Better Than: That time where I could’ve seen Ryan Adams open for Oasis in 2008 and passed on it, like, “Eh, they’ll both be back around soon enough,” and then waited six years for a chance to see Adams for the first time.
Ryan Adams is a charmer. That’s something that got lost in the shuffle back when he and the media had a more contentious relationship, back when he was a supposedly more erratic performer and person. He’s a talker, and he’s hilarious. Sunday night at the Hammerstein, it was goofy asides about debating the color of a guitar with a bandmate, or a long story about going through airport security back in the just-after-9-11 days, when Adams was sporting what he deemed his “drug beard.” The approach gives Adams’s live show a freewheeling, hanging-with-all-my-friends kind of vibe. Particularly last night — having called NYC home for many years before moving out to L.A., Adams was psyched to be back, and the whole thing had the aura of a homecoming. “Let’s do this shit,” he said when he first walked onstage. “I’m in a great goddamn mood.”
He has good reason to be. His self-titled album, which came out in September, is his best work since 2005 or so, and he’s touring it with his new band, the Shining, which comprises a bunch of his friends. Adams clearly feeds off playing with these guys, and they’ve already developed a different ethos and sound than when he used to tour with the Cardinals; the Shining bring a slightly garage-ier take on early ’80s classic rock, like Springsteen or Tom Petty, with that reliable Adams reference of a bit of Paul Westerberg raggedness (especially on the intense outro to “I Just Might”), and a whole lot more weed smoke hanging around. Accordingly, set highlights came in the form of selections from their clutch of great new songs (opener “Gimme Something Good” setting the tone), as well as in the way this strong band injected a heavier swagger into, for example, the guitar part for “Am I Safe.”
The cool thing about seeing Adams with a new band and seeing him kinda-sorta-maybe settling on a particular sound for a bit is seeing the small ways they reinterpret some of his old classics. The intro to “Let It Ride” played out janglier, and with a heavy dose of solo-era Don Henley vibes. “New York, New York” was rebuilt on a mid-tempo tumbling drum pattern, and crested into an awesomely cathartic harmonica-drenched climax. Slowing the song down does it a service; and that slowing-down thing was a recurring theme. As you might’ve heard, Adams is really into weed now (he smokes it to help with his Ménière’s disease), and that’s certainly altered the way he’s writing and playing right now. “Magnolia Mountain” was a good example of this — it was no longer jam-y in the ramshackle Cold Roses-era mold, but had been turned into a slow-burn, bluesier number, utilizing that humid, sweet guitar tone Adams favors on his new songs.
Mixed in with all of that was a new song, “Blue Light,” from a forthcoming Pax Am single. (Adams has been low-key cranking out a bunch of gems on those Pax Am releases, and it keeps you wondering what he might be up to; “Jacksonville” and “I Keep Running” in particular were gorgeous, raw country, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he had a whole record like that in him.) “Blue Light” had a vaguely Love Is Hell vibe, and the version of Ryan Adams where strains of ’80s college rock make their way in is maybe the best iteration, so that’s a good thing. He explained, in one more of those amusing conversations with the audience, that it was inspired by lasers in The Empire Strikes Back and how an iPhone lights up a person’s face so that “they look kind of like Sith Lords.” “I just wanted to clarify that in no way is this song associated with George Lucas and/or episodes 1, 2, or 3,” he deadpanned.
The crowd loved every bit of his Adams-isms. It’s easy to forget just how crazy-devoted his fan base is, and seeing Adams live now is sort of heartwarming — long hampered by news headlines about this or that show incident, it’s great to see the guy happy and goofy onstage, joking with audience members and playing a sprawling two-hour set. There was the sense that Adams would’ve kept rolling, even after ever-present closer “Come Pick Me Up,” until the house lights were abruptly thrown on right after he finished that song. As his own lyrics goes, he’ll always love New York. Clearly, the feeling’s mutual.
Overheard: “This is our song! This is our song!” — a woman jumping up and down, high-fiving people at the outset of “New York, New York.”
Random Notebook Dump: Ryan Adams’s stage setup includes a handful of vintage arcade games, and that winds up looking a lot cooler onstage than you’d expect.
Critical Bias: Love Is Hell and Cold Roses were major, major albums for me in high school.
Gimme Something Good
Let It Ride
New York, New York
A Kiss Before I Go
Am I Safe
My Wrecking Ball
When the Stars Go Blue
My Winding Wheel
This House Is Not for Sale
I Just Might
Oh My Sweet Carolina
La Cienega Just Smiled
Crossed Out Name
I Love You but I Don’t Know What to Say
Come Pick Me Up