Having seen Ryan Adams four times previously I’m not bragging (actually to hell with it, I so am) I can say with some certainty that there are two of him.
There is the Ryan Adams who will coyly emerge from the wings on to an utterly desolate stage, where cutting a small, frail, lonesome figure, he would sit in front of his piano or take up his guitar and appear so overwhelmed by the cruel world that to struggle through a few of his most desperate numbers was almost beyond him. Then there is Rock Ryan, who will strut around stage with the Cardinals striking every rock pose in the book and hitting magnificent heights of electric celebration.
A rammed KOKO witnessed something in between. He played with the Cardinals, but they were all seated and dressed in sombre suits. Ryan’s voice, at 32, has a booming maturity and is perhaps the best it will ever be, but he made no attempts at the jovial (and granted, often cack-handed) attempts at banter. The music was phenomenal and it was this simple fact that convinced me that those extremes are merely attitudes. Here at last, his ego and confusion over what character he should play takes a back seat to his songs, which have always been of a standard only a couple of his contemporaries can match.
Most moving tonight were Jacksonville City Night’s Games, a gorgeous Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard (the only track from 2001’s Gold that escaped the taint of Elton John‘s soft rock influence) and I See Monsters. Heartbreaker’s Winding Wheel received a very welcome outing too.
Material from the forthcoming Easy Tiger album is no radical departure a continuation of the ‘grown-up’ themes of Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights and 29. One noticeable difference is that while he has always sounded like Gram Parsons (albeit with a far stronger voice), he has never approached the Flying Burrito Brothers. As the Cardinals become more involved in harmonies, they lean towards that territory. Elsewhere he is a 21st century Jackson Browne with songs about love, death and desire.
John Graboff on pedal steel is a musician of such stature as to risk stealing the show, but it is this new vocal depth of Adams that most resonates, settling between demonic and romantic at last. He sung without actually playing an instrument at all times, emphasising both that Ryan Adams the singer has emerged to take centre stage, and that he is just one element of a band once again. And what a band they are.
Finally, we have a Ryan Adams who no longer sees monsters, but sees himself and what comes naturally this quixotic balladry, with added tragedy and comedy as is his wont. The music has always been sublime, and now he has the temperament to foster it to even greater heights.