Ryan Adams is one of the most prolific songwriters of our time. The only person who has cranked out albums at a more furious pace is Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard. Adams’ latest full length, Prisoner, is a sick-to-your-stomach journey through post-divorce darkness. On Sunday, his tour stopped at the Riverside Theater.
Being overly punctual and showing up an hour before showtime, it was a bit stunning to see the merch line already 20 people deep. Scoffing at the idea of waiting in such a long line, attention was instead focused on taking in the stage setup. Stacks upon stacks of amps, stuffed tigers and cat memorabilia scattered throughout, and at least one sword. It was a good approximation of countless bands’ grungy practice spaces.
With time to kill, the venue filling up slowly, and no phone service, people watching became the pastime of choice. There was the lady in the Wonder Woman costume who must have been dying in the frigid air conditioning. Lots of people in Grateful Dead shirts, though not as many as people in Ryan Adams shirts. The guy and his dad who could be overheard talking about how they bought four tickets so they wouldn’t have to sit next to anyone. Also, lots of very normal looking people. Ryan Adams fans are a real mixed bag. Heading for a quick bathroom break revealed the lobby to be completely overtaken by merch seekers, making the previous scoffing quite premature.
Opener Jillian Jacqueline emerged accompanied by two guitarists. Pop-country tunes rolled out, one after another. With each song she alternated between holding a guitar and barely playing, or standing awkwardly at the mic and singing. Even though her guitar-holding brought to mind those instances when Vince Neil and Anthony Kiedis strap on guitars for some reason, it was better than seeing her singing unadorned. With her last song, “Hate Me,” it was clear that you really couldn’t hate her. She does what she does and it’s fine.
Unsurprisingly, Adams kicked off his set with Prisoner opener “Do You Still Love Me?” Its pacing and loud sonic bursts paint it as a perfect opener. Instead of settling into a block of new songs, Adams took a detour deep into his catalog and played “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High),” the first track off his solo debut, Heartbreaker. For roughly 45 minutes the band played rapid fire, song after song. New songs continued to commingle with old songs, and the band was untouchable. Somehow Adams’ voice sounded clearer and stronger in concert than on record. The peak of this portion of the set came when Adams took the front-and-center mic with his acoustic guitar to play “Prisoner.” The gentle rendition hushed the sold-out room.
After bashing through what would qualify as most bands’ entire sets, Adams and company decided to stretch out. They settled into two extended guitar jammers. It could have been 45 minutes, but it felt like it would never end and that this was where the audience was going to live now. Foot pain and boredom crept in The Dead-shirt-clad audience members were undoubtedly doing their slinky hippie dances in their seats as the weed aroma grew. The set eventually returned from the guitar noodle fest, but the momentum never quite returned to its earlier levels. Even bonafide classics “New York, New York” and “Come Pick Me Up” didn’t get it there. The set approached the two-hour mark and had become a slog.
In the end, who can complain? Ryan Adams and his band spent 45 minutes being the best group in the world. That’s more than anyone can hope for. With his long and varied set, not only did the pop music lovers get theirs, but the Dead Heads got theirs, too. The set wasn’t just a greatest hits collection peppered with songs from the new album, but a dive into a vast back catalog. What was once seen as career-subverting restlessness has proven to be Adams’ strength. His diversity has laid a solid foundation for a long career.