Ryan Adams… sensitive songwriter, gentle soul… and hilarious master showman? Even though I have owned Ryan Adams albums over the last 15 years, I have never managed to see him play a class=”StrictlyAutoTagAnchor” href=”https://concertaddicts.com/tag/show” title=”View all articles about show here”>show. I was looking forward to hearing his music live, but was rather unprepared for what an intimate occasion it would end up being. Settling into the plush seats at the Orpheum Theatre just before he hit the stage, I was already intrigued by the stage set up. Along with the usual mics and instruments, the stage was also sporting a vintage Dr. Pepper vending machine (is anyone else here thirsty?), a stuffed tiger, a pair of arcade games (Asteroids and Berzerk!), a peace/US flag, massive stacks with a cardboard cat perched on top, a vintage mic alone at centre stage, and big towers of gauzy, crinkly muslin framing the rear of the stage. With Adams recently suffering a broken rib some time during the Sasquatch Festival, the cause of which I’m not sure has actually been revealed anywhere, it remained to be seen how this show would transpire. I had heard he was axing the harmonica from his set as it hurt to much to breathe through, but he actually ended up cracking it out a couple of times.
The show began regularly enough with new single “Gimme Something Good.” At this point, the whole band was on stage and the songs were loud and rocking. You wouldn’t know there were any broken bones in the man’s body. Behind Adams and the guitar he was playing, 3 different guitars were hung on stands. Plenty to choose from. He followed this with “Let It Ride,” during which the tech came out and swapped Adams’ guitar for another, upping the available guitars to 5. On record, Adams’ music seems much more gentle and slow-cooked. In a live environment, the power behind his shadowy, sweet, melancholy and somewhat self-effacing music really kicks up a few notches. After “Let It Ride” faded out, Adams attempted to take off his jacket, but due to limited torso mobility and a newly-formed slick of sweat, he had some trouble, eventually enlisting the help of his tech to remove it. Approaching the mic, he stated he was going to start bottling his sweat and selling it as an adhesive. Now he finally addressed his broken rib and told us the show was going to be a bit on the mellow side as a result, in order to be able to play for the full 2 hours he’s used to playing. While he was chatting, someone in the crowd yelled something. Adams stopped what he was saying and immediately gestured blindly towards the back of the room and replied, “Sorry, did you say something? I didn’t mean to interrupt you, go ahead.” He would use this ploy to call out shouters a couple more times through the evening. He continued, “We can’t [play for 2 hours] at that volume, but let’s do it.” He urged his guitar player to make sure, if he passed out from the blinding pain of his rib stabbing his lung, to perform a solo over his passed-out body.
Earlier in the evening, I had noticed little printed letter-size papers taped up all over that said “No flash, my friend” with a little graphic of a camera with the flash crossed out. I didn’t think too much of them, as I hadn’t been to an Orpheum event in some time, but it looks like they were specifically put up for Adams’ show. I amazingly witnessed very few people ‘watching’ the show through their iPhones, but it appears that cameras in general were allowed at this event so long as the flash stayed off. Adams pointed out one person with a ‘digital camera from 1989’ to ‘turn off that light, please.’
With a mostly-quieter set (the volume did indeed go down after the first two songs, at Adams’ request so he didn’t have to belt out the lyrics so loudly), the powerful moments in the songs really stood out. His vocals were utterly outstanding on “Dirty Rain.” The lights at this point were flickering up those gauzy crinkled background elements that they made the stage look like a giant cave with a technicolour campfire burning hidden behind the musicians. There was a long conversation that occurred after this, during which I was furiously trying to scribble down some of Adams’ hilarious quips and reactions to the audience yelling at him, but I couldn’t quite keep up. Suffice to say, the crowd was in stitches as he commented that one fellow screaming “We love you brother!” from the balcony needs to calm down and maybe not drink a Red Bull before coming to the show, and could perhaps have a fine career as a drummer in a hardcore band. He talked about how it was super weird to play in physical pain, that he is usually in pain when singing, but it’s a different kind of pain – usually a self-reflective ‘you stupid asshole’ kind of pain from writing and singing songs about never having functional romantic relationships, and that it’s nice to be physically reminded of that now. He reacted to someone calling out what a trooper he is for playing through that broken rib by regaling us with a story about working in a bread factory long ago and covering a shift for a coworker who had kidney stones. He got through it by listening to Iron Maiden, and claimed that time, yes that time, he was a trooper.
Shortly after, the rest of the band left the stage, and Adams continued the bulk of his set solo and acoustic. He now stood at the center of the stage, singing into the vintage chrome mic, the stand of which was bedecked in a string of small white lights. He did bring in the harmonica here, and played it quite liquidly – the notes flowed one to the next, perhaps a result of a more gentle breathing technique. He performed his Oasis cover “Wonderwall,” he brought out a couple of stunning acoustic guitars (a black one with a pickguard that looked like a whale tail, and the red-white-blue one he is often seen with), he broke off at one point to tell the tech to switch off the monitor at the spot he had been standing before when the rest of the band was on stage with him, he interrupted the opening bars of “Kim” to admonish himself for not having his guitar in tune. Behind him, a twinkly starry sky of lights glittered that took up the whole height of the massive theatre stage. These lights changed colour occasionally – white, red or blue. As someone writing about this show, I feel it is my duty to report that this ‘scraggly-haired singer,’ who didn’t succumb to lung and rib pain during the set, was not afterwards ‘obliterated by a T-800.’ This statement was made in reference to an eerie whirring sound, likely a ventilation fan of some kind, that was audible between songs in the total hush of the room before Adams began his next song. He remarked that it sounded like Skynet growing in the background, the Big Brothery, AI overlord of the Terminator films.
The audience was mostly pin-drop quiet throughout the show – a welcome change from a lot of gigs – and respectfully watched, seated, through the entire soft central portion of the evening. There was a huge age range among the audience members. Adams is a singer for all people! For those occasional outbursts, he always had a snappy comeback, and at one point told the crowd to collectively get it out of their systems by just yelling all at once on the balcony, then getting the floor level to bark like a dog. He also asked everyone to yell their song requests at once, which really opened up a can of worms. Adams seems like a big kid, exclaiming ‘Awesome!’ frequently and sounding like a teenager whose mom just woke him up and told him to go to school. “I hope I’m not rocking too hard for you tonight. I get a lot of complaints about that… people getting whiplash from me rocking so hard.” One more shout from the balcony level that was unintelligible, but Adams interpreted to have been, “call me back, Gomer Pyle” (did Gomer Pyle even have access to a phone?) led to a a song made up on the spot called “Gomer Pyle Didn’t Have A Phone.” It was unreal and brilliant. The crowd roared with laughter.
Near the end of the set, the band came back on to go out on a slightly louder note. The volume was still relatively low for a rock show. No earplugs were needed – the levels were great, and the sound in that room, meant for orchestras, is of course amazing anyhow. The band walked off stage with many thanks at 10:45 to a standing ovation. We all thought surely he was going to come out for an encore – there were still 15 minutes to go, right?? The house lights came up… the techs strolled on stage to begin unplugging equipment… the house music came on. And still the majority of the crowd didn’t move. They stayed in standing ovation format, cheering and clapping. Whether no encore was ever intended, or Adams’ broken rib pain threshold was finally breached, we may never know, but one thing is for sure – he entertained that room like nobody’s business and left everyone craving something more.