Halfway through Ryan Adams’ solo acoustic set at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night, the shaggy-haired singer looked up from the crowd as he was tuning his instrument and made a confession: “I know I’m paranoid, but sometimes when I play the guitar it seems like hundreds of people are watching me.”
Though he was joking, Adams’ devil-may-care attitude and between-song mumbles did suggest that we -- meaning the audience in the 2,200-seat, sold-out hall -- were just passersbys who’d stumbled across a dude playing music in his backyard.
Adams, 37, walked onto Disney Hall’s stage as though he’d just gotten off the bus in his crumpled jeans and faded jean jacket. Flanked by an upright piano on one side and a music stand and microphone on the other, the North Carolina-born Angeleno picked up his guitar (striped red, white and blue like the instruments on “Hee-Haw”) and declared his intent: “Let’s all get sad together,” he said before guiding us through the melancholy journey of “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” from his now-classic 2000 country rock album “Heartbreaker.”
A song in which Adams roams the country “building newsprint boats I race to sewer mains,” on record “Carolina” features a full band and Emmylou Harris on backing vocals. At Disney, with its cathedral-like space surrounding him and lighting that cast the singer in blood red, his voice drifted out from center stage like a ripple, little augmentation necessary.
Throughout a 17-year career that started with his first band, Whiskeytown, Adams has carved a determined path; while many of his would-be songwriting peers in the “alternative country” movement from which he rose went on to either write structurally complex and intricately arranged albums or painted themselves into a (twang-heavy) corner, Adams has pared his writing to the bone. He has become a Raymond Carver-esque perfectionist whose lyrics so precisely capture emotions that adornments seem unnecessarily gauche, like painting flames on a drag racer.
Adams is a songwriter who’s presumptuous in the best sense of the word: He understands that roots music, or whatever you call it -- the kind that stretches from Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly through Dylan, the Flying Burrito Bros., X, Lucinda Williams and Uncle Tupelo -- remains a living, breathing thing. The songwriter has full confidence that writing, say, an ode to Carolina, or ashes, or fire, though it’s been done thousands of times before, can still make a universal impact, can still expand the conversation, can become a new standard.
Adams was funny between songs, if a little too mumbly, and throughout the evening he dotted his banter with either verbal or musical references to, among other things, Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” AC/DC (the distance down Sunset Boulevard to the beach from his house is two full AC/DC albums), and the starship Enterprise.
This was a dark and lonely night, though, and Adams, self-aware almost to a fault, acknowledged as much throughout the show; he suggested at one point a drinking game based on the appearance of the word “rain” in his lyrics -- we all would have been hammered by the night’s end. So slow was the pace that he conveyed remorse for all the weepers even as he delivered them absolutely unapologetically.
Also unapologetic was the strange opening "act," a Mark Twain impersonation by actor Val Kilmer that was such a weird nonsequitur that it's really hard to figure out what to make of it. The actor walked onstage unintroduced, so buried beneath white Twain hair, bushy mustache and white suit, few if anyone in the crowd knew who this was (but it certainly wasn't Hal Holbrook).
The actor did a Twain-type monologue that touched on Los Angeles, the oddness of Rudyard Kipling's first name, "Negro spirituals," Twain's editor William Dean Howells, and, in one of many anachronistic references, Louis Armstrong (who wasn't famous in Twain's lifetime), among others. If there was a point to his monologue other than to convey something surreal, it certainly wasn't made clear.
That was up to Adams.
Whether singing in the lovely "Invisible Riverside," "I wanna lay my head forever on your shoulder," or acknowledging that "I'm fractured from the fall and I wanna go home" in "Two," Adams delivered his emotions in a way that deftly walked the line that separates universal truth and cliche, seldom lapsing into a predictable path while implicitly acknowledging that even though all stories have been told before, that doesn't mean they've been told by someone like him.
Ditto the choice of cover songs: Oasis' "Wonderwall," delivered as a sad lament, and, even more oddly convincing, Ronnie James Dio's metal classic, "Holy Diver." Only Adams could pull this stuff off without it dripping with irony. But in both cases, the solid conviction that's at the heart of Adams' best work eclipsed any notion that this was a stunt. It's Adams' most admirable trait.
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Singer-songwriter Ryan Adams in his Hollywood music studio in front of a pair of Fairchild 660 compressor limiters originally used by the Beatles. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times.