Ryan Adams Sound-Checking at Benaroya ::: courtesy of the artist’s Facebook
Ryan Adams left me at a loss. I spent the days after his performance at Benaroya Hall in contemplation of what I had seen and heard and felt. That Friday night, I tiptoed down the dark aisle as a small Ryan Adams sat illuminated on the middle of the stage wailing on “Oh My Sweet Carolina.” As I sat, I felt the song hurdle over all the seats and settle with me, like his music always seems to do. Ryan Adams has never been a performer with walls. Tales of drunken performances where he couldn’t even get out the lyrics to his own songs, or fistfights outside venues, have colored his career and his music with an unassailable feeling that he only writes what he knows. If Ryan Adams was singing it, he had felt it, and deeply, and maybe even right in front of thousands of people.
I didn’t think Ryan Adams could ever get over Ryan Adams’ songs. Who could sing “Come Pick Me Up” without a genuine desire to want back the lover who dug their warm fingers into your heart and twisted? How could he possibly moan the chorus of “Desire” without a blue ache so deep it felt like midnight in his heart? It’s no wonder the man who covered Oasis’ “Wonderwall” with the kind of throb that threatens to crush you has to turn to whiskey, and large quantities of it.
But then he stopped singing. As the last notes sparkled away into the expansive beauty of Benaroya, Ryan Adams…told a joke. And everyone laughed. He called out to the guy he dubbed as having the “loudest voice in Seattle” as the guy hooted for “Strawberry Wine,” and told us all to “tighten your knit scarves, we’re going for a ride.” He even paused between “New York, New York” and “Firecracker” to yell out, arms up, “WHO WANTS TO HEAR ANOTHER SONG ABOUT MY FEELINGS?”
It was a little shocking. The room could go from rowdy and whistling at his jokes or made up tunes called “Psychic Cheetah”, to quiet and tearing as he stood pigeon toed and sang with a fire in his mouth and on his fingertips. He played almost all of Heartbreaker, dabbled in Jacksonville City Nights, picked some choice tunes from Love is Hell and Demolition, and owned his songs with a fullness of talent I hadn’t heard live before. He filled the hall, inhaled everyone’s breath, and gave it back either in reverent attention or laughter.
I had expected this new, happy Ryan Adams to disappoint me in some way. A buzzword in the “indie” music scene (even alt country) is “authentic.” Artists are indiscriminately labeled as inauthentic for reasons that defy logic. It could be their hair, the use of well-worn tropes, or even just having achieved a notable level of success. I used to agree with some of that. That if someone was writing a sad, bottom of the glass song, then I better be able to see them struggle. If I saw them lose touch with the wellspring of the song, then it was over.
But it doesn’t mean that.
As Ryan Adams sang “Why Do They Leave?” during his encore, which was a whopping eight songs long, his voice held the hurt I imagine he felt when he wrote it. It was there, and real, and it sat on my shoulder resting on my cheek. He ended the song, he mused about Trapper Keepers, and he seemed like a happy, bizarre man. It seems now when Ryan Adams plays his songs, he acknowledges how real they still are in a part of him. His wounds are raised against his skin, white and shining and there, but he doesn’t have to entrench in the pain to prove it. And now he has the mental faculties to deliver the performance he was always capable of, a man who now plays his songs instead of living them. Honors them without repeating them. He has changed, and I have seen nothing more authentic and human than that.
It ended up giving me hope, really. Ryan Adams got over his own songs. I guess that means we can get over anything now, can’t we?