Anyone who has followed singer-songwriter Ryan Adams’ career with even the slightest bit of interest is used to the roller coaster reactions he elicits: wondrous music balanced by moments where you can only wonder what exactly he was thinking. For every album as good as “Heartbreaker” or song as brilliant as “Answering Bell,” there are the dozens of hip-hop songs he posts on his website.
There were also so many unsatisfying, or even worse, contentious concerts, you could believe that he had taken George Jones and Hank Williams Sr. not as musical but behavioral role models (a career move with a slightly lower rate of success than rock guitarists patterning their lives on Keith Richards).
But at the Wilshire Theater Thursday night, Adams and his fine band, the Cardinals, played a show that confirmed the faith his fans have shown in him: an intimate, finely detailed acoustic concert showcasing Adams’ skills as a balladeer, making a convincing argument that, along with Lucinda Williams, he is one of our best chroniclers of heartbreak. “Is it possible to love someone too much?” he asks in “Starlite Diner.” “You bet,” is his immediate reply.
Like “Easy Tiger” (Lost Highway), his impressive new album, which made up nearly a quarter of the 26 songs played, the show nudged Adams back toward country rock. Yes, the Grateful Dead influence is becoming more and more pronounced: the circular, loping guitar line of “Peaceful Valley”; the way “Cold Roses” and “Wildflowers” flow into one another in the manner of a classic Dead concert; and on “Goodnight Rose,” Adams’ voice takes on the gentle raspiness of Jerry Garcia’s. But Adams is too talented and ornery a songwriter to play it straight.
“A Kiss Before I Go” is a rueful update of a Merle Haggard barroom romance (and is one of the many songs that showcased Jon Graboff’s fluid pedal steel guitar playing). “Blue Hotel” (from last year’s Adams-produced Willie Nelson album, “Songbird”) has the rough-hewn sophistication of mid-’70s Van Morrison, while “Dear John” approximates the lush melancholy of Neil Young’s “Harvest.” And most surprisingly, on “Goodnight, Hollywood Boulevard” (the only tune he performed standing), his voice swooped around the notes like a hill country Jeff Buckley.
But for all the sadness and misery in the tunes, Adams was in high spirits, joking with both the band and the crowd (although you had to wonder why he barked in response to the aud’s shouted song requests). Not even some balky equipment and an inability to get comfortable in his seat could cloud his sunny mood.
And Adams had good reason to be happy — he’s probably giving the best performances of his career. Let’s hope this is not just a singular high point followed by the seemingly inevitable disappointment, but the start of a new productive period for Adams.