Ryan Adams
Balboa Theater, San Diego
Oct. 11, 2011

Sometimes I feel like audiences need a primer for Ryan Adams concerts. There will be no laughing, singing along out loud or clapping in time with the songs; there will be no screaming out song requests, there will be no photography, no recording devices, no checking of phone messages. You should, at a Ryan Adams show, do nothing but breathe (and not through your mouth, either). You should listen quietly, sit back and enjoy the ride.

And what a ride it is, when you do what Adams wants. “Put on your helmets,” he declared as soon as he got onstage last night. “Prepare to rock with a fury like you’ve never seen.”
Everyone laughed because in his red checked polo shirt, skinny jeans and carefully touseled, face-covering hairdo, Adams didn’t look
disheveled, exactly. But he didn’t look like a man who could put a crowd
under a spell.

Then he picked up his guitar, and opened his mouth to perform a pristine, tender rendition of “Oh My Sweet Carolina.”  And that was it. We were rocked by Mr. Adams for the rest
of the evening, and it was done so masterfully, hardly anyone minded,
really, that we were subject to his whim for two and a half hours.

The stripped down set, conducted on a stage bare except for a piano, a straight-backed chair, a side table, a few mic stands and a music stand, was made up of earlier songs, even though his ninth studio album, Ashes & Fire,was released that day on his label, Capitol/Pax-AM. “I must have been bitten by my old catalog,” Adams quipped, and indeed–HeartbreakerGold and Love Is Hell were well represented, to the delight of the swooning audience.

The 23-song set was proof of just how powerful a man, a guitar and a beautiful voice could be. Not once did Adams flub his lines, hit a wrong note or mangle a chord. And the singer-songwriter, for all his jovial stage banter, was very much aware of just how powerful his music was. He knew exactly when to turn on the pathos, when to pull a song from his gut, when to make people laugh. 

For the first few songs, Adams was jovial, making a slew of DRAyanisms. (To wit: “Here’s another summer anthem for all of you to take to the beach,” before “Dirty Rain”; or “I’ve never played at an infirmary before,” after a few audience members started coughing; or, talking about his harmonica, “The amount of spit that goes into it, sandwich particles…I can tell you I had grilled cheese yesterday.”)

Throughout the years, I’d become the Ryan Adams fan that walked on eggshells, always at the edge of my seat, always hoping no one would do anything to antagonize him so badly he would stop performing. Luckily, it wasn’t until song No. 4 that douchebags in the audience started shouting out song titles. When someone yelled out a request for what is possibly Adams’ most popular song, “Come Pick Me Up,” Adams said, “Thank you, I’ll keep that in mind…It will probably be at the end of my set, but if you have somewhere else you have to be, I’ll play it for you now.”

Instead of tantrums, it seems Adams has become better at putting people in their place. 
For example, he took off his overshirt, prompting someone in the audience to yell out “TAKE IT ALL OFF!” and “MY WIFE SAYS YOU’RE HOT!” He laughed at that, but when someone else yelled, “YOUR WIFE IS HOT!” he proceeded to launch into an uneven rendition of “Firecracker”–mostly, it seemed, to shut people up. Alas, the audience instead started clapping along to the beat, leading Adams to change the song’s tempo throughout the song til everyone stopped. The song (one of my all-time favorites) was ruined, but hey–we were now schooled again, and Adams was still in a good mood, and still playing a great set.

And if that attitude started to unravel a bit toward the end when the audience started taking more liberties with calling out requests and yelling out well-wishes, it was okay. Whenever it all seemed to overwhelm Adams, he would pull out a quirky scenario or two (Megadeth scenarios! Zombies!) for crowd control. And when he had enough, the piece de resistance: the moving, heartfelt call for love, “Come Pick Me Up.”

Random Notebook Dump: In the event that someone calls me out on talking about Ryan Adams’ banter instead of the show, let me say this: the music was–is–irrefutable. It was emotional, it was perfect, and I wished about a hundred times that night that I was the only one in the room watching him. That said, on a level of interesting, his banter was definitely on par with the music. I mean, he played a metal version of “Two.” Just how awesome is that?

Critic’s Bias: I find it unfair that God made a man as funny, cute and talented as Ryan Adams.

Overheard in the crowd: “I drove two hours for this, Ryan Adams better melt my face.”

P.S. If you want to see a drawing of opener Jason Isbell, here it is.  


Set list:

  1. Oh My Sweet Carolina
  2. Ashes & Fire
  3. If I Am a Stranger 
  4. Dirty Rain
  5. Invisible Riverside
  6. Everybody Knows
  7. Rescue Blues
  8. My Winding Wheel
  9. Why Do They Leave?
  10. Lucky Now
  11. Please Do Not Let Me Go
  12. Firecracker
  13. New York, New York (piano version)
  14. Let It Ride
  15. Blue Hotel
  16. Carolina Rain
  17. Two
  18. Two (metal version)
  19. I See Monsters
  20. Jacksonville Skyline
  21. Houses On The Hill
  22. This House Is Not For Sale
  23. Come Pick Me Up

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