In case Ryan Adams’ new self-titled album wasn’t enough to demonstrate that he has emerged from an always-tenuous retirement as both a new person and a new musician, last night’s album release show at the 930 Club in Washington, D.C. provided more evidence.
Adams has always been beloved by both fans and critics for his achingly personal song writing. And that much has not changed. He has also gone to often-great lengths to appear as both a poet and tortured soul – a kind of 21st century Dylan/Morrissey hybrid. But that seems to be where the shift is taking place.
One listen to Ryan Adams and this much is clear – his ability to write songs that deeply relate to his listeners is still there. But what takes multiple listens – and in my case, a live performance – to understand is how his inspiration for those songs seems to have shifted. Ryan Adams is no longer the reckless and carefree 20 year old from his Whiskeytown days of the 90’s. He is no longer the wannabe rock star of the early 2000s (from Heartbreaker through Love is Hell). And he is no longer the radio-friendly pop star of the late 2000s (as heard on Easy Tiger and Ashes & Fire).
Ryan Adams is who he is at this point in his career – an enormously accomplished musician who seems to have little care for what people think of him. He’s writing what he wants to write, and nothing else. Both on Adams’ new album, and his live performance, there is a comfort level with himself that I had previously not heard or seen. And this isn’t a bad thing in the slightest.
It was this comfort level that ultimately stood out last night above anything else. Jokes abounded, including quips about a new band called Dingo Infestation, a story about a taking mushrooms and visiting a cemetery which somehow related back to the 930 Club logo, and endless new merch concepts such as a shirt with a sad face wearing a cowboy hat that would accompany his “depressing songs.” This was in stark contrast to the last time I saw Adams play with his one-time band The Cardinals, a show during which he might have engaged with the audience for a grand total of five seconds. Last night’s show should have been billed as two acts – Ryan Adams the comedian performing with Ryan Adams the singer-songwriter.
His newfound comfort was also evident in which songs he played and the way he played them. At least half a dozen songs spanned more than 10 minutes and included (at least what came across as) a variety of improvised break downs and guitar solos. Multiple songs were started and stopped because he wanted to play it at a different tempo. And very few, if any, of his radio-friendly “hits” were included in the set list.
At the end of the night, someone with specific expectations could have been disappointed with the overall performance. Fortunately, I was anything but. The show was lively, entertaining, engaging, suspenseful, funny, and thought provoking. So while Ryan Adams may not be the Ryan Adams of old, I like the new one just as well.