My cat is mighty pissed off at Ryan Adams today. There is a nice beam of light coming through the window and the last thing he needs is me coming up and singing “soft as fuuuuuuck” in a black metal vocal styling as he enjoys a warm Southern California day. Adams is to blame, as his piano-driven improv about his cats has been running through my head since the moment he performed it deep in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles.
It’s an appropriate song to have lodged deep in my brain as it sums up in evening in which Adams mixed his sad songs with gut-busting humor as he unapologetically wore his love of heavy metal on his sleeve.
Typically reserved for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is a modern day jewel amongst an ever evolving downtown skyline. The overall vibe inside the Frank Gehry designed building felt more like an evening with the Phil instead of a typical Friday night concert. Ushers confiscated your beverages as they lead you to your seats. Phones and cameras were frowned upon and late arrival meant you had to wait outside the auditorium until an appropriate break in the performance.
As promised in Ryan Adams tweet earlier in the day, the show started at 8pm sharp with a very special guest. Singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, and old man in a white suit walked onto the stage. At first I was under the impression that it was Col. Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame but as it turns out, it was actually Mark Twain. For thirty minutes, Twain performed a hilarious spoken word piece where he shared about his health problems, implied Los Angeles was Godless and questioned why they don’t make mouse flavored cat food. Proclaiming he was the drunkest he had ever been, Twain stumbled across the stage insulting the United States Congress while calling out Albert Einstein for stealing his look. As Twain made notes to himself after each joke that failed to garner a laugh, I began to wonder if we were watching America’s Funnyman Neil Hamburger.
With frequent clearings of his throat and a glass of whiskey clenched tightly in his hand at all times, Twain and Hamburger certainly share the same stage presence. As Twain exited stage right at the end of his set, he received a thunderous applause from the audience. He quickly returned to the stage to take a quick bow and thank the crowd. Shock filled the room as we learned Twain’s true identity. Over the PA, it was announced that he had been performed by actor Val Kilmer. As the applause ended, everyone turned to their neighbor to confirm that we had all heard the same thing. Clearly we were not lied too when promised a very special guest.
After fans rushed to the bathroom and waited in line hoping to down one final drink, Adams hit the stage for the first of two sold out shows around 8:50 pm. The stage design was starkly bare; one piano and two Buck Owen Guitars set up under dark red lighting. Adams opened the show with a song from his debut solo album entitled Sweet Carolina. It was clear early on that he was not thrilled with the sound but managed to complete the song despite the hindrance. As his guitar tech James attempted to fix the sound issues, Adams began what would be the first of many comical rants of the night, sharing how he can’t understand a word that the Dublin Ireland (or was it Scotland?) native said to him. Smiling and nodding, Adams then performed the title track from his most recent studio release Ashes and Fire letting us in on the secret that it shares a name with the hotel he got the most fucked up he had ever been in.
While Adams may have been bothered by what he was hearing through his monitors, as a spectator the music sounded massive all night long. As he performed songs spanning the length of his career, I was taken aback at his vocal prowess. You could hear a pin drop as the former Whiskeytown vocalist alternated between fan favorites like If I Am A Stranger and new material including Dirty Rain and Invisible Riverside. It was not just his singing that impressed on this Friday night. Adams guitar work was also top notch. In fact, some of the best moments of the show came as he was fussing with his guitar. From teasing Black Sabbath riffs and questioning the tuning of My Winding Wheel to confusing many hipsters in the audience as he pretended to shred like heavy metal axman George Lynch, Adams guitar playing paid homage to many genres while sounding fresh and unique as only Adams can do.
In addition to playing at least twenty five sad songs (his description, not mine), the audience also received a comedy show with the price of admission. Adams is not only likeable, he could have a second career as a stand-up comedian. Over the course of the evening, we learned that it takes two AC/DC records to drive from his house to the beach. He shared about ugly places on the internet where Trekies argue over blueprints for the USS Enterprise and laughed as he repeatedly shared his paranoia that hundreds were watching him perform. When not apologizing for his overuse of the F word, Adams dorky sense of humor managed to inspire two improvisational performances. One was a happy song (sang to a female who had screamed at the top of her lungs that she was in love with the performer) that sounded like every single Jack Johnson song while the other was the aforementioned ode to his feline friends.
As the show went well past the venues curfew, Adams kept getting better and better. In addition to performing 16 Days from the Whiskeytown era, the native son of Jacksonville North Carolina snuck his haunting cover of the Oasis hit Wonderwall into his set. Adams even made multiple jokes about how he would say he was done performing, go hide off to the side of the stage like Danzig would then act shocked when he returned to get his stuff and the audience was still in their seats. Of course none of us were surprised when Adams came back out. Instead, the surprise came from what song he chose to perform as an encore. Having worn his T-shirt all night, the heavy metal fan shared that he was about to “mess up a song by a massively good person.” It was at that point that the man who was selling “Satanic Cat” death metal inspired T-shirts in the lobby busted out a goose bump inducing cover of the Ronnie James Dio classic, Holy Diver. While many in my general vicinity were questioning what song Adams was playing, I threw my devil horns up in approval and struggled to contain myself from rocking out too hard in my well-padded, fancy concert hall seat.
When watching Adams perform in 2012, it is clear that the man has truly come into his own. Songs spanning his entire career sounded powerful with nothing more than an acoustic instrument and vocals. While the Walt Disney Concert Hall is rather cavernous despite a maximum capacity of less than 2,300, Adams larger than life vocals made the room feel quaint and insignificant. Even when met with issues out of his control like monitor buzz and loud fans, Adams never lost focus of the mission at hand. It was a truly magical night in downtown Los Angeles where Adams not only conquered the home of the Philharmonic but was able to drive himself home and celebrate with his furry four legged friends.