Publicity photo courtesy of Nasty Little Man

Ryan Adams & The Unknown Band Take the Berkeley Greek Prisoner

Ryan Adams rocks the People's Republic of Berkeley for his "best show ever"?
Ryan Adams & The Unknown Band

It’s a gorgeous Friday evening in beautiful Berkeley with the sun shining and balmy breezes blowing as music fans fill one of America’s most classic concert venues. The Greek Theater on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley is one of those basic yet well-designed and therefore timeless amphitheaters that predate the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, meaning that almost everyone who’s anyone in rock history has played here.

From the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Doors in the ‘60s to the likes of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden in the ‘90s and on into the 21st century, the Greek remains one of the best places to see live music in the world. The sound is near perfect from almost anywhere in the venue, surrounded by trees in scenic Strawberry Canyon with all the action of both the UC campus and downtown Berkeley in walking distance to boot. Some Deadheads in attendance have put in an extra mile to make this show a sandwich in between performances from Dead & Company at the Hollywood Bowl the previous night and at the Bay Area’s Shoreline Ampitheater the following night.

Adams would dig this for he too is something of a Deadhead, having performed with GD bassist Phil Lesh on several occasions in 2005 when he made such an impression that Lesh has kept a handful of Adams’ songs in his own repertoire ever since. The show’s opener “Let It Ride” from Adams’ 2005 double-LP masterpiece Cold Roses is one of these songs, and it kicks things off with a charge. The two-thirds of the crowd that occupies the tiered rows in the Greek somehow remains seated, despite the song being one of Adams’ most impassioned rockers. This simply won’t do for those who came to rock out, and so the fans who don’t care for a sit-down show descend toward the pit.

Adams keeps a deep vibe going with “Magnolia Mountain”, another tune from Cold Roses that starts out softly but builds with a powerful jam that indeed conjures classic artists such as the Grateful Dead and Neil Young. Adams’ audience seems to be able to appreciate such jams, though they don’t really show it until they cheer at the end. “Two” from 2007’s excellent Easy Tiger LP shimmers with a gorgeous effect in the twilight air as Adams sings endearingly of how it now takes two pills to reach the desired effect “when it used to take only one”. Those who are sitting miss a great chance to sway to some beautiful melodies here.

“Fix It” finds the band rocking a cut from 2008’s underrated Cardinology, with Adams leading the band through a little bit of jammy exploration that again seems somewhat unappreciated until the crowd cheers approval after the peak. It may be a shoegazer type of crowd, but they do listen intently, and they don’t chatter incessantly during the quiet parts of the show. One could draw a comparison to Adams’ superb show from a decade ago on the Easy Tiger tour at the nearby Berkeley Community Theater. The Greek is more than twice as large, yet the audience here remains riveted by the music. It probably has something to do with fans appreciating that Adams is back to full health so that he can tour with a fully electric band, following the unfortunate hearing problems he was having in 2008-09 that necessitated stepping back from live music for a few years.

Adams delves into 2017’s deeply emotional Prisoner album with a crowd-pleasing solo 12-string acoustic intro on the title track, before the band comes in mid-song to boost it to full power. Some artists get creatively sidelined when they go through tough breakups, but Adams admirably channeled the fallout from the collapse of his marriage to Mandy Moore into one of the greatest breakup albums ever recorded. The songs sparkle in the live setting with “Outbound Train” and “Do You Still Love Me” being further examples, as the band rocks with a sonic grandeur befitting of a larger venue like this.

“Sweet Illusion” from Cold Roses is another melodic gem that fits into the Prisoner theme, with Adams singing endearingly on one of his previous classics about being lonely and sad. A low-key rendition of perennial crowd pleaser “When the Stars Go Blue” takes on an extra aura outdoors under the stars, with Adams’ guitar notes ringing out through the canyon and his disco ball adding some extra sparkle to the night. The acoustic-oriented “Ashes and Fire” is well received too, but it’s “Peaceful Valley” that sends the show into another dimension.

