Nearly a decade removed from Ryan Adams’s most prolific year, when he released three full-lengths over seven months (while leaving countless other recordings in the vaults), it can often seem a bit too easy to take the Jacksonville, N.C. singer for granted. After all, Adams has not exactly shied away from the spotlight: he released several albums with the now-defunct Cardinals and on his own to varying acclaim, as well as a sci-fi tribute to Québec metal legends Voivod, a vinyl box of fifteen live LPs and several volumes in a series of 7-inch releases on his own PAX-AM label, and has become an in-demand producer for everyone from Fall Out Boy to Jenny Lewis. Nevertheless, Adams’s 2014 self-titled LP, which features glossy production and a reinvigorated forty-year-old singer performing some of his strongest and most direct material in years, seems to have brought renewed interest in the one-time alt-country enfant terrible.
From the snarling, trebly opening chords of “Gimme Something Good”, it was clear that the Ryan Adams who stepped on the storied stage of a sold-out Massey Hall on Wednesday night meant business. Keeping the banter to a minimum at first, Adams and The Shining, a tight four-piece backing band that now features songwriter extraordinaire Mike Viola on guitar and vocals and increasingly gives credence to the Heartbreakers comparisons, added a touch of grit and nervous energy to the Ryan Adams material (including a compact, masterful solo from Viola on “Stay With Me”) while more than doing justice to earlier classics like “Let It Be” and an absolutely devastating “Dirty Rain”. Things started to loosen up when Adams dumped his striped sweater to reveal a Danzig t-shirt before introducing Love Is Hell‘s “This House Is Not for Sale” as “a musical review of the movie Beetlejuice”. Adams got more talkative as the evening progressed, playfully making fun of a rowdy audience member for expressing his “masculine feelings” in Muppet-like screams, regaling the crowd with an anecdote that more or less blamed Puddle of Mudd for a failed relationship before kicking into “When the Stars Go Blue”, and referring to Massey Hall as both a spaceship in flight and an old person that needs to be put to bed early (his explanation for the curfew that cut the night a bit short).
Wednesday’s setlist was an exemplary distillation of Adams’s often unwieldy back catalogue, hitting all the high points of his solo career while still showcasing the different facets of his musical persona: the lovelorn Dylanesque troubadour (a tender, moving “My Winding Wheel” performed solo), the Deadhead (three relaxed, expansive Cold Roses songs), the heir to Gram Parsons and the Burritos’ Bakersfield country-rock crown (a swinging performance of Jacksonville City Nights‘ “A Kiss Before I Go”), and even the ragged-but-tuneful punk rocker (a blast of the Replacements circa Stink on “Rats in the Wall”/”When the Summer Ends”). You could have heard a pin drop as Adams and Viola (the band’s not-so-secret MVP) harmonized on Heartbreaker‘s “Oh My Sweet Carolina”, and audience choice “Come Me Pick Me Up” (featuring Butch Walker on backing vocals and a searing guitar solo) closed the night on a high note. To be blunt about it, Ryan Adams spent two hours playing most of my favourite Ryan Adams songs and it was damn near perfect. Fourteen years into his solo career, Adams may just be entering his prime.
Walker, whose own upcoming album was produced by Adams, opened the evening with a well-received 35-minute performance that was peppered with some good-natured banter about his previous Toronto stops as well as a poignant story about his late father “Big” Butch before closer “Father’s Day”. Moving from the piano to acoustic and electric guitars, Walker played an appealingly stripped down set of emotional, nostalgia-tinged pop that included the live debut of new single “21+” and showcased the sturdiness of his songs even without the elaborate studio refinements he is famous for both in his own music and as an in-demand producer.
Gimme Something Good
Let It Ride
Stay with Me
This House Is Not for Sale
New York, New York
A Kiss Before I Go
My Winding Wheel (solo acoustic)
When the Stars Go Blue
Rats in the Wall
When the Summer Ends
Do You Laugh When You Lie? (new song)
Do I Wait
Oh My Sweet Carolina
La Cienega Just Smiled
Come Pick Me Up (featuring Butch Walker—lead guitar and backing vocals)