Ryan Adams & the Cardinals concert review

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What you see is what you get with Ryan Adams. No acting, no pretensions, just a dedicated musician being real and in the moment – and isn’t that what great rock music is supposed to be about? Whether he’s singing his heart out on a piano ballad, rocking the guitar during a mind-melting psychedelic jam, or amusingly professing his adolescent infatuations for certain female pop singers, Ryan Adams is the rare rock star who isn’t afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve at all times.

All of these talents and charms were on display at the Zellerbach Auditorium on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, as Adams and the Cardinals rolled into town for a sold-out show before a seated but adoring audience. It can feel a little strange to remain seated for a rock show these days, yet Adams seems to favor such venues as often as not. Perhaps it’s because it can help create a more attentive audience, as if Adams views his performances like a work of theater.

The show opened with a powerful combo of “Peaceful Valley/Magnolia Mountain” that got things cooking right from the start. Some think of Adams as more of a singer/songwriter, but he and the Cards are also a serious rock and roll force when they want to be, and the powerful sound of “Magnolia Mountain” recalled classic rock artists such as Neil Young and Crazy Horse and the Grateful Dead. Drummer Brad Pemberton, guitarist Neal Casal, bassist Chris “Spacewolf” Feinstein and pedal steel guitarist Jon Graboff are all masters of their instruments, and with Adams, they form one of the most cohesive musical units in the business.

Adams is also something of a musical chameleon, capable of shifting from one mood to another at a moment’s notice and fond of reworking his own material like the great jazz artists of bygone eras. Adams sat down at the piano for “Two,” from last year’s Easy Tiger, and delivered a new, down-tempo arrangement that was very different from the album version he played at the Berkeley Community Theater last summer. This version was slower and more melancholy, creating a totally different mood.

“The Rescue Blues” and “The Sun Also Sets” were mid-tempo gems that raised the energy level, with Adams emoting in a particularly poignant way during the former when he repeatedly sang, “When I needed you the most, you left me all alone.” The band cranked up the volume on the rousing combo of “Shakedown on 9th Street/Beautiful Sorta,” before Adams pulled another switcheroo by going back to the piano for “Halloweenhead.” Here, Adams took the most rocking song from Easy Tiger and, as with “Two,” transformed it into a melancholy ballad before closing the set with a powerful “Bartering Lines.”

Unlike the true jam bands, Adams and the Cardinals only take a brief set break, perhaps 15 minutes, leaving the full house barely time to obtain a beverage. The second set opened with a stirring rendition of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” and went on to feature sparkling readings of “Everybody Knows” and “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” which benefited from an uplifting full band arrangement rather than the solo ballad treatment it usually receives. “When the Stars Go Blue,” which always draws a round of shrieks from Adams’ many female admirers, followed, and was a crowd-pleaser as always. Adams had downplayed his chances earlier in the evening though when he amusingly commented on how the women in the audience seemed to be in their “autumn years,” leading one to wonder if he realized he was playing on a college campus.

Later in the set, Adams went on a prolonged but endearingly irreverent ramble about his adolescent affections for Mariah Carey and Tina Turner, saying that watching Turner is what enabled him to realize his manhood. The amusingly risqué commentary continued when Adams noted that if he was a chick, he would want to offer oral services to metal singer Glenn Danzig. While such a rambling monologue could have come off as boring and self-indulgent coming from some artists, Adams made it a highlight of the show by the way he engaged the audience as if he were merely speaking to a group of friends backstage.

You don’t get the sense that Adams is being self-indulgent, but rather that he is opening up to let you into his world, and isn’t that what most fans crave from the rock stars they admire? One also gets the sense that such banter is a necessary form of comic relief for an artist who has been plagued with some well-chronicled emotional struggles and drug problems (though Adams has been admirably clean from hard drugs for almost two years now.)

Adams followed the ramble by delivering one of his saddest and most compelling ballads, “Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part,” a tune which had been dedicated to the late Heath Ledger’s ex-fiancée Michelle Williams at the band’s San Rafael show five days earlier. The song was once again powerful, as Adams seemed to bare his soul.

Another of Adams’ talents is knowing how to finish a show strongly, which he and the Cardinals did with the superb trio of “Cold Roses/Mockingbird/Easy Plateau,” a triple shot from 2005’s acclaimed double album, Cold Roses. The title track rocked in a smooth and crisp style before segueing beautifully into the sublime melodies of “Mockingbird,” which begs the listener “don’t give up on love.” The full majesty of the Cardinals was on display as they continued to demonstrate that they are one of the tightest bands in the land, yet able to follow Adams where ever his improvisational muse might lead him.

Adams dedicated “Easy Plateau” to Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, an appropriate gesture to his friend and sometimes musical cohort, since the song typically features some truly majestic psychedelic jamming. This version didn’t quite reach the peaks that the extended encore rendition at the San Rafael show did, but it still soared in a powerful way and was once again a top highlight of the show. Rather than exit before the encore, Adams requested that the house lights be turned up and he then quickly delivered a pretty acoustic version of “Pearls on a String.” The crowd was finally moved to rise from their sets for a well-earned round of applause.


I) Peaceful Valley-> Magnolia Mountain-> Dear Chicago, Two (piano), The Rescue Blues, The Sun Also Sets, Shakedown on 9th Street-> Beautiful Sorta, Halloweenhead, Bartering Lines

II) Wonderwall, Everybody Knows, Oh My Sweet Carolina, When The Stars Go Blue, Goodnight Rose, Off Broadway, Evening joke with Jon Graboff, Oh My God, Whatever, Etc., **mariah/tina turner banter **, Elizabeth, You Were Born To Play That Part, Cold Roses-> Mockingbird, Easy Plateau

E: Pearls on a String (RA & NC on acoustic; rest of band a cappella)

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