Thursday, March 12, 2009

March 11, 2009: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals

North Charleston Performing Arts Center
March 11, 2009

Ryan Adams and the Cardinals have been the backbone of my live music world over the past five years. I don't just say this because I've seen them 11 times (First in 2004 in Atlanta, their 4th show as a band with an almost completely different roster; and finally last night in Charleston, with only 7 shows remaining as a band if you believe Ryan's declaration), but rather that they manage to cover the spectrum of concert-going experiences. On the one hand, they can put on a show that confirms not only his music, but live music itself. Rich setlists, with Ryan recalling his finest work and letting his vocal and lyrical prowess own the night. On the other hand, they can roll out a paint-by-numbers kind of set that ends prematurely and is nothing short of underwhelming.

The unfortunate truth is I haven't seen Ryan do one of those confirming sets since the fifth time I saw him. And that was in 2005, coincidentally the year he released his last solid abum. Since then, every show has had its issues. Walk-offs, disappointing setlists, short sets, and of course the disastrous Atlanta '08 show in which he called it quits after an hour due to a failing voice, despite the events staffers telling us they'd been instructed the show would end early prior to the gig.

But whatever. I've come to expect that sort of thing from a guy who has always been more concerned about himself than his fans. But in that regard, that's why I enjoy most of his music. Corny as it sounds, his best songs are painfully personal with a touch of spite and angst. Only recently has he started writing music that is ostensibly for the fans, rife with broad messages of motivation and joy. This is something U2 has made a living off of over the past decade or so, right? So the formula can work. But unfortunately, Ryan's best talent will always be looking you squarely in the eye as opposed to preaching to a congregation.

All that said, my expectations were severely tempered for last night's gig at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. The good news: He married Mandy Moore the day before, so he could be in a better-than-usual mood. Tour reports thus far were varying, leaning towards the positive. The setlists looked OK, and Ryan's spirits were high.

Ryan and the band entered just before 9 PM. They started things off with a rousing "Beautiful Sorta", the rocker from 2005's Cold Roses. Before the song, Ryan did something I've never seen him do. He actually spoke to us before the first song. Normally you won't get a word out of him until four or five songs in.

The band didn't stray much from setlists of the past year or two, leaning heavily on Heartbreaker material and ignoring Gold, Demolition and Jacksonville City Nights altogether. "I See Monsters" was heavy and lumbering, and brought quite a few of us to our feet. Guitarist Neal Casal played three of his originals that sent audience members streaming to the beerlines and restrooms. The songs were poorly injected into the setlist, killing any momentum Ryan had been building up to that point.

It seems, though, that he didn't care. For the first time, he didn't seem to let the audience affect him negatively. In fact, one of the finest moments of the night involved Ryan playfully apologizing to a girl in the front row who seemed disinterested. This is the kind of thing that might have caused an explosion a year or two ago. But Ryan instead led the band in a surprisingly fulfilling improv song about them sucking. The song was funny, sure, but what really struck me was the loose composition, the hollers and the honkeytonk feel of it all. I kinda wish all their songs sounded a bit more like the one they made up on the spot.

Lowlights for me included the two drawn out jams: Goodnight Rose and Off Broadway, tunes from 2007's forgettable Easy Tiger (although "Off Broadway" is really a Suicide Handbook relic). Both songs were stretched out to nearly ten minutes--the whole show was just a shade over an hour and a half, I believe--and neither ever really struck a chord with the audience.

"Come Pick Me Up" was a little polished, but I can't say I wasn't satisfied with it. While it is a bit played out at this point, I'd still call it one of the best songs of the decade and it's a treat to hear it live. "Why Do They Leave" was just as much of a treat.

The show ended rather abruptly after the goofy rocker "Magick". Ryan thanked us all, the band left the stage, and the house lights were up ten seconds later. A few folks noisily vocalized their disappointment, but by and large folks just shrugged and left. That's what I did, anyway. Because those of us who've followed Ryan's career know that this show is about what we should have expected. The setlist was satisfying if a little predictable. The set wasn't as long as we would've liked but I didn't feel shortchanged. And Ryan was in a fine mood, which is often the X-factor that determines what kind of show it'll be.

So there it was and there it went. I will say it was the best Cardinals show I've seen since 2006, and it's sort of the end of an era for me. But I definitely think Ryan goes off and does something else for a while. He's never had the same backing band for so long (even Whiskeytown lasted just a bit longer than the Cardinals have). Ryan has long thrived on change, so let's hope an exciting future awaits the man, and in effect his fans. But seriously, don't mind us.

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