Words by: Andy Tennille
Ryan Adams and The Cardinals :: 06.19.2007 :: Biograph Theater :: Chicago, IL
On July 22, 1934, John Dillinger was gunned down by FBI agents outside Chicago's Victory Gardens Biograph Theater as he exited an evening showing of Manhattan Melodrama with his girlfriend, Polly Hamilton.
Nicknamed "Jackrabbit" for the athleticism he displayed leaping over tellers' counters during bank heists, the infamous bank robber is said to have stolen more than $300,000 during a ten-year crime spree from 1924-1934 while managing to elude authorities and escape from prisons and jails across the Midwest. A few months before his death, Dillinger broke out of the supposedly inescapable Crown Point, Indiana county jail using only a wooden gun he whittled and painted with black shoe polish. Aggravating the local authorities' embarrassment further, the legendary outlaw drove off in the local sheriff's brand new V-8 Ford.
While Dillinger's bravado infuriated law enforcement officials, tales of his escapades earned him a following among Depression-era Americans akin to a modern-day Robin Hood. At the scene of his death outside the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, more than 10,000 people stood in line in the hot Chicago summer heat to get a glimpse of Dillinger's body; men and women dipped handkerchiefs and pieces of their skirts in his blood in solemn reverence of the legendary outlaw.
Standing in the alley beside the Chicago playhouse where Dillinger lay dying in 1934, one can't help but appreciate the striking similarities between the famed fugitive and the musician gracing the stage on this warm June evening.
Since making a name for himself in the mid- to late-'90s as the creative force behind alt-country darlings Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams has garnered both effusive praise and malicious criticism from far and wide. And rightfully so. The North Carolina native has demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that he is an extraordinarily talented songwriter. Whether you love him or hate him, there's no denying his gifted ability to marry prescient lyrics with gorgeous melodies in songs that seemingly fall out of him as effortlessly as singles at a strip joint. At his best, he's one of the great songwriters of his generation, worthy of carrying the torch passed down by legends like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Gram Parsons.
Ryan Adams and The Cardinals :: 06.19 by Tennille
At his worst, Adams was a heroin junkie, a revelation he shared with Anthony DeCurtis in a recent New York Times feature. His apparent drug abuse made him paranoid and borderline schizophrenic, resulting in shows marred by mumbled, mindless drivel and seismic tantrums. At a 1998 concert at the historic Fillmore in San Francisco, Adams kicked the onstage monitors into the crowd. At times, his depression was so painfully obvious that his performances became polarized and bordered on unwatchable. His prolific pen – once praised as the badge of a songwriter's songwriter - was criticized as "self-indulgent" as Adams released albums deemed mediocre by the rock press. Writers sarcastically suggested that the bad boy troubadour might benefit from an editor and Adams left vitriolic responses on online message boards and answering machines.
Cloaked in the dim blue light of the tiny, 250-seat theater in Chicago's hip Lincoln Park neighborhood, Adams, perched on a tall stool tucked in between a red piano and simple drum kit, seemed to revel in his newfound sobriety.
Ryan Adams :: 06.19 by Tennille
"Tonight is all scripted," Adams teased. "But it used to be pre-scripted."
Flanked by current Cardinals Jon Graboff on pedal steel, Chris Feinstein on bass, Brad Pemberton on drums and Neal Casal on guitar and piano, Adams opened with a beautiful version of "Please Do Not Let Me Go" off 2004's Love Is Hell and followed it up with "Dear John" from Jacksonville City Nights.
But it was on three tracks off 29, Adams' melancholy rumination on the end of his twenties released in 2005, where he found his footing. "Night Birds" and "Carolina Rain" proved unequivocally that Adams' voice – weakened by years of drug and alcohol abuse - was back in fine form. With no guitar to worry about due to an injured wrist from a recent skateboarding accident, Adams was free to focus on his vocal performance and the result was masterful. "Blue Hotel" – a tune written for Willie Nelson's recent Adams produced Songbird album – saw the singer finding Roy Orbison-like operatic range.
"Let It Ride" from 2005's Cold Roses offered a nice tempo change from the show's subdued setlist with Graboff and Casal trading spaghetti western guitar licks backed by Pemberton and Feinstein's steady rhythm. "Goodnight Hollywood Boulevard" from 2001's widely acclaimed Gold and "My Winding Wheel" off Adam's solo debut, Heartbreaker, were welcomed like old friends. Following a particularly somber version of "Starlite Diner," Adams quipped, "All this feel good music is making me want to get a dune buggy and tear ass up some sand dunes somewhere."
The most anticipated moments of the evening were the introduction of seven songs off Adam's new studio album, Easy Tiger. "Halloweenhead" is sure to be a live scorcher once the band returns to its electric incarnation. You can hear the influence of the great Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris duets in "Two," the album's lead single featuring Sheryl Crow on harmony vocals. With its rustic harmonica and introspective lyrics, "I Taught Myself How to Grow" sounded like vintage Neil Young but reminded me most of "When God Made Me" off Young's most recent album, Prairie Wind. "The Sun Also Sets" is the next great lamentation on lost love by one of rock's most lugubrious lyricists.
Ryan Adams and The Cardinals by Philip Andelman
My tattered blue bandana stuffed into the back pocket of my jeans, I'd come prepared for a bloodletting of epic proportions. I wondered if Adams would fall off the wagon and revert back to his old ways, talking to a lamp, smashing an amplifier and rolling around on the ground grunting for 20 minutes. Maybe he'd toss a half-empty bottle of Bordeaux into the crowd in a fit of rage. At least I'd have something to towel off with afterwards.
But my expectations went mostly unmet. Sure, Adams posed and flexed at random intervals throughout the set while fiddling constantly with a pair of black Ray-Ban Wayfarers. Occasionally, he swatted playfully at Pemberton's head in the middle of songs but the drummer craftily reigned in his frontman by kicking off the beat to the next tune a few seconds after the previous one ended. The mood was so jovial that Adams even succumbed to a fan's request for "Down In A Hole," a rare Alice In Chains cover.
As the last notes of "Goodnight Rose" – perhaps the most optimistic song Adams has ever written on his most focused album in years – rung out, there was a palpable sense that we'd witnessed something monumental – the coming of age of a fragile genius with the world at his fingertips in one of the most intimate settings imaginable.
Stepping outside into the warm Chicago night, I paused underneath the glowing marquee, the same sign under which John Dellinger stood more than 70 years before.
There would be no massacre tonight.
Please Do Not Let Me Go, Dear John, Nightbirds, Carolina Rain, How Do You Keep Love Alive?, Let It Ride, Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play the Part, The Sun Also Sets, Blue Hotel, Oh My God, Whatever, Etc., Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd., My Winding Wheel, Games, Two, I Taught Myself How to Grow Old, Starlite Diner, Everybody Knows, Halloweenhead
Encore: Blue Sky Blues, Down in a Hole, Goodnight Rose
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