“Last time I was here it was raining, it ain’t raining anymore,” Ryan Adams proudly sang to a sold out crowd at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night. The line opens Adams’ latest work, Ashes & Fire, and live, “Dirty Rain” felt like a cleansing, a newfound statement of purpose. The song showcased Adams’ still-startling vocal range, an early high in a night full of many startlingly precious moments.
Ashes & Fire is a contemplative, stationary record, and Adams’ current solo acoustic tour is shaped around the tranquil pace of his new album. Heartbreaker classics “Oh My Sweet Carolina” and “Come Pick Me Up,” once full of yearning and self-ruin, were plaintive reflections, sung mostly in a delicate whisper. Folk-pop gems “New York, New York,” and “Firecracker” were sedated, elegant.
The former inadvertently led to one of the night’s most entertaining moments, when Adams delved into a wholly improvised and surprisingly long song “Howard Is Beautiful,” having misheard a fan shouting “that was beautiful” after his stunning piano rendition of the ode to his former city.
Adams indeed made an active effort to cut through the stiff atmosphere at Carnegie Hall throughout the night. His two hour set was riddled with playful commentary, and he was quick to respond to the well-amplified hecklers in the balcony with witty one-liners. The banter was self-conscious, frequently the show felt like some sort of parody of concert-going, with Adams poking fun at the ritual of the encore, giving mini-lectures on the proper way to take pictures at a show. With all the many opportunities to reflect tenderly on his younger years in New York, Adams instead told jokes about C+C Music Factory. His stage persona was warm but distanced, playful but guarded.
After working the crowd to a laughing frenzy with “Howard is Beautiful,” Adams launched into “Do I Wait.” The uneasy, haunting line echoed and trembled: “Do I wait here forever for you? Did you ask me to?” It’s a song full of questions, questions the singer wishes weren’t rhetorical. Adams has made a career singing about this type of desperate isolation, the type of solipsism that isn’t a choice, and “Do I Wait,” like much of the new material, stood properly alongside his finest solo work Tuesday night.
If Adams’ new record is supposed to be some sort of contented triumph, a conquering of demons, his Harvest Moon of sorts, “Do I Wait” argues for just the opposite. Love may not be hell, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary. Many of Adams’ most frantically lonely songs like “Please Do Not Let Me Go,” “If I Am A Stranger,” and “Two” felt very much at home in a set list crafted around the warm, at times cozy Ashes & Fire.
Earlier in the night, 22 year old Jessica Lea Mayfield sheepishly ran through a rushed twenty-five minute set. Her songs, much like Adams’, are well-protected confessionals, they often doubt their own conclusions, as she sings in her opener “Kiss Me Again”: “’Cause my life is falling apart, or is it getting better, I don’t know?” Mayfield found time in her too-brief set for “For Today,” her best song, one she somehow wrote at the age of 15, the type of pure redemption story Ryan Adams wishes he could still believe in. And maybe Adams was backstage, nodding his head in agreement, knowing, better than anyone, perhaps even Mayfield herself, that her refrain: “I could care less about you,” as she sang it out, trying to convince herself it may really be true, is just another terrible lie.
Jessica Lea Mayfield:
Kiss Me Again
I’ll Be The One You Want Someday
Blue Skies Again
Oh My Sweet Carolina
Ashes & Fire
If I Am A Stranger
My Winding Wheel
My Blue Manhattan
Let It Ride
Chains of Love
Please Do Not Let Me Go
Crossed Out Name
New York, New York
“Howard Is Beautiful” Improv
Do I Wait
Round and Round (Ratt)
“Thanks For Coming To The Show” Improv
Come Pick Me Up