Ryan Adams – Mercury Lounge (New York City, NY)
Two and a half years since the release of Whiskeytown’s sadly beautiful Stranger’s Almanac, leader Ryan Adams quietly surfaced — like that mystic groundhog in Punxsutawney — to perform newly-penned solo material on a midwinter night at New York City’s eminent rock womb, the Mercury Lounge. That evening, Adams had confirmed plans to watch Fargo and not smoke cigarettes, but because he lives a bass pick’s throw from the club, he made perfect sense as a last-minute fill-in for Philadelphia band Marah, who had canceled. Word traveled though town at the speed of a D Train, and what harvested was a salivating crowd of Whiskeytown fans feeling luckier than sevens.
Stage lights were sprayed across the black ceiling, their dimmed tentacles meeting in a collective yellow mass upon a single wooden chair. Near there, behind a curtain of hair, Adams stood with a notebook and an acoustic guitar, and politely asked if we buzzing New York City rock patrons would mind if he sound-checked real quick. [Okay, but hurry.] The joke was on us, though; he was twisting pegs around already.
He played 16 songs, 13 of which were new. The greater part were prefaced with the description: “This is another sad song about…me.” In this case, “sad” meant handsome, unveiling, struggling declarations of loneliness and adulthood and heartbreak and the effects true love has on a body. And though these lyrics and chords may not be fixed in Adams’ memoirs just yet (he referenced his notebook now and then), they are for certain fully realized emotions and damn lovely songs.
Among them were the morphinic “Born Yesterday”, which remembered the Beatles; “To Be The One”, which ached around the verse “I don’t know which is worse/To wake up and see the sun/Or to be the one that’s gone”; and a Steve-Earlesque “The Poison And The Pain”, concerning the Devil. He also played Whiskeytown numbers “16 Days”, “Dancing With The Women At The Bar”, and a chilling “Houses On The Hill,” all accompanied by the band’s pedal steel player Mike Daly (who also sat in with the opening act, Health & Happiness Show).
Alongside Adams’ bone-crunching economical imagery were his windswept, morning-voice vocals and unadorned guitar work, making for a pleasantly spare stage presence. Between songs, however, he revealed loads of good temper and spark. He introduced Daly as the “Sideshow Bob of Whiskeytown” and called his pedal steel “a math problem.” He also chatted up the crowd about such matters as how hard Slayer rocks. It was good to see this witty, chop-busting side of Adams; otherwise, taking his songwriting into account, you might worry about him.
After playing for nearly two hours, Adams graciously thanked the room for coming to see him, or for staying “if you came to see someone else.” And not unlike that groundhog who sees his shadow on frosty grass, he turned around and went back to his den. Could mean it’s going to be a long winter, but a long winter might be the perfect scenery for a new Whiskeytown record.