Thursday, July 16
Ryan Adams is no stranger to New Zealand but this is his first visit to Wellington in a half decade and just his second show in the capital. The last was with The Cardinals, this time he has a new band in tow, The Shining. They’re like a cut-down version of The E. Street Band offering rock’n’roll essence, from a whisper to a scream, so deftly controlled towards and controlling of the music. They trace around the shapes made by The Cardinals and other session players and add warmth via soft stabs of Heartbreakers-like organ and keys (Daniel Clarke), the thoughtful, probing bass of production/engineering wiz Charlie Stavish, Mike Viola (guitar) plays, er, second fiddle as guitarist/producer/co-sonic architect and powerhouse drummer Freddie Bokkenheuser has that no-frills, so-precise playing of a Max Weinberg but without the military rigidity – there’s space, importantly, for when Adams is channelling his inner metalhead or spiralling off into Grateful Dead jam-band territory. And tonight’s show is about many things – including songs by this generation’s finest songwriter – but it is most certainly about guitar solos and guitar-solo poses.
The mature Adams is a wonder to see and hear. No hissy fits, minimal banter – until he’s comfortable, then he’s hilarious – and a belief that, finally, there’s nothing to so desperately prove and it’s all about letting that catalogue of songs do the work. Present the gifts, keep the fans happy.
Adams cherry-picked hits and interesting moments from across his Cardinals and solo material, starting with the feel-good Gimme Something Good from last year’s Tom Petty-aping self-titled album, a return to form, or at least a return from a relatively long absence (three years in Adams Recording is like a decade for anyone else).
From there it’s to three live favourites Let It Ride and Dirty Rain, and towards Magnolia Mountain, the audience indulging Adams and band as they unpack classic-rock guitar solos and load them into swirling, long, strange trips within songs. It’s that Grateful Dead streak that first made itself known with the Cold Roses album. You can hear a pin drop in the hair-trigger moments when the band suddenly pulls up then lurch-surges forward. It’s never quite fully indulgent – usually exhilarating. But Ryan Adams has a great trick now, after two or three guitar workouts he throws in a “song”, something from Heartbreaker or Gold, usually. Something that in three-to-four minutes reminds audience members that were just starting to get lost in muso-creamery why they first cared about this guy.
To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High) is now not quite the 60s-Dylan pastiche it once was, instead it’s funked up rockabilly/roots and after another burst of Cardinals psychedelia (Peaceful Valley) we get the one-two of Oh My Sweet Carolina and When The Stars Go Blue. It’s as if Adams has finally found the perfect recipe for folding in the two best sets of ingredients he’s always had in his stock-shop.
Funny, too, that the best moments that serve to showcase this “mature” Ryan come from the earlier work. The benefit of a decade-plus of muse-seeking, ego-stoking and sometimes all out boasting is that those primordial blues sonics (Peaceful Valley is nearly Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac in parts) are calmed by songs that seem to make more sense with their owner at 40 than as precocious mid-20s upstart. There’s something gentler and more powerful about Nobody Girl now, it doesn’t seem desperate to fit into anything, it just is.
That’s true of the best on offer here, La Cienega Just Smiled is nearly jaw-droppingly beautiful, perfect, exquisite. Again, the very finest of his songs have – in a relative sense – endured and the added mileage gives them a reverence and regal tone, while they also arrive to calm jangled nerves after histrionic guitar workouts, perfectly sprinkled and arranged.
An improvised song, Fake Encore (an entire song) raises a smile before I See Monsters collapses in on itself as full-scale rocked-up silliness. But we know that he always saves the best for last, so Come Pick Me Up is the perfect singalong for the wistful and wise, the Elizabethtown fans and Cardinals devotees alike. In Ryan Adams’ world you can be both. Or either. He doesn’t mind. And that’s the real thrill of seeing him at this stage. He doesn’t mind – he’s there to play the hits, but never by rote, still and always on his terms. And though this very nearly grew stale in one or two places within the larger, longer songs of the first half particularly, he and that fantastic, under-playing band always pulled it back; dropped in a hit, or stood quietly for just a moment or countered the Neil Young-derived stage set of giant amplifiers and video game fantasy/nostalgia with a very real moment of human connection, something very deep and very now.
Adams’ best comparison point at this stage in his career is Elvis Costello – musical magpie, constantly busy and song seeking and wise. Occasionally there’ll be a misfire in some fan’s mind but to someone else that might be the career highlight. And always with the explosive stage delivery, a set of his very best served up. He is the Elvis Costello of his generation in that sense. And that’s about the highest compliment a musician could want or hope for or – regardless of how they might actually feel about it – receive. For that is the Gold-standard. And tonight the best of Adams’ Gold material, in particular, felt like modern-day standards.
Seeing Ryan Adams at this time in his life was indeed money well spent.