“The lights will draw you in
And the dark will take you down
And the night will break your heart
Only if you’re lucky now”
Those are lyrics from a song that Ryan Adams didn’t play on Monday night at Northrop (“Lucky Now” from his 2011 album Ashes & Fire), but they were ringing in my ears throughout the show regardless.
Adams’ most potent power is his ability to draw an audience in, and there were several moments during the show where the lights, moody organ parts, backing vocalists, and vulnerable lyrics converged in heartbreaking harmony.
And try as he might to mask that vulnerability with endless jokes, observations that he felt awkward and “everything was going wrong,” lengthy guitar jams, and his mop of black hair—which hung over his eyes throughout the show—there were still moments where the crowd was pin-drop reverent, and where we had no choice but to hold our breaths and be drawn in and up to wherever his delicate voice wanted us to go.
“I thought I was going to hear some sad guy get really sad about his feelings, and instead there’s this weird dude up there,” Adams joked halfway through his set, teasing a woman for texting during the show and guessing that was the message she was sending to her friend. “It’s just some weird dude. Ok, talk to you later, bye.”
It was one of many times throughout the show where Adams broke up his songs with off-the-cuff observations and banter. “We should have had a disclaimer announced before the show: there are no professionals here,” he warned early on. “Between songs I’m just going to tune and drink ginger ale and tell random stories about the Wolfman.” But even the longer breaks stayed entertaining, jumping from topic to topic as he played off of his on-stage foil, guitarist Mike Viola, and provided a window into his self-conscious yet endearing personality.
Truth be told, it’s been a dramatic evolution for Adams and his on-stage game. While some still like to incessantly drag up his early 2000s Twin Cities appearances for proof that he’s prone to “meltdowns,” he’s actually been on quite a compelling journey toward learning to perform sober for the past seven years. After dimming the lights all the way down for a tentative performance at the Cedar in 2007 and keeping the volume down at a solo gig at the State Theatre in 2011, this show highlighted the fact that not only is Adams getting more and more comfortable on stage without alcohol, but that he’s having fun up there. In a rare moment of sincerity, flanked by old arcade games and a giant fake Fender amp, he noted, “I’m just a human being making music with my friends.”
But enough armchair psychoanalysis, and more about the music: With fans stacked three tiers high in the shiny new Northrop Auditorium, Adams focused his set list around the tracks on his new Ryan Adams, starting off with the punchy “Gimme Something Good,” but also saved plenty of time for rifling through his discography alt-country ramblers like “Easy Plateau” and “Cold Roses,” which took on more of a slow-burning ’80s rock vibe with his current band the Shining, and chilling confessionals like “I See Monsters” and “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say.”
Adams seemed to stall the most before songs that he knew the crowd wanted to hear—it took him almost 10 minutes to work up to a more pensive, slow version of “New York, New York,” and he walked out to a special mic stand lit up with white Christmas lights and pulled out a giant binder of lyrics for the stunning “English Girls Approximately,” which he prefaced by saying “This is going to be weird.”
He also gave not one, but two shout-outs to local shop Willie’s Guitars, where he and Viola had each purchased guitars earlier in the day, and he joked, “No pressure, Mr. Guitar,” as he broke in the new axe on “This House is Not for Sale” and toyed with a chorus pedal that he said was going to “make it sound like that Yes record, Big Generator,” leading up to the new single “Stay With Me.”
And then there was the encore—which was not really an encore, because Adams doesn’t do them, but rather a grand finale that he announced well in advance of the end—which he placed like an exclamation point on the end of the performance with his faithful, downright giddy cover of Bryan Adams’ “Run to You.” Afterwards, Adams brought opener Butch Walker out to rip a guitar solo on one of his best-known songs, “Come Pick Me Up.”
Just as Adams had sang earlier in the night on “My Wrecking Ball”: “All these walls we build, they must come down.” And what a joy it was in those moments, however fleeting they might have been, to be allowed behind his walls.
Ryan Adams set list:
Gimme Something Good
Let it Ride
This House is Not For Sale
I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say
Stay With Me
I See Monsters
New York, New York
A Kiss Before I Go
English Girls Approximately
My Wrecking Ball
Oh My Sweet Carolina
Run to You (Bryan Adams)
Come Pick Me Up