Last night, Ryan Adams made a rare stop in the Magic City, with what is, on paper, one hell of a tour. By pairing two of the most brilliant American singer/songwriters in the business today on the same bill, it was an absolute treat for the music lover.
Ideally, this review would start off with a hearty “well done, Miami.” And also a “thank you for being on your best behavior.” But, alas, it won't. Instead, all that can be mustered is a lukewarm “close enough.” This is a tale of two entities that suffer from a lack of impulse control. First, there's Miami, a city with a penchant for douchebaggery, in particular when assembled in large, drunken masses. Then there's Ryan Adams, a supremely talented musician with a long history of impatience with rowdy crowds. Call him petulant or fragile; the fact is, he's been known to walk off the stage in the middle of a show.
Still, the night began promisingly enough with Jenny Lewis strutting across the stage, clad in a rainbow suit and carrying a rainbow-splattered acoustic guitar. Stalking back and forth like a jungle cat, Lewis owned Miami's heart early on, playing several tracks, including “She's Not Me” and “Just One of the Guys,” from her 2014 album The Voyager, a record mostly produced by Adams.
Several times, Lewis stood on a box located near the foot of the stage to afford us a better view of her, not that she needed it to make herself any larger. Lewis accomplished that all on her own with a beguiling vocal performance and her commanding swagger. Radiating good vibes as vibrant as her outfit, Lewis wasn't afraid to deliver what longtime fans craved, namely cuts from her old band, Rilo Kiley: “Moneymaker,” “Portions for Foxes,” and “With Arms Outstretched” made appearances, the latter two standing out in quality.
Both Lewis and her backing band snarled throughout the set, but in the sweetest way possible. Lewis is a show unto herself; she shatters the notion of what an “opener” is supposed to be. If anything, she was the night's coheadliner, even stepping out before her scheduled set time so she could play longer for the lucky early birds. And the audience took notice. Overheard in the crowd, one fan said to another, “She is probably the coolest woman ever.” Indeed.
For the last song of her set, “Acid Tongue,” Lewis, her guitar, and the entire band crowded around two microphones like a troop of angels bathed in heavenly light for a moving and captivating finale. It was made possible by a well-behaved crowd that allowed this quietly beautiful moment to develop. Hope was in the air.
Then it was time for Ryan Adams, who kicked off his portion of the show with “Gimme Something Good,” the lead single off of last year's self-titled effort, the 14th studio album in this prolific songwriter's solo career. The lyrics echoed a sentiment that should have, could have, gone both ways. If he was to give us something good, then it would be our responsibility to return the favor.
Shrouded in near perpetual shadow, Adams stood at the center of a nostalgia-soaked stage, complete with two twin amplifier stacks and a pair of fully functional arcade machines from the heyday of 1980s coin-operated gaming: Asteroids was on the left and Frenzy was on the right. Behind him hung a modified version of the American flag, the stars replaced with a peace sign, an item that harked back to his Gold days. Considering how often Adams tours through South Florida — basically never — a little reminiscing in the form of a catalog retrospective was in order. So the setlist was peppered with songs from nine separate albums, including “Houses on the Hill,” a flashback to his time with Whiskeytown, the band Adams fronted in the '90s.
Among the standouts were a lively version of “This House Is Not for Sale,” which rang with bombastic guitars; a breathtaking rendition of the Oasis classic “Wonderwall,” sounding better than anytime he's every laid it down in a recording; and “Magnolia Mountain,” a holdover from his years with the Cardinals. As far as highlights go, “Magnolia Mountain” off Cold Roses, which just celebrated its tenth anniversary this past weekend, was particularly outstanding. Listening to the song, a few fans gazed toward the starry backdrop looming behind Adams, like teenagers lying on the hood of a car, watching airplanes roar overhead at night.
At this point, everything was going smoothly.
Many of Adams’ familiar songs were utterly transformed in this live setting. For example, “Peaceful Valley,” a gentle hymn about the afterlife, became an eight-minute beast that sounded both funereal and celebratory. Often offering organs and sincere hallelujahs, Adams' music has always contained introspective and spiritual elements, and his concerts are no different. In fact, he ups the ante as far as dramatic expressions of the soul are concerned. But that's only if he's allowed to do so.
Adams happily provided incredible peaks to nearly every song, from the slow jams of the past to newer tracks such as “Kim” and “Stay With Me.” However, he essentially needed to order people to shut up during some of the quieter songs. “It's up to you,” he said at one point. “What do you want? Do you want to hear these fucking songs?” When the crowd cheered in approval, he answered simply, “All right, let's do it.”
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The notoriously short-tempered Adams also called someone a “fucking asshole” when the man blinded Adams with his flash photography as the singer attempted to tell a humorous story. Adams explained that his desire for proper concert etiquette wasn't a “vanity thing” but merely an attempt to respect those who paid to hear him and not some caterwauling savage.
Like an ADHD problem child, the crowd managed to remain remarkably obedient during the majority of Adams’ two-hour set, but it all unraveled near the end. The nervous fidgeting dissolved into a full-blown distraction that Adams would no longer tolerate. Once he played the last notes of “I See Monsters” and bid everyone good night, that was it. There was no encore. Adams and company couldn't have run away faster. Granted, it was late, and perhaps some sort of time constraint was imposed by the Fillmore, but it sure didn't feel that way.
In the end, despite the abrupt conclusion and the very real possibility that we may not see him again for many years, Adams still delivered. With his hefty repertoire, he could have played anything from his discography and made it work — which he did. Or at least until he was gone, leaving behind stunned faces and mixed feelings.