Words & Images by: By JC McIlwaine
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals :: 10.31.08 :: Apollo Theater :: New York, NY
"Welcome to the World Famous Apollo Theater", read the marquis out front, its many bulbs lighting up 125th St. in Harlem as fans made their way into the venue. Ryan Adams and the Cardinals were throwing a record release party of sorts at the legendary New York City nightspot, and from the looks of it, many odd characters were in attendance for the celebration, including a couple of Navy boys, a handful of flappers, Homer and Marge Simpson and Frida Kahlo. One guy even looked the spitting image of Adams himself. But, the real Adams was presumably backstage, awaiting his band's entrance at this red-carpet affair, the 2nd Annual Cardinals NYC Halloween party.
The red curtains parted to reveal the band coming onstage to what was, for them, an elaborate scene composed of elements of the Cardinals' iconography. Two blue neon ("cold") roses floated on the backdrop, in the center of which hung a large reproduction of the flying bird logo from the front of the newly released Cardinology album (read JamBase's review here). A huge Zildjian gong hung down behind the drum riser, suspended from the Cardinal emblem. The same symbol was also plastered on the front of the bass drum. The band, dressed in casual-formal attire, wore no costumes per se, but I guess you could say that they were dressed as Cardinals.
With little fanfare, the band rolled right into a rock-heavy set, kicking off the night with an amped-up version of "Cobwebs", the same song Adams and the band played live on Late Night With David Letterman last week (see the performance here). "Everybody Knows" was followed by a chant of "MFC!" from some in the crowd. "Motherfuckin' Cardinals?" Knowing Adams' propensity to refer to his band in similar fashion, this is a safe assumption.
For the first bunch of songs the band pulled only from material found on their last two albums. "Goodnight Rose," the leadoff track from 2007's Easy Tiger, led them into the first breather of the night, as they became enveloped in a steel-guitar-driven, Grateful Dead-like jam. The song slowed and simmered to the point of a capella as the guys sung the last chorus.
The a capella mode would pop up again a few songs later in "Peaceful Valley," an utterly tortured song about finding stillness and serenity in death. Adams wailed in his best country voice about wanting to enjoy his creature comforts in the afterlife, slipping in a subtle, yet significant substitute, as he replaced the last half of the line: "Can I still smoke cigarettes and have my coffee/ Up there in heaven and a bottle of wine?" with "Up there in heaven with some piece of mind."
|Ryan Adams & The Cardinals :: 10.31 :: NYC|
It has been quite some time since Adams traded the slippery bedside bottle for the snappy '60s businessman blazer, putting his bad boy persona in check and setting out on his upward spiral (insert your favorite bird metaphor cleverly linking the band's avian moniker to said ascent here). The change roiling in Adams has never been more apparent.
The performer found onstage these days is in the business of producing clean-cut and polished gems with his favorite band, trading in 2005's prolificacy (three albums in one calendar year) for biannual albums that are of more the standard-bearing flagship caliber than the random offerings of some of his early 2000s releases. This performer is succinct and to the point, although his bitterly humorous sarcasm still pops up between songs from time to time. The Cardinals of today are one part country dissolved in a stiff solution made up of at least one part rock and one part roll.
Sure, the music found on the two most recent albums still crosses genres, encompassing facets of alt-country in its soundscape. But the songs, as played live, come at the audience at about twice the tempo and three times the intensity. Maybe playing a string of dates with Oasis has reshaped the band's priorities, but any extended thoughts in that direction would be speculative garble. What is apparent, and undeniable, is that although the band still sprinkles its sets with slower numbers to switch up the pace, their M.O. these days is to come dangerously close to blowing out your eardrums. One look at what just might be the largest Fender amp ever built, stationed directly behind Adams, seems to prove this point.
The band came back on for a second set after a refreshingly short set break – not quite the three-minutes Adams had suggested, but not the near hour that some bands require. The second set was decidedly mellower, although each song showed a lot more punch than the album versions would suggest they could. "Let It Ride" and a countrified version of "Desire" were followed by a contribution by guitarist-singer Neal Casal. Adams comfortably stepped out of the spotlight during most of this song, but still managed to take the solo, getting so wrapped up in it that his guitar acted as a mirror, refracting several sharp beams of light out into the audience.
|Ryan Adams & The Cardinals :: 10.31 :: NYC|
People in the crowd, emboldened by a few beers, started yelling out suggestions, and in answer the band offered up "Two," a definite crowd-pleaser even if not the one requested. "Magick," the most rollicking song on Cardinology, was two short and sweet minutes of no-holds-barred solid-beat, fuzzy bass, guitar god revelry, with the lights darting across the stage like Polar Bear Club members recently dipped and running for the hot showers. The neon roses took turns blinking on and off during "Cold Roses," and the band got the walls rattling with "Shakedown On 9th Street." Casal offered up one more number before the band settled into a trio of songs from the new album.
Introducing "Crossed Out Name," Adams joked at his own expense, "This next song is another song in the long line of songs about how I'm so fucking happy in my romantic life. I'm so happy I'm dancing for fucking joy. I'm gonna die under a stack of comic books alone." Adams almost seemed to be laughing along with the crowd, but the troubadour still intoned tragic themes, following two tales of lost love with one on the terrors of facing the demons of addiction. "Stop," the last song on Cardinology, was perhaps a fitting finale, both for its name and for the fact that we all confront multiple ghouls and goblins on Halloween.
Surprisingly, "Halloweenhead" was not on the night's setlist, proving yet again Ryan Adams' ability to defy conventional wisdom. He's still got a good many tricks up his newly buttoned sleeve. A night onstage at the Apollo is a magical event, and any performer's dream come true, as Adams noted with his closing remarks: "Thank you very much Apollo. Happy Halloween. We are the Cardinals. We love you very much. What a wonderful thing to play the Apollo. Our deepest respects to the Apollo."
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