Love is Hell, but Ryan Adams was divine
After six years, the singer-songwriter returned to Edmonton
to perform an intimate show in a century-old church
By Theodora MacLeod
FOR DIE-HARD music fans, a live performance can be like a religious experience. So it was fitting, when Ryan Adams performed for an enthusiastic crowd in Edmonton March 24, that he took centre stage on the altar of McDougall United Church.
The church was dedicated in 1910 and features a remarkable dome-vaulted ceiling, which served as a captivating juxtaposition to the relatively slight Adams, who appeared as the sole performer. With three acoustic guitars, a piano, a harmonica and a collection of matching lamps, he performed to full pews and a nearly sold-out balcony.
The singer-songwriter set the tone early, when he halted suddenly in the midst of his second song to address a photographer with a telephoto lens. He asked the man not to take pictures. The man replied that he was with the media. Adams responded: “I understand you’re with the media. I’m with Ryan Adams. You do not have my permission to take my photograph with that camera.”
Then, he invited the photographer to have a seat and enjoy the show, and later joked that telephoto lenses make him look fat.
Adams was making it clear that his purpose was to perform for fans and not the media – with whom he has had a complicated relationship, owing to reports of past misconduct with female musicians, including women who were his romantic partner.
Due to Adams’s health condition, the concert was held under theatre rules. An announcement asked fans to refrain from using flash photography and moving during the show. The performer has been open about his battle with Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear that can cause severe vertigo, tinnitus and hearing loss, as well as many other physical symptoms that can leave sufferers unable to perform daily tasks.
The set-up, though unusual for a concert, had the side-effect of creating a quiet atmosphere that allowed the music and vocals to shine, rather than providing a soundtrack for a party.
A sprinkling of covers
to liven up the mix
With 33 songs on his set list, Adams was skilful in weaving his classic hits – like the opener, “Sweet Carolina,” and “English Girls Approximately” from his his 2004 album Love is Hell– with tracks such as “If You See Her, Say Hello” from Bob Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks.
Known to his fans for boldly recording covers of entire albums – such as Taylor Swift’s 1989, as well as Blood on the Tracks and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, both of which he which he released this year – Adams was sure to sprinkle his own interpretations of fellow artists’ work through the show.
The covers included Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” which Adams introduced by explaining, “When I sing this song, I pretend I’m singing it to Mindy Park, Mackenzie Davis’s character in The Martian. Also, I pretend I’m a golden retriever.”
He sprinkled that kind of absurdist patter through the show, at one point telling the audience not to put him out if he burst into flames.
The commentary was what transformed his performance from just a display of musical prowess to an engaging and intimate evening. His vulnerability and heart matched an audience that was more than willing to receive him.
The show was not limited to those present. It was live streamed (so his cats at home could watch) on Adams’s instagram feed, @RyanAdams. And, even through the phone, the rich acoustics came across clearly, a testament to venue and performer.
‘Learn how to do math, or you’ll be forced
to be a bridge troll’
At one point, Adams improvised a tune for the kids in the audience exclaiming: “You younguns over there remember, mind your parents and learn how to do math, or you’ll be forced to be a bridge troll talking about your feelings for all eternity.”
This clearly delighted the crowd.
Then, he broke into an ad-libbed ditty warning of the consequences of not knowing math and ending up a troll. Even in jest, his musicality proved to be impressive, though.
Candid and engaging, Adams interacted with the audience as if they were old friends, even sharing, at one point, that he smelled like a Michelob Light beer, “like an empty one if it had been left on the moon.”
Then he transitioned into a raw, soulful piano cover of the title track of Nebraska.
Closing the show with what might be his most recognizable hit, “Come Pick Me Up,” an achingly beautiful combination of acoustic guitar, harmonica and vulnerability, Adams sent his fans into the night with serenity and a distinct appreciation for the man who had bared his soul. Whatever you may think of him, Adams is a once-in-a-generation talent.
Though Adams had refused to do any pre-show interviews, he proved surprisingly approachable after the concert – but he declined to answer any questions “on the record.” Instead, he offered warm wishes and a friendly fist bump.
Then, he told me, “It’s cold; go inside.”