There were very few moments to catch your breath during Ryan Adams’ two-plus hour set at Indianapolis’s Murat Theater Thursday night.
From the slashing riff of opener “Gimme Something Good” to the closing harmonica strands of the Heartbreaker classic “Come Pick Me Up”, Adams delivered swooning heartbreak, rock and roll bombast, and, rather unsurprisingly, a bevy of laughs in between.
Through 14 years and 14 albums, Ryan Adams has been a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some, he’s the abrasive rock idol wannabe from the Gold years. For others, he’s the punk who put out the wildly uneven Rock N’ Roll so his record company would put out the equally uneven Love Is Hell. But for most, he’s the alt-country superstar who’s capable of putting out Grateful Dead send-ups (Cold Roses), pure country albums (Jacksonville City Nights), or stone cold classic records (Heartbreaker).
Throughout those 14 years, Adams has also developed something of a reputation as a streaky live performer. Troubled by drugs, alcohol, his struggle with Meniere’s disease (an inner ear disorder), and occasional apathy, Adams’ concerts could shift from stunning to disappointing on a nightly basis.
That hasn’t been the case on Adams’ last two tours. In support of his latest album, 2014’s Ryan Adams, the singer-songwriter hit the road with a new backing band, the Shining. It’s Adams’ first tour with a backing band since the dissolution of the Cardinals, who backed Adams from 2005-2009.
For many fans and critics, the Cardinals were Adams’ best backing band. Despite coming into the picture five years after his first studio album, the Cardinals became almost synonymous with Ryan Adams. The Shining would certainly have their work cut out for them, especially when performing any Cardinals-specific songs.
Adams and the Shining proved more than up to the task. Known in recent years for his hilarious, often longwinded onstage banter, Adams and co. kept their heads down and powered through six songs before really addressing the audience. Included in those first songs were “Let It Ride” and the Dead-ish “Magnolia Mountain,” both Cardinals-era tunes from Cold Roses. Adams also pulled out the Love Is Hell deep track “This House Is Not For Sale”.
Following some banter, Adams unleashed another reworked version of the Gold hit “New York, New York,” one of his most popular songs. This new version spanned the middle ground between the up-tempo, spitfire version of the original with the beautiful, mournful piano rearrangement Adams unveiled a few years back. The solid, mid-tempo groove lent itself to crowd sing-alongs and a soaring harmonica solo at the end. It proved to be a highlight of the night.
Since the Cardinal days, Adams has never been afraid to stretch songs past the constraints of the album versions. Nowhere was this more apparent on Thursday than during “Shadows” off of Adams’ newest album. On the recorded version, the song simmers and threatens to boil over before Adams pulls it back at the last second. Live, the band blew the lid off the hypothetical pot, taking the song into an instrumental interlude so intense that it brought tears to more than a few people in the audience (including myself).
Following that sort of emotional roller coaster is a challenge for any band, but a slightly amped-up version of Jacksonville City Nights opener “A Kiss Before I Go,” a straight country song on record, pushed the setlist along nicely. Adams then transitioned into a full-band version of “Dear Chicago,” a song that has a lot of meaning to me personally. It was another emotional moment in a night full of them.
In direct opposition to his last tour, Adams rarely played acoustic guitar during the show. So it was a nice changeup when he stepped forward to sing “Lucky Now” unaccompanied. Later in the set, he played the Heartbreaker classic “My Winding Wheel”, making it halfway through the first verse before stopping abruptly to react to cheers from the crowd. “Did Bill Murray just walk onto the stage or something?”
“Lucky Now” was followed by Gold standout “When The Stars Go Blue”, which featured a featured a dark backdrop with blue dots scattered throughout. After a lengthy story about a run-in with a hotel concierge, Adams launched into two songs from his recent punk EP, 1984. It’s a testament to Adams’ versatility as an artist that he can veer between plaintive acoustic music and raging punk rock so naturally, and it helped keep the audience guessing all night.
Impassioned renditions of the classic “Oh My Sweet Carolina” and “La Cienega Just Smiled” led into the aforementioned “My Winding Wheel”, with new songs “Trouble” and “Kim” sandwiched in between to keep the adrenaline going. “Kim,” especially, was one of the most well-received new songs of the night, and played off the same loud-soft dynamics that Adams has used so effectively throughout his career.
Those same dynamics made for a truly spectacular ending to the main set. Adams has been closing his sets with “I See Monsters”, a bit of a forgotten song off Love Is Hell. Adams has reworked the song from the hushed, acoustic version on the album into a truly spectacular full-band tour de force. The song started much like the album version, with Adams voice and fingerpicked electric guitar. Organ flourishes flair up to build tension as Adams’ voice soars, and as the last verse ends the band explodes in an all-out sonic assault that sent chills down the spines of everyone in the audience. The emotional rollercoaster of the concert was perfectly encapsulated in six minutes.
Much to the delight of everyone in attendance, Adams decided to forego the encore cliché, instead taking the opportunity to introduce the band and bring opener Butch Walker out on stage to sing and play guitar on set closer “Come Pick Me Up”. For many, this is the most iconic song in Adams’ vast catalogue, which is especially impressive when you consider it was recorded so early in his solo career. With the crowd singing along to every word, Adams went out on a deliriously high note. The song ended, everyone applauded, Adams thanked the crowd, and the band took a bow. No waiting around for an encore that everyone knew would happen. It was a refreshing change of pace, and was the perfect cap to an incredible show.
Adams was in superb voice throughout, and his guitar playing ran the gamut from subtle fingerpicking to frenetic soloing. The Shining stepped out of the long shadow cast by the Cardinals to make their case for “Best Ryan Adams Backing Band”. The setlist flowed organically, satisfying fans of every period of Adams’ career.
It all added up to a memorable, emotionally exhausting night at the Murat. 14 years in and Ryan Adams can still leave a crowd speechless. He’s not even 40 yet. There’s a good chance there are plenty more shows like this to come.