As we’ve covered, it’s been a mighty long time since I’ve seen Ryan Adams onstage. The last time was almost 11 years ago, when he came to Raleigh’s Meymandi Hall in June 2005 and played a tense, shambolic and kind of wonderful homecoming show that nobody realized was actually him saying goodbye. Maybe not even Ryan himself.
For whatever reason, Ryan has chosen to stay away from his old hometown and native state, to the point that he’s played every adjoining state within the past year — but not North Carolina. I’ve stayed away, too, not going out of my way to see a show of his elsewhere.
Wednesday night, however, found both Ryan and me in Austin, Texas. And if I can’t see him play in Raleigh, seeing him play South By Southwest is probably the next best thing. Ryan was booked into a ballroom at the fancy new Marriott Hotel downtown, on a bill with (irony of ironies) that proudest of North Carolina acts, the Avett Brothers.
“It’s an honor to share the stage with an artist we all adore, Ryan Adams,” Seth Avett said during the Avetts’ opening set. Then he grinned a bit sheepishly as he continued. “Fellow North Carolinian. It’s been…a few years since he played there. But we still claim him.”
Ryan goes back 20 years with SXSW, which is where Whiskeytown had its big music-industry breakthrough show in 1996 — a night when Ryan was so nervous, he was almost too overcome with stage fright to play. Even so, that was the show that pretty much launched Ryan’s career, and he was a SXSW fixture for the next five years.
But Ryan hasn’t been back to SXSW since 2001, even longer than his North Carolina hiatus. So when the late-breaking announcement came that he’d be appearing this year, it seemed like a case of synchronicity that was just too good to pass up.
Of course I went, because how could I not? No, Ryan and I didn’t have any sort of showdown over “Losering.” I kept my distance, content with watching the show as just another face in the crowd. And how was it?
I’d rate it good, if also intermittently anticlimactic for me — which is okay. The show I’d like to see Ryan play does not interest him, just as his recent guises as jam-band guitar god and generic Bryan Adams acolyte don’t much interest me. That said, those songs were fine and earned an enthusiastic crowd response. Ryan’s between-song patter was also amusing as ever, if a tad grumpy.
“It’s none of the songs you like,” he said in response to whoops from the audience when he strapped on an acoustic guitar. “What show do you think you’re at? Crowd-pleasing Ryan Adams is at a different hotel.” The odd part was that this was preamble to 2001’s “New York, New York,” which is still the closest thing Ryan’s ever had to a hit single.
Nevertheless, there were three moments that kind of crushed me, still, all these years later. After commencing with “Gimme Something Good” for the umpteenth time (and after two years, it’s high time to retire this one as set-opener), Ryan swung into “Let It Ride.” A stately glide of a tune from 2005’s Cold Roses opus, “Let It Ride” has always been one of Ryan’s best mid-period solo songs. And I love that he still sings this line:
Tennessee’s a brother to my sister Carolina, where they’re gonna bury me
I ain’t ready to go. I’m never ready to go.
I couldn’t help but smile.
A few songs later came “Dear Chicago,” the farewell song to end all farewell songs. It’s been quiet and solo every other time I’ve seen Ryan play it, but this version was full-band electric. It transposed splendidly to a pop song, with an edge. Ryan is going through an apparently contentious divorce, and he seemed to put a little extra feeling into this line:
I think the thing you said was true.
I’m gonna die alone and sad.
Finally, Ryan strapped on his trusty red-white-and-blue Buck Owens acoustic guitar and shushed the chattery crowd long enough to play “Be My Winding Wheel” unaccompanied. It’s a song from 2000’s Heartbreaker, and all I can say is that it was exactly that — a defiant, foolhardy declaration from someone being left behind, who feels “just like a map, without a single place to go of interest.”
I misted up in spite of myself, thinking about what a long strange trip it’s been since those Whiskeytown shows way back when. My trusty pal Peter Blackstock shot a bit of video of “Winding Wheel,” and I’m glad we have this souvenir (he also reviewed the show here).
Ryan’s 14-song set didn’t have anything from Whiskeytown, which wasn’t surprising. That’s back in North Carolina, so…you know. Anyway, I was glad I went to see him again, after all this time. But I’m not sure when I’ll go again.
So buy a pretty dress. Wear it out tonight. For anyone you think could outdo me…
1 — “Gimme Something Good”
2 — “Let It Ride”
3 — “Stay With Me”
4 — “Dirty Rain”
5 — “Dear Chicago”
6 — “This House Is Not For Sale”
7 — “Everybody Knows”
8 — “Be My Winding Wheel”
9 — “Magnolia Mountain”
10 — “New York, New York”
11 — “Kim”
12 — “Cold Rose”
13 — “When the Stars Go Blue”
14 — “Peaceful Valley”