Ryan Adams's microphone was set up on the side of the
For all their charm and intensity, Adams's recordings and live performances have been unreliable: sometimes brilliant, just as often frustrating; mind-bogglingly prolific and perpetually short on focus. On Sunday he performed 2 1/2 hours of searing, soulful country rock during two expertly paced sets that cleared up a nagging question for fans who haven't seen the artist since he cleaned up, in 2006. Being messed up is not prerequisite to being Ryan Adams. He didn't chew his fans out. He didn't push his bass player down. And still his performance at the Pavilion bristled with passion, personality, and - as ever - musical integrity.
The first set emphasized Adams's newest and oldest (and most cogent) material, toggling between the twangy rockers and tender ballads from last year's "Easy Tiger" and rootsy anthems from his 2000 breakthrough, "Heartbreaker." Each song was stretched out, making room for frequent tandem-guitar excursions (Adams's Grateful Dead obsession is well-documented, but Sunday's noodlings were worthy of the Allman Brothers). Even the shortest, sturdiest tracks were re-energized by the Cardinals. They turned opener "Off Broadway" into a psychedelic rave and followed Adams into the metaphorical garage for a blistering turn on "Bartering Lines." The group's three- and four-part harmonies rang like a cowboy choir on Adams's bittersweet waltzes ("Goodnight Rose" and "Why Do They Leave?"), and were the icing on his one perfect love song, "When the Stars Go Blue."
Adams dedicated his pensive cover of "Wonderwall" to his "BFFs" in Oasis, with whom he toured this summer, and road-tested a couple of new tunes, one a stiff little ode to the radio built of bratty chords, another a '70s-flavored arena rocker. None was especially inspiring, and neither was the spacy metal medley Adams insisted guitarist Neal Casal trot out. (Some humor is best left in the back of the tour bus.)
But the second set - largely devoted to "Cold Roses" and "Jacksonville Nights," both released in 2005 - was a model of rugged, burnished country-rock. Adams tossed the Stonesy "Shakedown on 9th Street" into the mix, as if to remind us that twang can pummel, and closed with a strong whiff of Led Zeppelin in "I See Monsters." He wears his reverence for the past on his sleeve, which makes it hard to call Adams a defining voice. But it's a penetrating one, in piquant form, all the clearer now that he's not tumbling off stages.