Though primarily utilized for classical performances, the Walt Disney Concert Hall proves its place time and time again as LA’s finest venue for housing pop and folk musicians. Its intimate seating construction and aural warmth allows the audience to feel physically close to the performers in ways that concert halls with similar capacities can hardly approximate. On Friday evening, Ryan Adams effectively turned the prestigious theatre-in-the-round into his personal living room, engaging the crowd with a career-spanning set that was loose, conversational and downright beautifully performed.
Since relocating to Los Angeles in 2009, Adams has had to overcome a professional split with longtime backing band the Cardinals and a significant physical battle with Meniere’s disease — an excruciatingly painful inner-ear disorder. His last years with the Cardinals were characterized by chaotic live performances and a general lack of musical focus. Now performing in support of last year’s stellar “Ashes & Fire,” Adams seems to have found some semblance of peace and personal contentment, and his live show reflects this newfound clarity.
Opening with one of his best-loved tunes, “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” Adams swiftly revealed that he was performing with his audience in mind as opposed to the often-antagonistic crowd-baiting style that had defined him in recent years. Seated beside two acoustic guitars and an upright piano, Adams quietly transitioned into “Ashes & Fire,” seamlessly connecting two songs written ten years apart yet imbued with the same sense of loss and general world-weariness. As a writer, Adams’ gift lies in his ability to create portraits of heartache that are instantly evocative of both time and place — telling vivid stories with an editor’s sense of concision and lyrical efficiency.
As Adams tuned his guitar throughout the evening he consistently chatted with the crowd, casually making fun of himself as a sad-sack singer-songwriter. At one point an audience member yelled “I love you,” to which Adams replied: “I love you too … but you just love me because I’m sad in my songs.” His self-awareness as a purveyor of emotional discontent allowed him to consistently lighten the mood and provide a much-needed respite from the bleak lyrical content of his songs.
Most of the evening’s material was performed on acoustic guitar, though Adams shifted to the piano for poignant readings of “Sweet Lil Gal (23rd/1st)” and “New York, New York,” the latter of which received a hilarious prelude with dark minor chords and improvised lyrics about his cat. Though the concert generally effused with humor, Adams was able to instantly shift gears and deliver beautifully sung, focused versions of his compositions. This off-the-cuff juxtaposition of absurdity and sadness seems to suit Adams perfectly.
He ended the evening with a triumphant rendition of “Come Pick Me Up,” followed by a folk-inspired re-rendering of Dio’s 1983 metal anthem “Holy Diver.” Somehow Adams made his version sound as though it had been written deep in the mountains of Southern Appalachia circa 1885, adding beauty and depth to a song that isn’t much more than a laughable relic in its original incarnation.
The performance was opened by Val Kilmer performing a bizarre one-man-show as Mark Twain. Kilmer never broke character and loosely engaged the audience with “jokes” touching upon topics such as the U.S. government and how Albert Einstein “stole his look.” All observers were baffled.