Alternative-Country Attitude Electrifies 9:30
Early last year, inspired tunesmith Ryan Adams boosted his band
Whiskeytown to fame and helped solidify alternative-country as a
popular musical genre, stepped out of the spotlight for a few months
to work on a solo album. The result was the critically acclaimed
record Heartbreaker, a delicious mix of soulful ballads, infectious
melodies and honest, heartfelt lyrics. Easily standing up to Cat
Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman, Carole King’s Tapestry and James
Taylor’s self-titled debut, Heartbreaker earned Adams new legions
of fans and served as a necessary reminder that quality songwriting
had not been utterly destroyed by the corporate behemoth of
commercial pop music.
Adams’ second release, the spectacular double disc Gold, which
hit stores three weeks ago, sparkles with songs that are decidedly
more upbeat and honed than those on the first effort, and should
only cement Adams’ reputation as a brilliant singer-songwriter. On
Oct. 12, the 26-year-old New Yorker also electrified the 9:30 Club
with a riveting performance.
Since I purchased Heartbreaker, I have been one of Adams’ most
fervent fans, so I shuffled into the venue nearly two hours before
show time to get as close to the stage as possible. My plan: to
interview the man himself. How I would accomplish this, however, was
still a mystery. After much thought, I resolved to scrawl my request
for an interview in large, bold letters on a notepad I had carried
into the club with the intention of catching his eye by waving it at
him in between songs until he took notice. Quickly scribbling my
desperate plea, I again pocketed the notepad and waited in quiet
anticipation for the show to begin.
At midnight, he strode on-stage in a cheap plaid flannel, worn
Levis and cowboy boots, flashing a devilish grin and raising one
hand in gratitude and acknowledgement of the thunderous applause.
His other hand gripped a battered, vintage Telecaster electric
guitar, and, as soon as his band had gathered around him, he
motioned to his drummer and the six-member group launched into the
up-tempo rocker “Firecracker.” This energetic, foot-stomping
opener set the carefree, optimistic mood that continued throughout
the performance. As he wailed “I just want to be your firecracker
and maybe be your baby tonight,” the drummer pummeled his kit with
unbridled fury and the two back- up guitarists ducked and pranced
across the stage in time with the roller-coaster contours of the
melody. Following this number, the band played the lovely
“Answering Bell,” a stripped -down love song with an insistent
beat and a driving, poignant chorus. Other highlights of the night
included the stirring ode “Rescue Blues” and the chilling,
delicate “When the Stars Go Blue.” Just before Adams strummed
the first bars of his most famous song, “Oh My Sweet Carolina,”
he looked up and saw my notepad, held high in the air. His face
broke out in a broad grin, and he announced on the microphone that I
could come back stage after the show and get my interview. “I
promised myself,” he said into the microphone in between sips from
a shot glass, “that if I ever made it, I wouldn’t be one of
those a—hole rock stars that avoided the fans.” I was, needless
to say, thrilled.
After the last of the crowd had dispersed from the club, I went
to the back stage entrance and was recognized and let in by one of
the band members’ girlfriends. Aimlessly roaming the corridors
behind the stage for my idol, I bumped into another girl who
introduced herself as Kristin and wore tight black pants and a
halter-top. She explained that she had been a student at Penn State
but was currently traveling the country with Adams as a groupie. I
tried to act as though I were interested in her story, but, in my
haste and excitement, couldn’t resist cutting her off and asking
where Adams was. She cheerfully lead me down into a cavernous lounge
in the basement, and I instantly spotted Adams sitting at a bar in
the corner, sucking down a bottle of beer. I approached him timidly,
tapped him on the shoulder, and displayed my notepad reminding him
that I was here for an interview. He looked at me suspiciously,
asked if I was going to write shorthand, told me to forget it, and
took the notepad right out of my hands. He filled in answers to each
question I had written for him.
The Guide: Gold is decidedly more up-tempo and harder-edged than
Heartbreaker. Why the change?
Adams: I was tired. I moved to California for a spell. I was
dating an actress.
TG: How does the songwriting process generally work for you? Do
you get a phrase or melody first, and then the words?
A: No! I go on instinct.
TG: Where do you think popular music is going right now?
A: Ja Rule!! J-Lo!
TG: Would you say you’re prolific?
A: No. I’m honest.
TG: What is your favorite Ryan Adams
A: Touch, Feel, and Lose.
Following the last question, he turned away from me and forgot I
was sitting next to him. I had envisioned a serious, in-depth
interview, but my project had instead become the subject of drunken
mockery. But I am glad that the first and perhaps only rock star I
will ever meet was one with a disheveled and caustic attitude. In
addition to the talent, Adams has the rock star personality, and his
groundbreaking work will inevitably leave an indelible print on
music for years to come.