of the first show is the charming “English Girls Approximately”, full of spirited energy.
Amongst super-fans, there was some concern (on the basis of audience tapes) that night two would evidence a high volume of distracting audience coughing (and at one point Adams good-naturedly references it from the stage). Thankfully any spluttering seems to have been reduced through editing, and the different set list works to great effect, with “Oh My Sweet Carolina” moved to opener. Even when a song is repeated from night one, he tries a different interpretation, swapping “New York, New York” from guitar to piano.
The first evening had a good share of humorous chat from the stage about Angry Birds and Terminator 2, but the second night seems to catch Adams in more confessional mood. Before an endearing performance of “Friends”, a track from 2005’s Cold Roses, Adams admits the song is named after the television series of the same name, and later tells a story about his father running over an iPhone with a truck. The jokey chat serves as light relief from what are often intense and (particularly in an acoustic setting) sad songs; Adams suggests at one point that the audience must be on anti-depressants because they are, after all, at his show. Even cowboys get the blues, and in a past life Adams may have had some difficult times on stage and off, but now he is capable of dealing with a request for Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69” by brilliantly comparing the negativity of an ironic shout-out to the concept of watching someone not help an elderly person cross the road. Adams has always been bright and mercurial, and it’s a pleasure to listen to him turn something stupid into something clever. And yes, the recent media frenzy over Adams covering the song in concert hopefully should mean that any pranksters can now dismount from the apparently compulsive Bryan/Ryan gravy train, which was ultimately fueled by an uninteresting “co-incidence” in having similar names. Like, how insightful. It means nothing and it’s not a particularly witty comparison.
Night 2 also features a rare solo performance of “The Hardest Part” from Jacksonville City Nights, but the show truly begins to build in intensity with a resonant piano version of “The Rescue Blues”, and then on in to a potent threesome (with guitar) of “Lucky Now”, “Dear Chicago”, and “Desire”. Surprise of the night must have been “How Much Light”, from an unreleased record deemed “too sappy”; we can speculate that perhaps this was from the scrapped album made with Glyn Johns before Ashes and Fire, but in any event it’s mighty impressive and goes to show the high quality of Adams material stored away in the vaults. In the past there has been some concern that Adams is outwardly too casual with his talent, but his self-depreciatory humour on this record puts that idea in a more human context.
Adams finishes up with a beautifully sung cover of Bob Mould’s “Black Sheets of Rain”, and then the almost obligatory crowd-pleasing alt-anthem of “Come Pick Me Up”. The last side of the last LP is made up entirely of continuous looped clapping to fill up the spare side, potentially confusing to aliens if they dig up this box in a hundred years trying to discover what kind of life once existed on earth. Still, even this last side is better than Metal Machine Music, and perhaps it will reasonably be assumed that this was the sound humans made when leaving the Carnegie Hall, albeit very slowly. Those who left must have departed happy, because these were inter-galactic shows and the recordings of them on this box are also out of this world.