Right from the start, this wasn’t your ordinary Live on Letterman performance. “Like a cheeseburger on roller skates rolling down a pyramid of cash, it’s [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Ryan Adams[/lastfm]!” bellows the announcer. And as he speaks, a person in a dog costume enters from the back of the Ed Sullivan Theater, saunters down the aisle, and takes the stage. The audience claps and titters–oh that Ryan, he’s such a cut-up–but wait a second…. Out of a side door strolls our man Ryan, in a black leather jacket, coffee cup in hand, shaggy hair falling in his eyes. Psych!
Adams pats the dog on the back, and the dog shuffles out the back. Then Adams sits down, straps on a harmonica, and picks up his guitar — which isn’t just any garden-variety acoustic, it’s a red, white and blue Buck Owens guitar.
OK, you have our attention. This night is already off to a nutty–but interesting–start.
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He’s a showman, yes, but Ryan Adams immediately proved he’s also a stellar songwriter and performer. He wasted no time and dove straight into one of his best-known and most captivating songs, “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” from his 2000 debut solo album, Heartbreaker.
Considering this is the Ed Sullivan Theater, same place that rocked [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]the Beatles[/lastfm] way back when, and hosted [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Coldplay[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Adele[/lastfm], [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Wilco[/lastfm], and the [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Foo Fighters[/lastfm] this past year–not to mention being home to David Letterman–it’s amazing how quiet the room and the crowd can be, when the material calls for it. “Carolina” is quiet, but it’s captivating, and right away Adams shows his stuff as a lyricist–and as a performer. The silence pops out from between the notes, magnifying the power in each of Adams’ words, and no one–not a soul–says a word.
From “Carolina” it’s straight into the title track of his new album, Ashes & Fire, and then another song from the album, “If I Am a Stranger.” And like everything in the set tonight, Adams plays the song quietly and completely alone–and the entire room is right there with him, sitting alert in their seats, hanging on every word.
After “Stranger” Adams switches to a black acoustic for “Dirty Rain,” another composition of heartbreaking beauty.
[metrolyrics artist=”Ryan Adams” song=”Dirty Rain”]
Adams leaves the guitars to sit down at the piano for the next song — and now can see back of that leather jacket, which displays a blazing yellow of Iron Maiden mascot Eddie. Oh, Ryan, you rebel.
Yet, again, the music quickly takes us over — this time, it’s a stripped down version of his 2001 song “New York, New York,” which became his biggest hit single (charting at #18). Back then, he was belting it in front of a full-on rock band; tonight, he plays it stripped down to its bare essence. And it kills.
[metrolyrics artist=”Ryan Adams” song=”New York, New York”]
He’s back at the front of the stage for the next song, with his black acoustic and a satchel of witty banter (“I’m gonna play something slow now,” he says, and the crowd laughs). Again, though, it’s another devastating number–“Do I Wait,” again from Ashes & Fire.
Warmed up by now, and feeling comfortable on the famous stage, Adams gets even more conversational. He’s actually a truly funny, entertaining stage presence–and that banter helps counteract the haunting darkness that so many of his songs contain.
“Can you imagine if you came to one of these [Live on Letterman webcasts],” he postulates, “and you got to see [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]KISS[/lastfm], this close? And the first song they did was ‘Lick it Up’?” He’s in full-on rock n’ roll fan mode now, and the crowd is right there with him. It’s a strange dichotomy–the mix of clownish banter and dark, soulful songs–but it works incredibly well.
His next song, though, is among the most upbeat of the night: “Lucky Now.” With its catchy melody, it’s easy to see why this was the pick as the first single off Ashes & Fire. Many Adams songs may carry much in common with the haunting work of [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Townes Van Zandt[/lastfm], but this is clearly more in Springsteen territory.
Adams reached back to his early days with alt-country band [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Whiskeytown[/lastfm] for the song “Jacksonville Skyline.” Then, after a long (and funny) story about a meal at the Carnegie Deli (“”I have to tune my guitar, so I’ll tell you what I had for lunch”), and how the stage lights reminded him of Return of the Jedi, he launches into a rock-solid cover of [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Bob Mould[/lastfm]’s song “Black Sheets of Rain.”
This is as ‘rocking’ as he gets in during the show, and he can truly belt it out — it’s a great song, and Adams’ version does it justice.
The energetic “English Girls, Approximately” follows–one of three Adams songs that were featured in the film Elizabethtown.
By now the stories are in full swing–and Adams swings into a nutty, full-bore analysis of the TV series Moonlighting, and changes that were made to the soundtrack, and how that ticked him off–and the whole time, the crowd is right there with him. “This song’s for Booger [Curtis Armstrong], where ever you are,” says Adams, and he launches into the night’s closing song–a powerhouse version of another [mp3com-artist]Whiskeytown[/mp3com-artist] classic, “16 Days.” The song has so much soul – and has so much power in this stripped-down format.
An hour after he took the stage, the show is done. Adams stashes his song binder under his arm and walks off the stage, leaving behind one of the most low-key, yet also most intense, Live on Letterman performances we’ve seen all year.