Monday, January 30, 2012

A Little Bit of Everything

Ryan Adams and Dawes (among others)
Live at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival
Hill Auditorium
Ann Arbor MI, 1/27/12

Back at the end of 2009, one of my favorite blogs (here) named Ryan Adams as the artist of the decade. My vote for that title, quite obviously, would have gone to Butch Walker, who put out half a dozen of my favorite albums and became a world class producer in that time, but looking back, it's hard not to think of Adams as the definitive musical force of the '00s. His eclectic and prolific solo career began after his old band Whiskeytown, the poster-boys of the 90s Americana movement, broke apart in 2000. His first record, a sparse acoustic set of break up songs called Heartbreaker, released later that year, beginning what would be a ridiculously busy ten years, consisting of ten officially released studio records spanning numerous genres, sonic palettes and topics; meanwhile, at least as many unreleased projects made their way onto the internet and into the hands of fans everywhere. So many things about the decade in music were reflected in Adams as a figure: his struggles with his record label, his prolific, overarching musical ideas, his tendency towards excess, and his choice to embrace the growing internet music phenomenon, among others; a lot of Adams' music sees him looking back, channeling influences or directly referencing them, but at the same time, he's remarkably current: a troubadour for a new age.

I can't recall exactly when I became a Ryan Adams fan (though I would trace my earliest interest back to his haunting cover of Noel Gallagher's Oasis tune, "Wonderwall," which released as part of the Love is Hell album back in 2003. It wasn't until 2009 that I tackled the rest of his vast, challenging catalog (including unreleased works like The Suicide Handbook and 48 Hours, which sit amongst his best material). Adams very quickly rose to prominence on my top played artists chart, not only due to the quantity of the material, but also to the quality: there is a Ryan Adams record for every mood, and when I wasn't in the mood for the upbeat acoustics and the collision of influences on Gold (still my favorite record of his), chances were that the icy piano ballads on Love is Hell or the masterful alt-country, roots rock of Jacksonville City Nights were likely to hit the mark. Then last year's Ashes & Fire, Ryan's first true solo album in years and the first since the dissolution of the Cardinals, who served as his backing band for years, made it onto my list of favorite albums at the end of the year. And last Friday, I added Adams to another list: that of the artists I've seen live.

Ryan Adams served as the headliner for the first night of the Ann Arbor folk festival, which also included acts such as Carbon Leaf, Elephant Revival, Devotchka and Dawes, another band who appeared on my end of the year list for 2011. The show, which kicked off at 6:30 p.m. at the University of Michigan Hill Auditorium, was emceed to great effect by comedian Heywood Banks, who brought a welcome sense of levity and glee to the proceedings with his jokes and his comedic singalong routine. Unfortunately, the evening's seven acts was at times dull and exhausting, and had me counting the minutes until Banks would return and speed things up a bit. Blues-folk singer/songwriter Sunny War, who took the stage first, was the epitome of this, and boring songs and a lack of stage presence made War's five song set feel much longer than it was. David Wax Museum also fit into this category, with a lead singer who shouted his way through the band's entire set of Mexican-influenced folk music.

Elephant Revival and Carbon Leaf were two of the brighter spots in the show's first act: the former filled the Auditorium with their rich, unique sound, their orchestral instrumentation and haunting lead vocals (courtesy of Bonnie Paine, who also played the band's percussion on a washboard) making use of the venue's stellar acoustics. The latter gathered around a single microphone and performed a set of Celtic infused folk, with their gorgeous vocal harmonies becoming a high water mark for the night up to that point. Both are bands that I'm interested in exploring further.

Dawes shook the place awake with the most exciting, involved set of the night. Though their five song set was far too short, the band made perfect use of every one of their 30+ minutes onstage, making me understand perfectly what I've been reading about them since the first time I heard their albums: that they're great on record, but even better live. Opener "Fire Away" was a perfect example of this, and the song thrived in new ways in its live format. Frontman Taylor Goldsmith delivered a rousing guitar solo that, in one fell swoop, made me wish the band were co-headlining the show. "That Western Skyline," the opener from the band's 2009 debut North Hills made me resolve to give that record more listening time, and the set's brevity didn't stop the band from playing my two favorite songs in the form of the bookends from last year's Nothing is Wrong. The first, "Time Spent in Los Angeles," was hampered somewhat by feedback issues and disproportionately heavy bass, but still proved to be every bit as electric as it is on record, and the second, the lyrically stunning "A Little Bit of Everything" saw the band turn the venue into a ringing cathedral for five minutes. The fifth and final part of the set, "When the Time Comes," was the perfect finale to the show's first act, with its anthemic, singalong chorus and Goldsmith's pristine vocals sending the band off on a high note.

