Posts Tagged With: SXSW

Be my winding wheel

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.

SXSW16Wednesday 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…

SETLIST
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”

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SXSW rendezvous, here I come

So yeah…Not that there was really any doubt, but it’s starting to sink in that this is really happening. I might even have to snag one of these here posters. Wednesday night is zero hour. We’ll see how it goes!

DRASXSW

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SXSW-bound and down

Near as I can tell, it’s been close to 11 years since I was knowingly in the same room as Ryan Adams. It happened in June 2005, the last time he played a show in his old hometown of Raleigh, a night that was deeply emotional all the way around (more about that is in chapter 16 of “Losering”). It’s been easy enough to keep my distance from Ryan since then, because that was the last show he played anywhere in North Carolina. In fact, he seems to go out of his way to avoid playing his native state nowadays.

SXSW16In the fall of 2011, when I was writing “Losering” and Ryan was touring for his Ashes & Fire album, I did ponder whether or not to get on a plane to go see him play somewhere else. But the timing didn’t really work out, as far as making it happen before the book’s deadline. So I let it go, and I’ve been content to leave my Ryan live experiences in the past.

Next week, however, I’ll be in Austin, Texas, for South By Southwest. And wouldn’t you know it, Ryan was just added to the schedule, which will be his first SXSW appearance since the early 2000s. He and his fellow North Carolina natives the Avett Brothers are to co-headline a showcase sponsored by Marriott Hotels. And in spite of it all — his non-cooperation, the fact that I haven’t really loved an album he’s done in many a year, and on and on — the sad truth remains that I don’t see how I can stay away.

 

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Comin’ right at ya

RayCoverI am immensely pleased to report that my next book is not only finished and ready to go, it also has a fantastic cover. And here it is, another first-rate job by University of Texas Press designer Lindsay Starr (who also did the wonderful cover for “Losering”).

I co-wrote this with Ray Benson, founder/guiding light of Asleep at the Wheel. Below is a shot of the two of us last week at South By Southwest (which was the usual insanely fun madhouse), right before the Wheel took the stage. Ray is a man with a million tales to tell and we worked in as many of those anecdotes as we could, but I’d say we ran out of room before Ray ran out of stories. Note the testimonial blurb in the lower left corner from Dolly Parton, who figures into some of those stories. By the time this comes out, there will probably be a blurb from some other famous person in that space up at the top left, too.

Me&RayAs for the cover photo, it goes back to 1975 and shows the first time Ray was trying on a pair of boots he’d custom-ordered from the illustrious country-western tailor Nudie Cohn; I guess he was feeling a little flush from Asleep at the Wheel’s big breakthrough single, the top-10 country hit “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read.” As for the book’s main title, Comin’ Right at Ya was what Asleep at the Wheel called their first album way back in 1973.

Look for “Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel” in October. In the meantime, Asleep at the Wheel is playing in my neck of the woods on Wednesday, April 1 — no fooling, they’ll be at Durham’s Carolina Theatre that night; and hell yes, I’ll be there to watch.

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I don’t think this is a Ryan Adams reference…

…but who knows, this Austin eatery (which I walked by on Sixth Street while making my rounds through the downtown district of South By Southwest this afternoon) might be named after his 2007 album.

EasyTiger

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Memories of South By Southwests past: Whiskeytown and Jenni Sperandeo

supabroadThis week will take me to Austin, Texas, for South By Southwest, the big annual music-industry hootenanny I’ve been attending for 26 years (check here for dispatches I’ll be filing for the paper). It’s a time and place that inevitably brings back memories of Whiskeytown because Austin during SXSW served as the setting for some key events in the “Losering” story, including the band’s big coming-out show in 1996 (see Chapter six); Ryan Adams making the deal for Bloodshot Records to put out his first solo record in 2000 (an event that happened in a bathroom — see Chapter 12); and the 2001 dust-up that inspired Ryan’s Gold song “Harder Now That It’s Over” (see Chapter 14).

But my most vivid personal SXSW memory of Whiskeytown is one of those small moments you remember without trying, or even really even knowing why you do. I was walking down Eigth Street in Austin’s downtown club district in 1998, when someone in a parked car waved me over. That turned out to be Jenni Sperandeo, who was then Whiskeytown’s co-manager.

“Get in,” she said. “I’ve got something you need to hear.”

