Photo credit: Mike Rengel
“I need everyone to please check your phones now to make sure that the flash is off on your cameras. Ryan has Meniere’s disease, which means that he could literally have a seizure from your camera flash .” A stagehand was given the responsibility of delivering this message to an eager, sold-out Pageant crowd, just before Mr. Adams and his band kicked into a nearly two -hour, career-spanning set. The stage looked as eclectic as his influences, lined with old CRT TV’s, stuffed cats, and oversized replicas of his touring rig lining each side of the stage. Keeping a live show interesting while fighting a sensitivity to light certainly must be a daunting task, but Adams managed to keep the stage production just as exciting as his set list.
The show started strong with the heavy-hitting “Do You Still Love Me?” from Adams’ most recent effort, Prisoner. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more fitting opening tune in any catalog, given the juxtaposition of heavy and soft arrangements. The song was seemingly written to be a set-opener. His vocals were quite strong and he didn’t take too many liberties straying from the record melodies, and when he did, they were very meaningfully placed. The sound quality was excellent, which is to be expected from one of the best venues in the country. I passed a front of house tech near the bar, and he had a “Make America Analog Again” T-shirt on—very fitting for a Ryan Adams sound engineer.
Ryan kept it heavy early, following up with “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High),” and again, the band nailed the sound from the record. Adams continued with his Gibson Flying V, which would be an abnormal guitar choice for any other folk singer on the planet, but not notorious metalhead Ryan Adams. (His pre-set playlist included Judas Priest, Dio, and Metallica.) Grammy-nominated “Gimme Something Good” was next and by this point, Ryan Adams had The Pageant’s full-on attention.
The stage was lit primarily from the back, likely to not trigger his condition, but it was tastefully subtle yet all-consuming. The backdrop of stars lent itself well to the slower tunes in his catalogue, while the high moving heads created and maintained excitement and spontaneity in his set. (The prom lighting on “When the Stars Go Blue” was also an excellent touch.) His band of relatively unknowns (seriously, the merch table included shirts emblazoned with “Ryan Adams and the Unknown Band”) held their own against his once reputable band the Cardinals, playing the songs mostly true to form but adding in their own flavor when needed.
The night’s stand out tune was “Dirty Rain” from his 2011 release, Ashes & Fire. I liked the tune before, but his performance in St. Louis shed a whole new light on it. It is such a refreshing feeling when a live performance strengthens and/or renews your love for a song, and that is exactly what happened. He took otherwise sparse instrumentation and turned it into a full-on blues rock tune, while maintaining the beauty and depth of the lyrics. He has a knack for keeping guitar solos very purposeful.
The title track from his latest release Prisoner was especially symbolic. It started with Ryan Adams alone at center stage with an acoustic, singing stinging lyrics about lost love into a microphone covered in Christmas lights . He has such emotion in his voice, it is very easy to put yourself in his shoes. But a third of the way through the song, the band joined him on stage, and their explosive performance turned the screws on all of the heartbreak and sadness. The crescendo felt like liberation as the song ended. No lyrics, just a heavier arrangement and musical camaraderie, which to me, shows that he is no longer the “prisoner” that he once self-described.
It being Jerry Garcia’s 75th Birthday, it seemed fitting that Adams performed “Magnolia Mountain.” What I did not expect was the “Cold Roses” medley, as well as the free form jazz breakdown that ensued before rolling back into the outro of the Dead coverIt was a joy to see the true musicianship of the band and watch them explore the sonic space, uninhibited.
It was a pleasure to hear “Let It Ride” from his Cardinal days. The only thing missing was the steel guitar, which isn’t in his arrangements anymore. But again, the band respected the original while making it their own. He also played “Halloweenhead” from 2007’s Easy Tiger, which you could see in his face and stage presence that he was thoroughly enjoying.
In checking some of his prior setlists, I saw that he wasn’t necessarily going to do an encore. And when he played his breakthrough “New York, New York” and crowd favorite “Come Pick Me Up,” I knew we were nearing the end of what turned out to be one of my favorite shows of the year. Ryan Adams and his band delivered a thoughtful, thorough, and true-to-form set for a very appreciative St. Louis crowd. | Greg Clark