25 January 2012: Ohio Theatre at Playhouse Square, Cleveland, Ohio
Back in the early 2000s, Tracy and I used to go to Borders after dinner-and-a-movie date nights. We’d wander through the books and CDs, often finding new music to thrill us. It was on one of those late night excursions that I discovered Ryan Adams. The cover of Gold caught my eye, which led me to a listening station, which led me to buying the disc on the strength of the first two tracks alone – “New York, New York” and “Firecracker”.
Fast forward a decade, and Adams’ prolific output is as challenging as his personality is reported to be. Of the 13 albums he’s released, Gold is still my favorite, but I like Heartbreaker, Love Is Hell, Cardinology (with his backing band the Cardinals), and his new album Ashes & Fire all quite a bit. I’ve wanted to see Adams live for years, but he always seemed to be just off my radar enough that I would miss a ticket sale or sometimes the fact that he was in town altogether.
I was telling my friend Kristin about the Black Keys show coming up in March, and she mentioned the Ryan Adams show she’d picked up tickets for. I immediately went to see about getting tickets and realized the show was sold out. Kristin then told me her husband wasn’t all that interested in going to the show and offered the extra ticket to me. I wasn’t going to pass that opportunity up – especially since I knew Kristin had seen Adams with the Cardinals on an earlier tour and raved about the show.
After some preshow drinks and noshing across the street, we headed into the Ohio Theatre at Playhouse Square. I can’t remember the last time I was in the Ohio, and I had certainly forgotten how tiny the venue is. Holding an even thousand seats, it’s the second smallest house in the district. A former Loew’s movie theatre, the Ohio retained that quality during Adams’ intimate show. It was as though everyone was afraid to talk. It seemed mostly born out of respect for Adams and his music, but it lent a bizarre quality to the night. It was pin-drop quiet during songs. (I even heard someone “shushed” by another concertgoer at one point!) The atmosphere reminded me a lot of seeing Cowboy Junkies at the Phantasy Nightclub back in the ’80s, or Jake Shimabukuro at The Stage Door a few years back.
The upside to the atmosphere was seeing how Adams dazzles alone on stage, capably backing himself on piano or acoustic guitar and harmonica. His voice was strong and his personality even more so. The banter between performer and fan was sometimes awkward, but the blame for that lay entire at the feet of the audience. Not quite heckling, but clearly as restless as Adams in an ADHD sort of way, there were moments when it felt like the show might go completely off the rails. That fine line elevated the night, highlighting the reworked catalogue of hits into even darker territory, balanced and softened by Adams’ humble and playful acknowledgements of just how low-key the set list was, and humorous improvisations of songs about cats, an epic a cappella drum solo, and a tune about Danzig and hookers.
The song selection was bookended by “Oh My Sweet Carolina” and “Come Pick Me Up”, both off of Adams’ Heartbreaker debut. In between, there were plenty of highlights in the two-hour, nearly two-dozen song set. Reworking Gold’s “The Rescue Blues”, “Sylvia Plath”, and “New York, New York” on piano was stunning. The title track and “Dirty Rain” off of last year’s Ashes & Fire were just as memorable as his cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” and the always amazing “English Girls Approximately”, both off of Love Is Hell.
Short on time and up against an apparent noise ordinance curfew, Adams asked the audience to play along with a faux encore exit a few minutes after 11, and closed the curtain on a wildly entertaining night.