Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Josh Miller
Ryan Adams and The Cardinals :: 01.29.08 :: Catalyst Club :: Santa Cruz, CA
Waiting in line, I could hear the ruckus inside was already fully underway. By the time my hand was stamped, Ryan Adams' head was nodding hard as he worked a three-chord piece of guitar gristle over an undulating jam. Behind him, The Cardinals surged and receded with intuitive beauty. One instantly groks that this fantastic band's understanding of Adams' music elevates things in a way no single person, however talented, could alone. Watching them fly without a net can make you a little woozy, like riding in a plane that seems to be in free fall only to swoop to safety and serenity at the last moment. Before long they'd tamed their wild hair and emerged into "A Kiss Before I Go," a sweet one The Beatles might have stumbled upon if Paul worked more closely with Ringo.
The Santa Cruz show was a vibrating, hard-edged reminder of their consistency and creative toughness of late. While still unnaturally youthful looking, Adams is a far cry from the cat we met in Whiskeytown in 1994. Putting aside all the salacious (and likely slanderously false) tales of his behavior, his music has continued a steady upward arc that marks him as a keeper for the ages. Sparring partners like Phil Lesh, Cowboy Junkies, America and current right hand man in the Cardinals, Neal Casal (guitar, vocals) speak to the depths of his work, which only grows richer the longer he collaborates with The Cardinals, who're rounded out by Brad Pemberton (drums, percussion), Jon Graboff (pedal steel, vocals) and Chris Feinstein (bass). Keyboardist-producer Jamie Candiloro has moved onto other pastures, which made for an even more pronounced RAWK vibe than last year's Catalyst performance (see our review of that show here).
That July 2007 gig was the inaugural electric show for the current tour, which Adams noted with obvious delight. "This is where we broke our teeth," said Adams, "but they all grew back." Their exciting, restless approach to actively exploring these songs night after night meant that last year's Grateful Dead-esque "Cold Roses" had taken on the exquisite finger-knotted sharpness of early Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention including gorgeous, folksy harmonies that ended in a layered a cappella group sing. During this one and many others, Casal's solos were knife edged precision, a pretty scalpel to the more wide swinging tools Adams wields with his instrument. Graboff's pedal steel was often the wind at their backs. His mastery of that most difficult instrument continues to amaze, especially because he always adds something substantive to the string conversation, even in the punkier, Sonic Youth-y moments. Graboff takes the pedal steel out of its usual weep and twang ghetto, and rocked more than a few of us back on our heels at this show.
| Ryan Adams :: 01.28.08|
If ever a musician were acutely aware of how they're perceived it's Adams, who fucks with and feeds those perceptions constantly. At times he's whip smart and crazy charming and others not so much. But in Santa Cruz he was on. Responding to a heckler, he said, "It's times like these that I'm glad I'm deaf." The Cardinals even got in on the between song shenanigans, taking the piss out of their leader with genuine affection and understanding. "This is how you can tell it's a band: they grab the mic and engage the audience," chuckled Adams. Their shared sense of purpose and camaraderie carry over to the music, which is pleasantly shenanigan free.
This show was a "16 years and up" affair, so the cross-section of ages was something else. Teenagers danced quietly next to tie-dye granddaddies with some bikers and goth kids thrown in for good measure. The mix speaks to the universality of Adams' exceedingly well-crafted songs. What was exciting for longtime listeners was the happy warping of his catalog that's taking place live. This night "Easy Plateau" and "Goodnight Rose" had the classic rock poetry of Derek and the Dominoes or Traffic. Like many great artists, he seems to pull this stuff from the Great Ether and force it into the physical realm.
There are hints of this archetypal bigness throughout his catalog but he's helped greatly by this assemblage of players. The Cardinals listen hard. They listen to Adams, one another and to the voices inside the Ether. Watching them eyeball one another in Santa Cruz was like being privy to a hunt, each man sniffing out something intangible to most but sharp as sulfur to them. Pemberton knew just when to employ mallets instead of heavy sticking, and Feinstein moved like a boa constrictor or spirit wind around the legs of everyone else onstage, his bass always alive and alert within each tune. At one point, I thought, "This is how Paul Westerberg always dreamed The Replacements might sound."
| Ryan Adams and The Cardinals :: 01.28.08|
There were equal measures of wildness and thoughtful control to their playing that still allowed space for odd twists and fumbles like Adams getting thoroughly lost in the foothills of "Magnolia Mountain" during the encore and swinging directly into a lovely version of "Blue Hotel." The band caught the first word of the new song and banked left without a hiccup. These guys also sounded great on "Freeway To The Canyon," a Neal Casal tune from 2006's No Wish To Reminisce where the guitarist took the spotlight.
More than any single moment (and there were plenty worth noting including a cataclysmic assault on "I See Monsters") it was the togetherness of every aspect in the music that one took away from Santa Cruz. From Adams' wonderfully wounded voice to the sparkling instrumental conversation, this rocks from the foundation up. One felt their spirit rise as Adams crooned, "Don't give up on love" or "The sun will come up again," which might be dull platitudes in lesser hands. Late in the evening, Adams summed it up well: "I think this is a pretty fuckin' rad gig."
JamBase | California
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