Before I get to the Ryan Adams show proper, performed at the Palace Theater on Monday night to a sold-out crowd, let me digress on a couple of matters. If you were one of the unlucky ones who dithered around and didn't get tickets, had to work, or were simply too late to the box office, you might have been planning to live vicariously via a fan's Twitter stream or your friends's text messages: "OMG. "Come pick me up. Squeeeeee!" The blackout you experienced might have led you to believe that you had the wrong night, your friends were dissing you, or your smartphone was wonky.
But, oh no. The Palace Security staff -- in particular one lady who put the fear of God into the entire Orchestra C -- was patrolling the crowd like it was Cell Block C at Alcatraz. And if you were so foolish as to even flash the backlit screen of your phone momentarily, you were descended upon with klieg lights and a stern admonition to PUT AWAY YOUR PHONE. I'm sure there are hardened tweeters, even now, bound and naked in some Old Louisville basement being waterboarded for their crimes. What I'm saying is THEY WERE SERIOUS. I don't know what Ryan Adams' people told them, but it must have been chilling.
Second point, and I promise I'll get to the show, is that no drinks of ANY KIND were allowed into the theater, which is also a change from any concert I've been to at the Palace. Let it be known, O Youth of Louisville, that one of the concessions of conspicuous middle age is that you can get any contraband short of a pony keg tucked under your arm into a venue with nary a flicker of an eyelid -- so just enjoy your tube tops, flat abs, and smooth skin while you can and stop your bellyaching. Now then.
Adams' opener was the winning songwriter and singer, formerly of Drive By Truckers, Jason Isbell. I interviewed Isbell on the occasion of his last release, Here We Rest , and he's one of the nicest guys you'd ever want to talk to, which makes it that much easier to praise his music. He is a troubadour of the Everyman -- of other nice guys who fall in love, screw it up, get lonely, miss their families, and occasionally go to war and die. If you were in the mood for a night of upbeat toe-tappers, this was not your show, but if you came to hear a couple of the better songwriters around giving voice to the fleeting joys and heart-wringing despairs of daily existence, then -- you were probably in the right place.
After Isbell's quietly compelling set, Adams took the stage by himself and set the tone of the evening with the lovely "Oh My Sweet Carolina" from his Heartbreaker days. It was pretty clear, even as Adams struggled with his guitar tunings (a theme for the night) and joked about his penchant for slow songs "about feelings," that he was on his game. While he might have bemoaned the state of his guitars and harmonica, he nevertheless managed to coax out the memorable melodies that many in the audience came to hear, his voice vulnerable, fraught, and nearly flawless -- favorites like "Winding Wheel" and "Come Pick Me Up" from Heartbreaker, songs from the epic cold Roses album, "Let It Ride" and "If I Am A Stranger," a seriously down-tempo "New York, New York" from 2001's Gold -- as well as the plaintive fantasy, "Sylvia Plath," played gently on piano. Of course, he did not neglect his current solo release, Ashes and Fire. "Lucky Now," "Chains of Love," "Ashes and Fire," and "Dirty Rain" already sound like Adams' classics, sure to be shouted out by future audiences. It was Adams at his most quirky, yet personable -- self-aware enough to humorously deprecate his rather infamous (in Louisville anyway) shower-cap-in-the-dark concert and banter harmlessly with the crowd. One of the funnier moments was when he conjectured possible responses from his audience driving home: "Look, I'm glad his songs help you deal with your feelings, but that dude is batshit-crazy!"
Adams is, indeed, one of those artists balanced delicately somewhere between genius and madness. He has his rituals, his mumbled asides, his borrowed voices and dim lights -- all his endless ways of simultaneously creating distance between himself and the audience and putting himself out there on the stage to be frightened and stripped bare. There were songs that put tears in my eyes, not because of anything he was necessarily singing about, but because I thought I felt the struggle behind the words. But, as is often the case with those who must joust daily with their personal demons, the struggle itself is often quite beautiful.