Ryan Adams | Jason Isbell Peabody Opera House January 31, 2012
Ryan Adams has had a troubled relationship with himself and with his music, which forms much of the the narrative of his later career. Many of his fans have held similarly ambivalent opinions about his work. It has been difficult to be invested in his many wildly divergent projects, which have been more restless than artistic. Still, many have remained hopeful.
Hopeful of what? The more recent material that Adams produced with the Cardinals, while often lacking depth, was certainly not bad. It was often very good. And the shifts and stutters of his personal life, while keeping us whispering, had little impact on the sounds coming out of our car speakers. We have always been hopeful that at some point we could again experience the intimate clarity and escape provided by the scarred romantic idealism of Adams' early career. His latest album, Ashes and Fire, seemed to indicate that he too wanted to get back to that place. The album is more settled and confident than his later work, while still recalling those early records. And if Ashes was a hint of this intent, his solo performance at the Peabody Opera House last night was an open proclamation.
When opener Jason Isbell took the stage at 8 p.m. the floor of the Peabody was only sparsely populated. The younger crowd, mostly 20- and 30-somethings, took its time settling into the seats. Some were likely still admiring the stunning lobby of the newly renovated Peabody, while others seemed uninterested in catching the opening set. Inside the auditorium, Isbell offered up a short but solid performance in spite of the mildly inattentive crowd. Just as he did when opening for John Prine at the Touhill Performing Arts Center back in December, Isbell proved himself worthy of a spot in the top tier of songwriters and performers.
After a long intermission, Adams -- a slight shadow with ragged hair -- took to the dimly lit stage, settling into a chair at its center that was flanked by two acoustic guitars and a small table. Opening with "Oh My Sweet Carolina" and "Ashes & Fire," he set an even pace that would wander through his entire catalog. New songs like "Invisible Riverside" and "Lucky Now" felt perfectly at home beside more familiar favorites like "My Winding Wheel" and "Firecracker." His dry voice, often inflected with a slight vibrato, was clear and expressive, carrying much of the weight of the songs. On "Ashes & Fire," it carried a straight-ahead, Dylan-like forcefulness, while on the set closer, "Come Pick Me Up," it leapt desperately at the chorus, effectively carrying the drama of the arrangement on Heartbreaker.
At stage right sat an upright piano, and though it would be utilized on only three of the set's twenty-somethings songs, it earned its keep. Hunched at the bench, with his back to the audience and with head bowed close to the keys, Adams coaxed out inspired versions of "Sweet Lil Gal (23rd/1st)," "Rescue Blues," and "New York, New York."
By shifting across the stage often (he also stood at a stage-left mic for a few tunes) and changing instruments, Adams kept the pace and dynamics interesting. Time between songs was filled with eager jokes that were met with even more eager laughter. He seemed more comfortable on stage last night than he has in years. Though the set was filled with well-known tunes -- many in attendance knew every word -- it never felt overly nostalgic. Instead, it was a distilled demonstration of some of Adams' most original and meaningful work, passionately delivered. It was a performance that many fans had been hoping for.
After the encore break, Adams returned to stage for a cover of the Alice in Chains song "Nutshell" and then asked Jason Isbell to join him on stage, announcing that Wednesday was Isbell's birthday. Adams interviewed Isbell, questioning him about his birthday plans and providing the most relaxed, personal moment of the show. (Isbell and his girlfriend are going to see Jeff Mangum perform in Atlanta, if you're curious.) The two ended the encore with Isbell's "Danko/Manuel" (a song originally recorded by Isbell's previous band, Drive-By Truckers) that, despite some minor technical issues with Adams' guitar, was a wonderful end to a fine performance.
Ryan Adams' fans are exceedingly devoted and passionate, despite the sometimes unsatisfying twists of his career. Last night they were rewarded. Adams' music is imbued with a romance for life that is a touch seperated from reality. Sometimes, he has chosen to abandon reality himself. Fortunately, he seems to be on different road. It's one where he is no longer chasing that fantasy, instead relying on it as a temporary escape. And that has made all the difference.
Notes, setlists and additional illustration can be found on the next page.
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