“I knew I was gonna play Central Park and just cause a ruckus,” Ryan Adams joked early in his set at New York’s SummerStage on Wednesday evening. He was sarcastically poking fun at someone in the crowd who caused a stir about a nearby concertgoer smoking pot (“I’ve never heard of pot and music being associated before!” Adams cracked), but it wasn’t that far from the truth. Though the crowd may not have been as consistently responsive as the singer-songwriter may have hoped, he still couldn’t have put together a more quintessential Ryan Adams show.
The hits-heavy set started with a solid “Trouble” and “Gimme Something Good” combo, followed by an easy, crowd-winning “New York, New York”. Adams could have saved such an apropos song for later in the set, but it’d be nitpicking to question the ordering of such a collection of great tracks. It’s true that despite consistently putting together impressive setlists, Adams’ gigs don’t hold too many surprises right now. He treated SummerStage like he would a festival, which meant touching on highlights from all aspects of his career, including Heartbreaker’s “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)”, “Fix It” from his Cardinals days, right up to “Stay With Me” off Ryan Adams. Not that that’s a bad thing by any mark; if you wanted to hear “that” Ryan Adams song last night, you likely got your chance.
Of course, the proper pacing of a stellar setlist is only half the battle — less than, even. The performance is everything, and Adams has himself a phenomenal band with him to deliver exactly what’s needed. He’s been with The Shining for a minute now, but it’s still a marvel to watch how in sync they all are. Not only do they provide glorious harmonies (“Oh My Sweet Carolina”) and ripping solos of their own (keyboardist Daniel Clarke on “Shakedown on 9th Street”), but they give Adams every bit of the platform a true bandleader needs. They enjoy playing his music and have immense fun doing it. The base they laid down for Adams to turn in stunning solo after stunning loud-quiet solo — the jam-y, pseudo-psychedelia of “Magnolia Mountain” to the absolute monster that’s become the live version of “Peaceful Valley” — could not be more sturdy. Their timing is beyond superb, such that you’d almost think it was all rehearsed if you didn’t notice everyone’s eyes on their leader whenever he stepped back in front of that giant amp stage right.
Yet even with a masterful show going on right in front of them, the packed New York City crowd was largely living up to its (largely false, yet still kinda true) reputation of being relatively unresponsive. Although hoots and cheers weren’t completely absent, there seemed to be a good swath of humanity right up front that either clapped politely below their heads or simply nodded in approval. Perhaps it was the generally older median age of those in attendance? It got to the point where Adams pretended to text himself a note about how he’s better off remaining silent in front of NYC audiences since they tend not to give anything back. When the laughter failed to register above a murmur at that, he “sent” another “text” into his hand noting that the fake texting joke doesn’t work either.
Yes, the trademark Adams wit was on par with his boundless talent. Trying to transcribe his banter was like remembering a comedian’s entire set. Riffs went off in every direction: The idea that his head was so filled with marijuana that they’d better get “Robo-Ryan” to play, the shaming of a fan who called out for a specific song (“Whenever I hear someone call out for a song, I never play it again”), the intentional moment of silence as he tried to “make a moment of awkwardness that will stick with you forever.” He even blasted the guy who called for “Free Bird” (We’re still doing this?) with a hearty and sincere “Fuck you.”
What was most endearing was how his humor remained; he was being a generally nice and sympathetic human. A woman fainted halfway through the set, and when Adams noticed, he immediately paused the show, making sure she was getting water. While he patiently waited for her to get up, Adams very quietly introduced the band, asking for minimal applause so the poor woman had a chance to recover. And when someone told him to just play through, he slammed the inconsiderate schlub and begged the audience’s patience. Sweet as hell, and yet he still managed to toss a few quips into his concern. “It’s the Les Paul, isn’t it? Three amps was too much, I told him!”
Unfortunately, the well-documented Ménière’s Disease-suffering musician took a camera flash right to the face as he knelt down to hand the woman a bottle of water. He blocked his eyes and the crowd showed their feelings towards the careless photographer, but it was perhaps a bit indicative of how Adams may have received the show. Before closing with “Come Pick Me Up”, he thanked the crowd for giving them “the best time of our lives. That went exactly how we thought it would — shockingly.” Maybe I was the only one who thought there was a touch of sarcasm there, as if he was slyly dissing the sold-out audience for not giving the 110% that he himself did.
Or maybe I was reading too much into all that prodding about NYC being a reserved audience. I seriously doubt anyone walked away from that set feeling anything less than fantastic. Which just goes to show that even when Ryan Adams might not be getting back what he wants (or warrants), he’s going to give forward the type of performance that deserves the loudest of ovations.
Gimme Something Good
New York, New York
When the Stars Go Blue
Shakedown on 9th Street
To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)
Let It Ride
Stay With Me
This House Is Not For Sale
Oh My Sweet Carolina
Come Pick Me Up