Ryan Adams and the Cardinals – [Live]

Monday, 04 February 2008

There is one element of Ryan Adams that will always remain predictable. No, it’s not his greasy matted locks or beaten blue jeans, his bizarre comedic banter or the broken heart pinned to his sleeve. Sure, these are a few of Adams’ familiar traits, but at any given time the man can (and will) flip his entire style upside down and leave yet another broken puzzle for his fans to try to piece together. And as this puzzle continues to change, shape-shift and routinely break, the only thing that remains predictable is his unpredictability.

Adams spent 2007 on a lengthy world tour supporting his latest dip in the purified waters of the mainstream with Easy Tiger, his ninth studio album. But ten straight months on the road wasn’t quite enough, so Adams kicked off the New Year with a second windsprint, tearing up and down the West Coast. Two weeks and ten shows later, Adams and his band the Cardinals rolled into Los Angeles for a final two-night stand at UCLA’s Royce Hall.

The stage had been transformed into an intergalactic desert landscape equipped with oversized cacti and cosmic lighting. As Adams and his band took the stage for the final show of the tour, it was if they were stepping out onto an alien landscape. The set opened with silence and was quickly followed by a rolling drum beat building up to “Off Broadway.” As the lights exploded with bursts of white, Adams cracked his signature wail and the Cardinals hit the ground running. Midway through, the song took a spacey turn and it was quickly apparent that although the new album had long gone stale and fresh material was nowhere to be found, Adams would remain true to form, or rather, true to formlessness; breathing new life into everything he touched.

This freeform style produced mixed results as Adams himself seemed to be in a conflicting state of disillusion and focus. Between songs, he was either speaking to the crowd with hilarious observational rants or filling the auditorium with complete silence—the latter leaning toward awkwardness. He fiddled with his guitar, bounced around the stage, or simply paused in thought. By constantly dipping in and out of the moment Adams blatantly lost focus. He forgot a lyric here and there, was forced to play catch up on guitar and took each song to a different place, sometimes with poor results, while other times to unforeseen brilliance.

A standout performance came in the middle of the first set. After slowing it down on a beautiful piano rendition of “Halloween Head,” followed by back-to-back heartfelt lullabies, “When the Stars Go Blue” and “I Taught Myself How To Grow Old,” Adams finally turned up the wattage on “I See Monsters;” literally blasting the audience with a wall of sound punctuated by his thrashing head bangs and beautiful, shrieking cries. The crowd rose to its feet for the first time and Adams had finally arrived.

Throughout the remainder of show Adams was hellbent on artistic debauchery. He would tiptoe into each song, delicately strumming a couple chords and notes before the Cardinals picked up the tune and filled in the gaps. It was as if Adams was calling the songs on the fly, unbeknownst to his band that, as tried and true musicians accustomed to the randomness that surrounds Adams, simply followed suit.

The randomness of the evening not only applied to the renditions of the songs, but to the songs themselves, as Adams unearthed two rarely heard fan favorites, “Come Pick Me Up” and “Wonderwall.” Even the lyrics got a fresh recalibration as Adams took a line from “The End” about a waitress and rattled off a story about a robot encountering the wrath of a diamond snake in a classic stream-of-consciousness style.

It’s the little surprises like this that separate Adams from simply a musician to that of a true artist. And it is this unpredictably which the fans have come to expect and the exact reason why they keep coming back. With each and every Ryan Adams show you truly never know what you’re going to get, but for those of us lucky enough to be in attendance on this evening, we all know what we got; a beautiful, inspiring surprise.

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