Friday: Ryan Adams Makes 'Em Laugh -- Really -- at the Herbst Theatre

Ryan Adams
Oct. 14, 2011
The Herbst Theatre

Better than: Half the shows currently on Comedy Central.

Ryan Adams songs often sound like an actual heart cracking under the weight of too much loss and confusion and woe. He is at his best when he is at his most sensitive, musing on the human condition and the constant threat of loneliness. Ryan Adams, musically speaking, is beautiful, but, yes, kind of a bummer. So it's no small shock tonight when it turns out that, actually, Ryan Adams is freakin' hilarious.

With the stage set up like a living room, and the entire audience seated like a play is about to commence in this grand, lovely theater, Adams shuffles on in a Satyricon T-shirt, hunched over, hair all mussed up, looking like he rolled out of bed approximately three minutes ago. As he sits down to commence this all-acoustic performance, the cheers that greeted him subside and this turns into the quietest room on Earth. It's so quiet, you can hear the pen I'm using to make notes as it scratches the paper. He has our undivided attention. 

The room remains hushed throughout stunning openers "Oh My Sweet Carolina" and the cathartic, Springsteen-esque "Ashes And Fire." To hear these songs in a silent room, unsullied by chatter and bar noise, is nothing short of heavenly. The first sign of Adams' dry wit emerges when the crowd cheers the opening melody of "If I Am A Stranger" and he abruptly stops, looks up, completely straight-faced, and says "No, it's not the one you're thinking of..."

And then it begins. Between songs all night -- heart-breaking, soul-shattering songs, we should remind you -- Adams has the audience roaring with laughter. There's something positively Shakespearean about it all -- as if he's compelled to break up all the drama and the serious stuff with humor so this doesn't just turn outright depressing. And, have no doubt, Ryan Adams is very, very funny.

Tonight, we are treated to a ten-minute interlude about how distracting it is when his ass goes numb from sitting down too long on stage (which he then turns into a song), a series of laugh-out-loud one-liners delivered in an entirely deadpan manner ("Sometimes when I'm playing a show, I feel like I'm in that band, Extreme ... but every song is "More Than Words"), and a mountain of adorable self-deprecation ("Here's another sad song, completely devoid of any humor," "I wrote this one today -- it's jazzy!").

When he brings on wonderful opening act, Jason Isbell -- who has one of the greatest voices we've heard in years, incidentally -- to perform a couple of cover songs for the encore, Adams acknowledges the good ol' country boy vibe that descends on the stage by saying "At the end of that song, we should both get a nice tool box..."

And this is the joy of watching Ryan Adams. One minute your eyes are welling up because a sad song is so perfectly executed, the next you're laughing at a joke about Ratt. There is no pretension here, no affectations, no rock star bullshit -- just charm, followed by wit, followed by honesty, followed by more charm.   

The other joy, of course, is the music. Adams' vocals live are identical to how they are on record -- one minute crisp and ringing out, the next, carefully reduced to a whisper. Some of the finest moments tonight occur when he's at his piano. Watching his performances of "Sweet Lil Gal" and "New York, New York," with his back to most of the audience, is like peeking into his living room late at night and catching him at his most intimate; his most revealed, and it feels very much like a privilege. 

Ryan Adams gets a standing ovation at the end of this two-and-a-half-hour set tonight and boy, did he earn it. Shows rarely get more revealing -- or more engaging -- than this.

"Oh My Sweet Carolina"
"Ashes And Fire"
"If I Am A Stranger"
"Dirty Rain"
"Sweet Lil Gal"
"I See Monsters"
"Invisible Riverside"
"Everybody Knows"
"My Winding Wheel"
"Lucky Now"
"New York, New York"
"Let It Ride"
"Please Do Not Let Me Go"
"Carolina Rain"
"English Girls Can Be So Mean"
"Houses On The Hill"
"Bartering Lines"
"Love In The First Degree"
"Come Pick Me Up"

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Location Info



Herbst Theatre

401 Van Ness, San Francisco, CA

Category: Music

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Eddie Jenkins
Eddie Jenkins

It's "English Girls Approximately" not "English Girls can be so mean.  Also, it's not "Sweet Lil' Gal" it's "Sweet Lil' Gal (23rd/1st)." Granted the last one is nitpicking, however the first one is not.

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