July 23, 2007
Better Than: Nirvana Unplugged
There are basically two kinds of shows out there. There are performances that are all about the music (pristine versions of an artist’s catalog). And there are performances that are all about the wild cards you can’t get on record (the banter, the roughed up instrumentation, the extended versions of tidy recordings.) The best acts out there give you a little bit of both. Last night Ryan Adams was all about the former – and when I say all about, I mean the guy was stubbornly, resolutely, and solely about offering clinical renditions of his material in a manner that was so rote we could’ve been witnessing a taping for a network television program.
More specifically, though, Adams’ show reminded me of an MTV Unplugged set. The Pier 1 lanterns hanging from the rafters, the giant rugs covering the stage, a glowing jack-o-lantern leering from the piano, it all looked too immaculate, like a Starbucks set designer’s concept for an Intimate Ryan Adams Performance™. Not to mention that everyone was seated, from the fans who whooped at the opening chords of every song to Adams and his backing Cardinals band on stage. The whole atmosphere gave off the sterile vibe of a show neutered of any spontaneity -- not to mention that it was so quiet between songs that at one point I could hear someone cracking his knuckles; and during “Carolina Rain” I could even hear the couple behind me kissing.
So yeah, the acoustics were indeed pristine, and Adams’ voice was clarion clear, melding beautifully with the piano and the pedal steel. The guy has used those pipes ranting about many of his perceived competitors and detractors, and live it was refreshing to hear that he carries his harmonies sky high. But the songs – ranging from “Please Do Not Let Me Go” to "Two" to “Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part” and “Cold Roses” – were too clean, too similar to one another. Each one was a mid-tempo lament on a girl or a lifestyle Adams has had to let go, but you felt almost none of the inferred pathos of these situations. It was all one adult contemporary take on alt country after the next.
Maybe this is a new thing for Adams. I’d heard in the past he could be a cantankerous train wreck live, and when he sang, “I Taught Myself How to Grow Old,” the new song’s meaning became palpable. This was the new, mature, elder Adams perhaps. One that paid no mind to idle chatter or audience appreciation or deviating from an orderly, two sets/one intermission/no encore schedule.
But that being said, the dickishness in his lack of chatter with the crowd became downright hilarious. Adams paid no mind to the flattery tossed out by men and women alike (who yelled out variations on “Ryan, I love you!” and “Welcome back!”). He responded snottily to “Cardinals, whoo!” with “That’s right. That’s who they are. Card-nals.” And then in a move that made you cringe and kinda cackle, he flat out ignored the gal who loudly ventured into between-song silence with “Hey Ryan, what’d you do today in San Francisco?”
And sure, we don’t need to know if he spent Monday dropping a grand at Amoeba or tooling around H&M for some perfect-fit denim. But the show had such a muzzled quality that despite Adam’s fine voice and the adept instrumentation around him, I left scratching my head about all the fuss made over a guy who turned out to give a very ordinary performance. Well – ordinary with one important exception. As we left the theater, my friend turned to me and noted with a chuckle, “Man, I just love that he’s such a prick.”
By the way: Ryan Adams performs tonight at the Berkeley Community Theater --Jennifer Maerz