From the opening moments of his concert at Los Angeles’ Greek Theater on Friday night, as the clanging, drama-laden chords of “Trouble” rang out, Ryan Adams served notice to his eager audience that he and his four bandmates in The Shining intended to dish up plenty of sturdy, flannel-shirt guitar rock. Inevitably, he and we both knew, a good helping of gentler if also brilliant singer-songwriting would find a way to break the surface as well.
“Trouble” is from Adams’ 2014’s Ryan Adams, his first to be self-produced (with Mike Viola, also onstage with him on guitar) and his first self-titled album, which in sum was a declaration of independence — from producers, from his sometime cerebral-poet history, from the recent sorrows of a divorce and the passing of his beloved grandmother. When he sang the opener’s lines depicting “The lines on my face/ Like a map of my sins,” the song’s down-the-middle stylistic straddle — part wounded confessional, part power ballad — set the evening’s tone.
The sound (and the amenities, under the recently installed SMG management firm) of the legendary open-air L.A. Parks Department venue were both excellent on this breezy, balmy Los Angeles night (“Playing my hometown!” exulted the raised-in-North-Carolina transplant in a tweet earlier in the day). When the fiercely chunky “Gimme Something Good,” which had opened the Ryan Adams album, came next, the show was very close to Neil Young territory, as defined by Young’s Crazy Horse and recent Promise of the Real aggregations. But Adams is too bursting with his own inspirations to be a true magpie — however much his work may echo Young’s six-string grit, Bob Dylan’s elusive poesy, Gram Parsons’ soulful alt-country, even the Eagles’ harmonies (notably onstage on “When the Stars Go Blue”), all are sooner soul mates than influences.
He’s as winning a performer as any rocker around, both thoroughly accessible in his witty, bold banter (“You have a super loud opera voice” he smilingly chided one attendee who was hollering out a song title) and somehow emotionally guarded. Often, his sense of place will stand in for what are clearly inner feelings. Thus we were advised that “New York, New York” with its organ-drenched volleys of words spun out in a sodbuster accent, “was written in California” and when he sputtered out a profane slag of the Second City intro’ing “Dear Chicago”, he quickly reversed his field — figuratively dancing backward in high heels (“Interesting pizza”), but he just managed it. Similarly, he went well down the rabbit hole reprimanding a girl near the front who nailed him with her phone’s flash, then all but pleaded for forgiveness and prescribed a patch of black tape. “You’re okay,” he finally counseled, then as a cautionary aside to the crowd, “Fourth wall broken … back to the third wall.”
Although his recent 1989 album covering Taylor Swift‘s entire hit album was given neither a song nor a mention, he did what he could to represent his own prolific output, from his early days with Whiskeytown and the Cardinals through gems like Heartbreaker, whose heartfelt ballads like “Oh My Sweet Carolina” and “Come Pick Me Up” would both have their telling place in a 18-song set.
When the band took off on disciplined-if-deeply committed jams, Adams was just as likely to start trading phrases with keyboardist Daniel Clarke as with guitarist Viola, and the rhythm section of bassist Charlie Stavish and drummer Freddy Bokkenheuser (the latter with a woodchopper’s hammering energy) seemed to enjoy the musical interplay, and their bandleader’s japes, as much as anyone on the entire hillside. If the lighting designer and video mixer’s combined work was so decidedly expert as to seem the product of scrutinizing more than a couple of this band’s sets, their work was so illustrative it hardly seemed a detriment.
Part of Adams’ unfailing regular-guy presentation was a refusal to honor the standard practice of leaving the stage prior to an encore. Rather than that applause-milking exercise, Adams joshed the transition away, first empathizing with those who fought their way to the gig through the dense Franklin intersection with its jumpy stoplights seemingly designed “to just piss you off” and then mocking the idea of pausing the show as if “We just couldn’t physically play any more songs.”
Opening act Jenny Lewis (her elite trio with Tennessee Thomas and Erika Foster recently released a fine album and are now performing — to a warm reception this night — as Nice as Fuck) would join her onetime producer Adams onstage for the moving, melting ballad “Oh My Sweet Carolina”, and her full-throated nod to earlier Adams studio guest Emmylou Harris stood in entrancing, audible focus as the song closed. Even Adams, whose hair hanging like so much ink-stained Spanish moss often obscures his face, arched his head back with an ecstatic smile as the line, “All the sweetest winds they blow across the south” had its way with the steadily adoring crowd. “We did it, we f—ing played the Greek,” Adams hollered to his comrades, and so they had — as memorably as anyone could ask.
Gimme Something Good
New York, New York
When The Stars Go Blue
Let It Ride
To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)
Shakedown on 9th Street
Stay With Me
She’s Not Me
Oh My Sweet Carolina
I See Monsters
Come Pick Me Up