So I did and she fired up a cassette tape of something Whiskeytown had recorded over Christmas; a scathing rocker that was the least twangy thing I’d ever heard them do. But it was great and I was pretty blown away. A desire to seize the tape and flee briefly flitted through my mind, an impulse I restrained. Later, however, I found myself wishing I’d made off with it. That was the first time I ever heard “Rays of Burning Light” from Whiskeytown’s Forever Valentine, one of Ryan’s greatest “lost” albums. Fifteen years later, it remains unreleased, so thank God for bootlegs.

Jenni and I talked for a bit that night before I resumed my club crawling, and in my memory the conversation was pretty upbeat. There still seemed ample cause for optimism about Whiskeytown at that point, even though Strangers Almanac hadn’t been a hit and the band was well into its revolving-door-lineup period. But they had just played a triumphant “Austin City Limits” taping that spring, and Ryan was still writing great songs. It seemed like only a matter of time before they would break through.

Alas, what none of us knew in March of 1998 was how much closer Whiskeytown was to breaking up than breaking through. Two months later, it was announced that Universal was buying PolyGram, a merger that would eventually liquidate Whiskeytown’s label and put the band into limbo; and Jenni would be out as Whiskeytown’s manager by that fall, dismissed in the wake of a semi-disastrous tour opening for John Fogerty (see Chapter 11).

All these years later, Jenni still works in the music industry. She became president of Dangerbird Records in 2012 — a label whose roster includes Fitz and the Tantrums, Butch Walker, Silversun Pickups and other notables. Her memories of Ryan and Whiskeytown are, shall we say, complicated. Not without fondness, but also rather jaundiced. When I got Jenni on the phone in 2011 to interview her about her time managing Whiskeytown, she had plenty to say, going back to Ryan begging her and Chris Roldan to manage his band almost as soon as they met.

At first I was, “You people are nuts. You’re great but you’re a kid and also crazy”…It was difficult to know who [Ryan] was at that time. He was self-mythologizing from the very beginning. Even as I was talking with him, I’d be thinking, “Well, there’s a very thick layer of bullshit on all of this except for the fact that you’re very talented.” He’d say all this shit about himself and his family and where he’d come from, a great deal of drama, but it was hard to tell if any of it was true…Me being a girl, I think he felt like he could stare soulfully into my eyes and get his way. He probably did, owing to my youngness and the stupidity of it all. Maybe a little less with Chris, but he was not as tied up with them as I was.

For all that, Jenni really believed in the band and the music. That was enough to make her willing to put up with it all.

It was challenging in some ways, but they were such a great band. What gets lost in translation about Ryan and how he ended up where he was was how great Whiskeytown was. I don’t know that he’s ever had that good a band around him, and that was the last time he had to take input from other people. I think Phil [Wandscher] gets lost a lot, he’s why they didn’t sound like just another rock-leaning alt-country band from that time. It’s not like Caitlin was a strong personality with him in that way. He encouraged her to be serious about it, and I don’t think she really was at that time. Phil provided the creative push for him there. Even now, I go see Jesse [Sykes] and Phil play and he’s amazing – and left-handed! Dude is a stunningly good guitar player, which Ryan was not. If you listen to those records, it’s that Phil piece on top of Ryan’s voice and the redeeming vocal part from Caitlin that makes it all work.

Maybe Jenni will have something else for me to listen to if I bump into her in Austin this week.

ADDENDUM: Jenni posted this link to her Facebook page with the following note, which engendered a quite-lively discussion:

I still don’t know whether to be embarrassed or proud of this, but it does sure remind me of that tingly feeling you have when you know you are right.

SECOND ADDENDUM (3/18/13): For those who care, I did SXSW 2013 recaps here and here. I’m just glad I didn’t have to contend with this guy.

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More year-end coolness: “The music book of 2012”

LJSOkay, so “Losering” made a year-end top-10 list earlier this week, coming in at a respectable No. 7. But here’s one that’s even better: “The music book of 2012” according to the Journal Star, the daily paper in Lincoln, Neb. I should note that the author, L. Kent Wolgamott, is someone I’ve known since the late 1980s, mostly from palling around South By Southwest every spring. One of those SXSW years was 1996, when Kent was part of a gaggle of critic friends I insisted come see Whiskeytown’s showcase, which he recounts in his review. Yes, I used to be something like the band’s unofficial propagandist (which I copped to in the book’s preface). Anyway, check it out.

PopMattersAlso on the year-end tip, “Losering” turns up on PopMatters’ Best Music Books of 2012, with a lovely endorsement by Jeff Strowe: “part biography, part appreciation, and part scholarly analysis…a wildly entertaining read and a comprehensive rendering of one of Adams’ most fruitful periods.” Check out the whole thing at the bottom of this page.

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