Listen to the 07.21 show while you read...
Words by: Dennis Cook :: Images by Jay Blakesberg
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals :: 07.21 :: Catalyst Club :: Santa Cruz, CA
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals :: 07.24 :: Berkeley Community Theatre :: CA
Be prepared for the Red Cave.
Thus warned Ryan Adams' website before his recent visit to the greater San Francisco area. Based on Adams' reputation, one imagined William Hurt's Altered States freak-outs or something equally sulphuric was in store. But, that's how wrongheaded a rep can be. The actual explanation of the mysterious phrase was far simpler – "Red Cave" shows are electric and "Blue Cave" shows, which have dominated the 2007 tour, are acoustic. As clouded in rumor and fable as Adams is there's a tendency to read more into things than might actually be there. At the bottom, Adams and his devastatingly talented band, The Cardinals, are a showcase for good songwriting bolstered by great singing and playing delivered with deeply satisfying showmanship. If these bedrock pleasures are what drives you into clubs and theatres then you couldn't have asked for better than what this American Music sextet offered up in Berkeley and Santa Cruz.
Ryan Adams :: 07.24
The setlists drew heavily from Adams' ridiculously listenable new slab, Easy Tiger, 2005's Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights. Taken together, it's arguably the best work he's ever done, and that in no small part stems from the input of the Cardinals. One finally senses Adams' true identity as a songwriter emerging rather than the chameleon-like emulation of his earlier work, which fine as it was still carried a lot of fingerprints. Today, back by skilled, empathetic collaborators, his music sparkles and dances. In virtually every instance, the live versions at these shows bettered the studio version, and often by a good margin. From the way "Easy Plateau" actually lifts one to higher ground to the added swing on "Magnolia Mountain" onto the defragmentation pocket added to "Peaceful Valley" to the loose limbed shuffle "Goodnight Rose" and "When The Stars Go Blue" have picked up, these songs reveal new life and fresh possibilities in the hands of this lineup. And their leader, a notorious concert curmudgeon, is obviously having a goddamn blast playing with them.
Neal Casal (guitar), Chris Feinstein (bass), Jon Graboff (pedal steel), Brad Pemberton (drums) and Jamie Candiloro (keys) are no generic backing band. Each contributed a great deal of personality and style to these songs, reinvigorating older chestnuts like "Wild Flowers" and revealing the real jammy possibilities of more recent tunes like "Cold Roses" and especially "I See Monsters," which has grown into a snarling showstopper that puts a little Freon in your veins. On one side of the stage stands Adams, singing better than ever, with Candiloro behind him. On the other side, what I'll call the Passionate Boys Choir. The combination of voices dovetailed into some of the most stunning harmonies and inspired overlap I've heard, especially live, in many years. The intersection of Casal and Adams' singing was especially stirring, a pairing of the order of Marc Olson and Gary Louris in The Jayhawks or Linda Ronstadt and John David Souther. It's a treat to hear Casal, a longtime singer-songwriter with his own following (see JamBase's 2003 interview for more background on this talented cat), shine so brightly here. His humility – and the same could probably be said of all the Cardinals – and attentive respect for Adams' material and the man himself emboldened the music with a collective flavor that's never been present before. In short, these aren't just "some guys" backing up a pop star. This is a true blue rock & roll band hitting their stride in a big way.
Neal Casal :: 07.24
While San Francisco got a "Blue Cave" show on Monday at the Herbst Theater, these electric performances revealed the real potential of this group. Having heard recordings of acoustic shows, it's true the harmonies are especially chill-inducing and the arrangements graceful but the road less traveled (Casal told me after the Santa Cruz show that, if memory served, it was the first full electric show since January) let us glimpse how they improvise and interact in a more organic way. The Electric Cardinals have muscle and filigree, determination and abandon. It was hard not to be swept up in their exploration, and really why would you resist?
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals :: 07.24
There were those few refusers who called out for Whiskeytown antiques or well-worn bits from Gold, inserting themselves into the performance despite their name not being on the ticket. To his great credit, Adams deflected them with humor, only letting the yammering loudmouths get to him a few times, and then only in momentary, fully human admission of his understandable frustration. One persistent lunchbox in Berkeley was told, "Shush. I'm at work right now. I'll get in trouble. We'll talk later." I couldn't escape the feeling that the "Ryan Adams" we're shown in between songs is as much a character as it is a true face. Each turn seemed to obfuscate as much as it revealed. Adams is funny and quick and free-associative, and the slow, rude and just plain dumb folks in the crowd often seemed a little baffled at his rambles (For a lighthearted gloss on Adams' show patter see McSweeney's Short Imagined Monologue). Given the solidity of his music and the thoughtful mind behind his lyrics, it's reasonable to think this "showman" is a necessary tool for an artist that is determined to tour regularly. He plays the oddball narrator in order that they might play at all in the face of his cult of personality celebrity.
While the Berkeley gig kicked off with a "Close Up The Honky Tonks" mood, that side of Adams' catalog didn't surface until the second set in Santa Cruz, where the show began on a significantly darker foot. Where Berkeley got:
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals :: 07.24
The engine turns on a dime
But I ain't goin' nowhere, tonight
I ain't been goin' nowhere for quite awhile
Can't tell the truth in a house of lies
Can't explain what I don't know
One shot, one beer and a kiss before I go
Santa Cruz embarked with:
Imagine yourself on a mountain
Mountain discovered with flowers
Flowers discolored with horses
Horses distracted by stones
Stone distrusted with me
Then you might know what I mean
'Cause I want to kick love right in its gut
Beat it and leave for dead
Wash my hands in the river
Lie down and die in your bed
The latter track, "What Sin Replaces Love," just got meaner and more kaleidoscopic as it went until incongruously tumbling into the damaged sweetness of "Please Don't Let Me Go." The band proved equally adept at sustaining a mood, too, notably the hold-your-breath beauty of the second set in Berkeley. Like a band Adams has been associated with in recent years, The Grateful Dead, these shows contained a multitude of moods from delight to despair offered up with echoes of country, blues, psychedelia, folk and classic rock. It's a hell of a palette if the hands spreading the colors know what they're doing. These guys absolutely did at both "Red Cave" shows, which, when all's said and done, were simply grand nights out where the music made this sad, old world a smidgen brighter.
Candiloro & Adams :: 07.24
Ryan Adams and the Cardinals :: 07.21.07
Set 1: What Sin Replaces Love, Please Don't Let Me Go, Dear Chicago, Goodnight Rose, Cold Roses, Mockingbird, Beautiful Sorta, Bartering Lines, Magnolia Mountain
Set 2: Pearls On A String, Peaceful Valley, Trouble On Wheels, Arkham Asylum, I See Monsters, Games, A Kiss Before I Go, Oh My God, Whatever, Etc., Dear John, The End, Blue Hotel, Wild Flowers, Let It Ride, Easy Plateau, I Taught Myself How To Grow Old.
Ryan Adams and the Cardinals :: 07.24.07
Set 1: A Kiss Before I Go, Please Do Not Let Me Go, Goodnight Rose, Peaceful Valley, Two, Easy Plateau, Beautiful Sorta, Mockingbird, Happy Birthday Summer Rae Brown, When the Stars Go Blue, I Taught Myself How to Grow Old, Everybody Knows, Let It Ride
Set 2: Blue Hotel, Elizabeth, You Were Born to Play That Part, Dear Chicago,
Wild Flowers, What Sin Replaces Love, Cold Roses, Shakedown on 9th Street, I See Monsters
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