Ryan Adams stretches the limits of 'Austin City Limits'
Typical tapings of “Austin City Limits” run an hour and a half – maybe a little shorter for newer acts with less material to draw from, or perhaps just past two hours for longtime veteran artists. But a three-hour taping is pretty much unheard of.
That’s what the audience got Wednesday night at ACL Live when Ryan Adams followed a 10-song, 70-minute solo acoustic set with an 18-song, 100-minute set backed by his four-piece band. In recent memory, only this year’s two all-star sessions for the show’s recently-aired 40th-anniversary special, both of which featured a long list of performers, have been more of a marathon for taping attendees.
The time was very well spent. Drawing from all phases of his 15-year career as a solo artist, Adams’ performance was a reminder of just how impressive his career resume is when it’s presented en masse for such an occasion. (The two-set format was in part to accommodate two different “Austin City Limits” purposes, with cuts from the electric portion earmarked for an episode in the current season and the acoustic footage on hold for a future episode.)
The acoustic set began with an interesting four-song contrast, as two songs from Adams’ 2000 solo album “Heartbreaker” alternated with two songs from his new self-titled release. Released as his 1990s alt-country band Whiskeytown was fading away, “Heartbreaker” was a major step forward for Adams and remains arguably his finest record; the two selections he chose, the timeless folk ballad “Oh My Sweet Carolina” and the lithe pop tune “My Winding Wheel,” are among that album’s best cuts.
He juxtaposed them against “My Wrecking Ball” and “Gimme Something Good,” standout tracks on the new disc. “My Wrecking Ball” in particular compared quite well, sounding destined to become one of the signature tunes in Adams’ repertoire. “Gimme Something Good” is much more electric on record — and in fact Adams played the song again later with the full band — but stripped down, it stood up as not only immediately engaging but surprisingly adaptable.
The rest of the acoustic set proceeded in a similarly auspicious fashion, punctuated by frequent between-song banter that ranged from sublime to ridiculous. Introducing “Desire” from 2002’s “Demolition,” Adams set expectations low, suggesting that even Anne Murray would reject the song as “too soft-rock” — and then his performance revealed it as a legitimate hidden gem in his catalog.
The acoustic portion concluded with a noble stab at Bryan Adams’ “Run to You,” indicating he’s made peace with the tongue-in-cheek audience requests for his near-namesake’s songs that have peppered his shows over the years. Overall, the set was eerily reminiscent of a short solo acoustic set Adams played at Hole in the Wall just before SXSW in March 2000, during which a revved-up crowd fell similarly hushed and attentive toward the magic that was transpiring onstage.
After a half-hour break, the show resumed at 9:45 p.m. — around the time most ACL tapings come to an end — with an extensive electric set that drew songs from eight Adams albums: one from “Heartbreaker,” three from “Gold” (2001), two from “Love Is Hell” (2003), one from “Cold Roses” (2005), one from “Cardinology” (2008), three from “Ashes & Fire” (2011), two from “1984” (2014) and four from the new self-titled disc.
If it wasn’t necessarily a definitive “Best of Ryan Adams” set — no “When Will You Come Back Home,” or “My Blue Manhattan,” or “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High),” for example — it included plenty of career high points, ranging from the easy-sliding groove of “Let It Ride” to the ill-fated romanticism of “Dear Chicago” to the rousing, harmonica-driven show-closer “Come Pick Me Up.”
Of particular significance were the selections from “Gold,” a bloated album that nevertheless included a few of Adams’ finest songs. Without mentioning 9/11, he noted that “New York, New York” came into a whole different being than its original meaning, and his excellent band (guitarist Mike Viola, bassist Charlie Stavish, keyboardist Daniel Clarke and drummer Freddie Bookenheuser) underscored the point with purposefully restrained backing that cast the song in a more reflective mood.
Even better was “When the Stars Go Blue,” a tune that became omnipresent when the likes of Tim McGraw and Bono & the Corrs recorded it (as well as my personal favorite version by Scandinavian singers Venke Knutson & Kurt Nilsen). Wednesday night, Adams wisely brought the song back down to earth with a sincerely modest rendition so emotional that Austin musician Nakia was visibly moved in the crowd — to the point that Adams got off the stage afterward to give Nakia a hug. “I’m terrified to do this version” of the song, Adams had said at the outset, but the result showed the rewards of taking that chance.
A surprise highlight near the end was a rapid-fire medley featuring two songs from “1984,” a 7-inch EP released in August that Adams styled after legendary hardcore band the Minutemen’s very short songs. “Rats in the Wall” and “When the Summer Ends” together lasted less than three minutes, but it was a brilliant burst of energy, so much so that it might have been worth hearing the band play the EP’s entire 10-songs-in-13-minutes run.
Of course, that would have made the show wrap up even later than 11:30 p.m., by which time some in the crowd had departed (likely needing to get babysitters off the clock, or prepare for a weekday morning at work). Those able to stay to the very end seemed to cherish every moment, as The Longest ACL provided memories that will linger even longer.
Set 1 (solo acoustic)
- “Oh My Sweet Carolina” (from “Heartbreaker”)
- “My Wrecking Ball” (from “Ryan Adams”)
- “My Winding Wheel” (from “Heartbreaker”)
- “Gimme Something Good” (from “Ryan Adams”)
- “Lucky Now” (from “Ashes & Fire”)
- “Please Do Not Let Me Go” (from “Love Is Hell”)
- “Am I Safe” (from “Ryan Adams”)
- “Desire” (from “Demolition”)
- “If I Am a Stranger” (from “Cold Roses”)
- “Run to You” (Bryan Adams cover)
Set 2 (with band)
- “Gimme Something Good” (from “Ryan Adams”)
- “Let It Ride” (from “Cold Roses”)
- “Stay With Me” (from “Ryan Adams”)
- “Dirty Rain” (from “Ashes & Fire”)
- “This House Is Not for Sale” (from “Love Is Hell”)
- “New York, New York” (from “Gold”)
- “Fix It” (from “Cardinology”)
- “Do I Wait” (from “Ashes & Fire”)
- “Dear Chicago” (from “Demolition”)
- “When the Stars Go Blue” (from “Gold”)
- “Shadows” (from “Ryan Adams”)
- “I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say” (from “Ashes & Fire”)
- “La Cienega Just Smiled” (from “Gold”)
- “Kim” (from “Ryan Adams”)
- “Rats in the Wall” (from “1984”)
- “When the Summer Ends” (from “1984”)
- “I See Monsters” (from “Love Is Hell”)
- “Come Pick Me Up” (from Heartbreaker”)