Originally an acoustic countrified number about “trying to find a peaceful song to sing when everything goes wrong” from the Jacksonville City Nights LP that was just one of three (!) that Adams released in 2005, the song soon evolved toward that Grateful Dead/Crazy Horse sound that has made it one of the most powerful numbers in the prolific songwriter’s extensive repertoire. Here he leads the Unknown Band on a spectacular foray into a multi-dimensional jam that may be lost on some of the crowd, but which is a keeper for those who really dig his entire arsenal of musical skills. The jam builds like one of those classic early ‘70s Dead jams where the music plays the band and the musicians find themselves in uncharted territory as the muses lead the way on a dazzling trip through multiple sonic landscapes (making it no wonder that it’s another of Adams’ songs that Phil Lesh plays on his own).

In a 2008 interview with Relix Magazine, Adams spoke of his admiration for Lesh in a way that sheds light on the metaphysical power of such jams: “I’ve seen Phil Lesh do musical things that were tantamount, in my opinion, to a pagan ritual in which you literally saw an apparition. I’ve seen him do that musically. I have seen him destroy reality and look at me as if to say, ‘I’ve just destroyed reality.’ I’ve seen it, and a lot of people who listen to his music or that kind of music understand that side is possible. So because I don’t know a lot of scales and I have my own version of that, I want to figure out how to do that with songwriting.”

Generating that kind of shamanic vibrations through song takes sonic alchemy of the highest order, and Adams’ goal of doing so explains much about what a uniquely talented artist he is. It’s a tall mountain to climb, but as Adams and the band soar through the “Peaceful Valley”, it becomes clear that he is finding his way. Whether this Unknown Band could match the power of the Cardinals lineup that Adams toured with from 2006 to 2009 seemed in doubt during the first half of the show, but here they prove their mettle. “Dear John” seems a bit anti-climactic in the wake of such a mind-melting jam, but “Doomsday” from the new album gets things back on track. The yearning song expressing affection “until doomsday comes” feels like it could have come from Adams’ classic era of Gold and Heartbreaker, yet it rings with a fresh quality that shows Adams is still at the top of his game.

His staple cover of “Wonderwall” by Oasis might seem an odd choice to some, but it’s one of those tunes like Alice in Chains’ “Down in a Hole” where he puts his own hauntingly transformative stamp on it with mesmerizing vocals that transcend the original version. Adams pauses afterward to remark that being at the Greek “is like one big vape right now”, a fitting sentiment in a county long known for its pioneering efforts in the commercialization of medical cannabis. Such enhancements toward higher consciousness pay off on “Everybody Knows”, another gem from Easy Tiger that shimmers in the Berkeley night as the band takes it on a little ride boosted further by some great organ work.

The show moves back into the powerful bluesy jam rock territory with a hard hitting “Cold Roses” that seems like it might close the set as the band rocks with a climactic momentum. But Adams tops it off with a vibrant rendition of “New York, New York” that finally gets some more of the crowd on its feet. The song rings like a 21st-century version of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”, further testament to Adams’ advanced songwriting skills. The chord progression is fairly basic, but there’s an infectious quality to the way the chords, melodies, and rhythms blend that makes it next to impossible to sit still. This seems like it will be the end since the band is up against the 11 pm curfew, but Adams pulls one more savvy card from up his sleeve with a solo acoustic reading of “Come Pick Me Up” that won’t violate any ordinance about decibel levels.

Adams goes on to tweet “best audience/fave show ever”, expressing a sentiment that might seem insincere coming from most artists but Adams is not most artists. He’s made a career out of baring his soul in song and always wearing his heart on his sleeve, so it’s hard to be skeptical. He may not really travel in the jam rock scene, but there’s no doubt he holds playing the Berkeley Greek in a sacred light. This is appropriate since the Greek has been one of rock’s greatest sonic temples since the 1960s, almost always featuring a passionate crowd that’s all about the music. It’s therefore not hard to see this show as a peak moment in Adams’ career. Maybe next time he’ll treat fans to multiple nights like the Grateful Dead used to do.