For reasons unknown to me, Devotchka (another Mexican folk band), were given near co-headliner status, and played for almost double the time of Dawes. While the band's level of musicianship was obviously high, it seemed to me that their melody challenged songs and meandering arrangements would have been better suited for serving as the score to some indie-comedy (which they have, in 2006's Little Miss Sunshine) than they did as the backbone to a compelling live set (which they didn't). The fact that they were allowed to play for the better part of an hour while their more talented (and more musically varied) predecessors were relegated to extremely brief sets was something I found quite upsetting, and was a big strike against the Folk Festival's structure for me. Luckily, Heywood Banks returned to the stage just as my irritation was reaching a fever pitch, and his stand-up comic routine made the minutes fly by as Ryan Adams set up for his set.

Adams arrived onstage shortly before 10:30 p.m., picked up his acoustic guitar, sat down and began to play. As Adams played his first song ("My Sweet Carolina," a highlight from his first record), the capacity crowd of the 3,500+ people fell to complete silence and it was magical. Over the next hour, Adams morphed the regal Hill Auditorium into an intimate, coffee-house setting, playing 13 songs with nothing but acoustic guitar, harmonica and piano, and without the assistance of a single other musician. The Ashes & Fire material (the title track, "Dirty Rain" and "Lucky Now" all made welcome appearances in the set-list) thrived in the sparse acoustic setting, and it struck me how, perhaps more than any other artist I've seen, Adams' voice sounds as good live as it does on record. Adams dug deeply into the Heartbreaker album, which became the most well represented of his records in the 13 song set, and the album's songs were obviously very at home in such an intimate setting. "Carolina" seemed like an especially appropriate opening to his set, as Emmylou Harris (Saturday Night's folk fest headliner), lends backing vocals to the studio version. "Be My Winding Wheel" was every bit as good, and Heartbreaker's closer, the gorgeously restrained "Sweet Lil Gal" gave Adams his first trip to the piano in a moment as breathtaking as any that played out on the stage all night.

As far as songs go, none were more welcome for me than the inclusions from Gold: a slowed down performance of "Firecracker" reminded me why I love the song so much, and a piano take on that record's opener, "New York, New York," which became somewhat of an anthem following the September 11th attacks, struck a more mournful, emotional chord than its album counterpart. Adams was clearly aware of the set's slow tempo, and made several sarcastic, self-deprecating remarks concerning it, from "and here's another ballad" to "man, we gotta slow things down here." At the end of such a long night of music, Adams' low key set could have come across as a bit anti-climactic for some, but I've always loved seeing artists strip their songs down to their bare essentials, and the intimacy of the show had an electricity about it that was palpable even from the back row of the second balcony. 

"Come Pick Me Up," Adams' signature song and the most memorable cut from Heartbreaker, served as a fitting, if somewhat sudden, conclusion to a stellar set, with the profane lyrics, piercing harmonica, and heartache drenched subject matter bringing full circle what was, in effect, a condensed retrospective of Adams' solo acoustic material. Though the set-list was obviously trimmed considerably from what he's been playing on other tour dates, it was still a joy to hear some of his best songs come alive in such a venue. It would have been easy for Adams to come out with the full band, rock the house for an hour, and leave the audience with the loudest, most raucous, most climactic set of the night, but the fact that he was able to command the audience in the way he did with such sparse, acoustic material was the mark of a true veteran. From the moment he walked onstage on Friday night, Adams had the audience in the palm of his hand, to the point where you could have heard a pin drop, and that proved very quickly that, even after six other acts, he was simply in another class.


1) Fire Away
2) That Western Skyline
3) Time Spent in Los Angeles
4) A Little Bit of Everything
5) When My Time Comes

Ryan Adams
1) My Sweet Carolina
2) Ashes & Fire
3) Dirty Rain
4) Be My Winding Wheel
5) Sweet 'lil Gal
6) Everybody Knows
7) Firecracker
8) Please Do Not Let Me Go
9) Lucky Now
10) Let it Ride
11) Two
12) New York, New York (Piano)
13) Come Pick Me Up

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