So it’s Friday night and I’m at the Pageant watching Ryan Adams alternately strut and stumble around in his high-heeled cowboy boots, and the flickers from the disco ball on the ceiling are making pretty patterns on the wall and the effect is very hypnotic and my mind starts drifting to the essential big questions -- like, who the hell is Ryan Adams?
Yes, I know, he is not the guy who sang “Summer of ‘69,” although I heard he threw a tantrum at a show once when a fan shouted out a request for it. (I thought it would have been way cooler if he’d come up with his own ironic version.) He was the guy who was in Whiskeytown back in the '90s, then he went solo and recorded that “New York, New York” song that got adopted as the post- 9/11 anthem. And then he went on a recording bender and started putting out three albums a year, -- and then there were those stories about coke abuse (which would explain the recording bender). Now he’s gone through rehab and made a new album called Easy Tiger (which he has to promote), which is why we – Ryan Adams and I and a sold-out crowd – are at the Pageant tonight.
No, what puzzles me about Ryan Adams is the stumbling/strutting thing. His stage patter sounds like he doesn’t give a shit – he begins by announcing in a hipster monotone, “We are in St. Louis. You are listening to this show in St. Louis,” and later makes some lame omelette/Hamlet joke. It would seem logical for him to comment on the similarity between the name of his band, The Cardinals, and that of our baseball team, but maybe that would come off as trying too hard to make us think he cares. (Or maybe, as my companion suggested, the bizarre hooting noises he made into the microphone were the call of the cardinal and he was trying to connect with us on some deeper, more primal level.)
But then, while Ryan Adams is saying all this nonsense, he’s bending down to fiddle with his amp, and communicating to the band through elaborate arm gestures how they should tune their amps. Behind that artfully-arranged mop of hair that covers half his face, Ryan Adams is intense. Ryan Adams is in control.
Ryan Adams records alt-country. Most of the songs on his albums hover around the four- or five-minute range. His repertoire is a mix of hard-rockers and ballads, which he sings in a falsetto that makes him sound like he is crying. But when Ryan Adams and the Cardinals perform, they sound less like Wilco and more like the Grateful Dead. Does Ryan Adams not-so-secretly wish he could go on the jam-band circuit?
Or is Ryan Adams just sick of playing the same songs over and over? Halfway through the show, he announces that he is going to play “Two” and “Everybody Knows,” the two hits from Easy Tiger that we presumably paid so much money to hear live. And he does. And they sound just like they do on the recording. And then Ryan Adams heaves a sigh of relief and he and the band go back to jamming.
When Ryan Adams and the Cardinals are jamming well, they are jamming well. They play elaborate renditions of “Beautiful-Sorta” and “Rescue Blues” that sound way better than they do on CD. But when, as happens with jam bands, the noodling goes too far, the crowd gets restless and even the devout fans, who expected the jamming, start chatting amongst themselves.
Rumor had it that Ryan Adams was going to play one electric set and one acoustic set. He does not. He and the band remain plugged the entire time. At the end, he tells us we’ve been a wonderful audience, the best he’s ever seen, and then he slips off his guitar and heads backstage. Half the crowd stands and applauds, the post-show ritual of begging for an encore. But Ryan Adams does not return. Instead the house lights go up and “Rock the Casbah” comes over the loudspeaker.
On the way out the door, the armchair psychoanalysis continues. Is Ryan Adams just sick of touring? St. Louis is one of his last stops in the U.S. Does he just want to go back home to New York and write three more albums’ worth of new songs instead of making lame stage patter about sports teams in order to sell more copies of the songs that have been up on iTunes for a couple of months already?
Ryan Adams tells the audience what agony it is to have to pimp a couple of hit songs. He says it in his ironic monotone and bends his head and pretends to sob. To paraphrase one of his older hits, I believe in the irony sorta – but not.
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