Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review: Ryan Adams for ACL TV

Attending a taping for Austin City Limits Television is always a special experience. I feel extremely lucky to have the opportunity to attend these performances and it is not something I take for granted. Last night I had the chance to see Ryan Adams' perforn for the 40th season of ACL TV and it was magical. It was such a unique experience that there were moments that felt completely surreal. Before the performance, all of the house music was theme songs to television shows. I didn't think much of it when the theme to Fresh Prince of Bel Air was playing but when I returned from getting a drink and noticed that the theme from Doogie Howser M.D. was on the PA, it was clear that Ryan Adams was fucking with us. Get it? ACL is a TV show.

Ryan Adams - Gimme Something Good video via YouTube

The stage was set for an acoustic performance. There was a stool, with a guitar mic and a vocal mic on a stand alongside a decorative table, which had a little lamp and a votive candle. On the other side of the stage, there was a similar microphone setup for a standing performance. Behind the stool there were 4 acoustic guitars on stands. As is tradition, the show's executive producer came out to greet the crowd and give us a little preview of what was about to happen, complete with the "put your phone away" rule. We were told that Adams was planning an acoustic set followed by an electric set. I had heard rumblings of this already but was very excited to hear the rumors were true.

Adams ambled on the stage around 8pm to little fanfare, he acknowledged the audience with a little wave of one hand while holding a cup of hot tea in the other. He was dressed like he just came from the photo shoot for his latest album cover. Tight denim pants, tight denim jacket with a vintage tee complete with unkempt hair. I wish I had a transcript of the speeches last night because there were many and they were fantastic. Adams was witty, self-deprecating and very relaxed. He chatted with the crowd, sharing quirky tidbits of stories, which may or may not have actually inspired his songs.

When the acoustic set started there was a moment when I thought to myself, that I don't know if I've ever heard such quiet from such a large number of people. Part of what makes the ACL TV atmosphere so special is the reverence for the moment in time in which this performance is taking place. It's a concert but it's not just any concert. No one has their phones out, people are drinking but the bars inside the venue were not operational during the performance.

I don't know a lot about microphones or musical equipment but the mics being used reminded me of old radio announcer microphones. Those square mics that you see on David Letterman's desk. Whatever that style is allowed Adams to stand back away from the mic itself, with the added reverb it gave the vocals an amazingly ethereal floating texture that added to the overall transcendence of the experience. At one point between songs Adams joked that he needs the reverb to help him deal with the sound of his own voice. He also made several quips referring to how depressing his songs are, even alluding/suggesting that they could be the perfect soundtrack for anti-depression pharmaceuticals.

The opening set weaved together songs, jokes, stories, on-stage guitar tuning, inappropriate humor, crowd interaction and advice to young fans into a 70-minute performance piece. There were many mentions of how cold the room was as well, which relates to all of the guitar tuning. Adams suggested that guitar strings & penises react similarly in cold environments. Hence, why his guitars kept going out of tune. A fact, which I'm sure bothered Mr. Adams more than it bothered his audience.

Adams also singled-out, former No Depression editor and current Austin American-Statesman writer, Peter Blackstock during both is acoustic and electric sets. My sources tell me that Adams and Blackstock have a great relationship but based on a few of Adams' comments, it seems as though he still hasn't forgotten a review of Gold that Mr. Blackstock wrote many years ago. Don't get me wrong, the comments were not hostile but the ribbing was consistent. During the electric set, Adams actually false-started a song when he noticed Blackstock yawning. He stopped the tune and suggested that Blackstock join him in a jog the following morning to see who's yawning then.

During an acoustic cover of Bryan Adams' Run To You, a fan started laughing at the absurdity of Ryan Adams covering Bryan Adams. Adams turned toward that side of the crowd mid-song and remarked that he took this cover very seriously before launching into the chorus again. That cover ended the acoustic set around 9:15pm. There was a 20-minute break while the stage was reset for the electric set.

The lead single from Ryan Adams' eponymous new LP, Gimme Something Good, was the only song that appeared in both sets. It was great to hear the two interpretations of the song, the acoustic one pleading while the electric one felt more demanding. Even though Adams was joined by a full 4-piece band for the second set, it still felt like his show. This was not Adams' more jam-y backing band, The Cardinals. The backing band for his electric set was dubbed, The Shining, which is a group of four incredible session players (including L.A.-based Mike Viola) who pushed out incredibly tight renditions of all the songs you'd want to hear at a Ryan Adams show.

The photo I posted of the set lists isn't entirely accurate. The acoustic set was slightly rearranged and a song or two was eliminated, but Adams curated a set list that spanned his solo career flawlessly. Another special crowd moment came at the conclusion of When the Stars Go Blue when Adams noticed, Austin artist and personal friend, Nakia wiping tears from his eyes in the front row. He asked, "Are you crying bro?" When Nakia nodded in affirmation, Adams said, "I've gotta give you a hug." He walked toward the front of the stage and Nakia did too and they hugged it out. Adams mentioned that the display of emotion meant a lot to him and then he made a self-deprecating joke about not have feelings himself.

In a way last night's stage banter highlights were just as interesting/important to the experience as the song performance moments. It felt like Ryan Adams was hosting us. He wasn't content to simply go down a set list and crank out the tunes. He wanted to tell us which Doctor Who was his favorite (number 4) and how some of his songs sound like certain Scritti Politti songs or how a friend's drunken off-handed remark about members of REM having grey (or greying) pubes inspired a lyric. He talked about how he doesn't drink anymore and when he did he was an asshole. He poked fun at his reputation for being difficult to work with. Adams recounted a conversation between himself and his longtime manager when he was at his worst. He asked his manager why he even wanted to manage him to which he responded, "Because I like a challenge." Then he dedicated a song to the manager, while simultaneously suggesting that it would be too soft rock for Anne Murray. The song in question was Desire from Adams' Demolition.

It's hard for me to nail down "set highlights" because Ryan Adams music is so personal for every listener. My highlights were all songs that meant the most to me and I'm sure your highlights would be the same. I can tell you that I've been singing Gimme Something Good, Fix It & Come Pick Me Up all day but I can also tell you that My Winding Wheel & Sweet Carolina brought tears to my eyes.

With three and half hours worth of material, I'll be curious to see how last night's experience will be packaged for television. Part of me thinks that Adams did the two separate sets so he could scrap his least favorite completely. There are also songs that have lyrical content that wouldn't be suitable for PBS, songs that had a story or comment to the audience in the middle and even a song with a guitar tune in the middle of it. In other words, the majority of what happened last night will never resurface for a television audience and that's ok with me because I was lucky enough to be there. If you weren't there last night, you're still in for a treat when Ryan Adams and Jenny Lewis share an hour of television on your local PBS station in the fall/winter.

By the way, I never mentioned it but in the photo of the set lists the numbered one (on the right) was the intended acoustic set and the other is the electric set. As I mentioned a song or two was stricken and/or played in a different order from the acoustic set but I believe the electric set is fully accurate.