(Photos by Daniel Kielman)
Ryan Adams wants you to listen to Suicide.
In the first of very few tangents to the audience at the Masonic tonight, he’s extolling the virtues of the 1970s punk band who, he notes, influenced a host of other artists from Sonic Youth to Springsteen. People are laughing politely. They seem to be a little nervous around him. They don’t know how to react to this new, talkative, somewhat-genial Ryan Adams.
America loves a comeback story, and Adams’ has become legend in the new millennium. An alt-country superstar in the late ’90s and early aughts, adored by critics and famous as much for his talent as for his erratic public behavior. At the dawn of his mainstream career, a prolific studio musician and a revered songwriter who produced LPs that were, with the exception of a few, unfailingly great.
Touring, however, was another story. A penchant for public drama, fueled by a laundry list of controlled substances, started to upstage his songwriting prowess. By the mid-2000s, the draw of Ryan Adams shows were 50% genuine interest in his music, and the other half maybe-he’ll-throw-a-tantrum-tonight. His appearances both on stage and on the street became more and more cagey, and his records, though he could still write circles around his peers, started to stall creatively. Then he did the most Ryan Adams thing he could possibly do and just …disappeared.
But now, having come roaring back in 2014 with two lauded releases—one the widely-adored Ryan Adams, the other 1984, which sees him reconnecting with his punk-rock roots—he’s here, in San Francisco, at the newly-remolded Masonic. The floors are clean. There’s an army of ushers on hand. It doesn’t smell like beer or well liquor in here—it smells, overwhelmingly, like red wine. A decade of unrest behind him, this man with documented demons is, tonight, playing to the bougiest crowd, in the bougiest venue, in the bougiest neighborhood in one of the bougiest cities in the nation.
Jenny Lewis opened (precisely at 7:30, the time printed on the ticket) and cuted the place up with her Deschanel bangs and candy-colored guitars. Lewis is also celebrating a banner year, having put out The Voyager to critical and viral acclaim, and she rocked her now-trademark white suit. Lewis hit her stride around the time that Adams lost his—2006 or 2007—and rose to fame in the underground-music mags through her solo work and with Rilo Kiley. Adams crept out on stage, almost undetected, during her second song and wordlessley performed a few with her on one of her rainbow-cloud print Telecasters. Then, he slunk away and Lewis continued with a varied list of . It was much the same set list she performed at Outside Lands, but no less entertaining.
Adams’ set started out typically enough—with “Gimme Something Good,” the lead single off this year’s self-titled, followed by several more recent selections. Adams still isn’t much for conversation: there were a few asides to the audience and one brief chiding of a loud fan that turned into not a rant, but an improvised song. Still, by the time he started reaching back into his archives to the Gold and Love is Hell years, he seemed to loosen up a bit, and the set list got more and more exuberant as the night went on.
But there’s something about the new, re-emerged Ryan Adams that renders people quiet; almost makes them uncomfortable. There was no joining him in song tonight—at best, people whispered their way through his better-known material. He even played “New York, New York,” a song he has famously disowned, and even then crowd noise didn’t rise above an excited murmur. His conversation with the crowd got big, if not a little forced, laughs. The fans seemed to coddle him, as if just under this approachable exterior was a man waiting for a reason to throw down his guitar and stomp offstage.
Adams himself even noticed their nice-to-a-fault-ness, saying that San Franciscans “always fucking get it” and listen politely when there’s a quiet song going on (sorry buddy, that’s actually kind of an anomaly around here). He played with the crowd a little bit; even brought out Jello Biafra near the end. Once again people applauded and bobbed their heads, but didn’t take any of it as an invitation to get rowdy.
It makes sense—there aren’t a lot of tortured rock geniuses left these days; at least not ones that appeal to as young a crowd as Adams. And he’s well within his right to be one: For all the public derision he’s faced, the man and his music have been manipulated, co-opted, shoehorned, dissected, and the results thrown back in his face for the last two decades. Though his younger generation of fans—and San Francisco is a young city—doesn’t really know what to make of these kind of characters, they will always smile politely and listen to what he has to say. All everyone in that room wanted was to see Ryan Adams succeed.