Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Live Review: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals 1.29.08

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

Catalyst Club

Santa Cruz, CA

It's a rainy Tuesday evening as I sit in traffic on the I-17 South from San Jose to Santa Cruz, California. The normal 40 minute drive has now ballooned past the hour mark, creating the possibility of missing the opening chords to Ryan Adams & the Cardinals performing at the Catalyst Club.

Between cursing the traffic and sips of a road soda, my brother-in-law tells a story about the engineer who originally designed this stretch of freeway, and who allegedly committed suicide due to the freeway become a killing field for motorists who brave it's rainy roads, sharp turns and blind spots to travel to Santa Cruz and all points south. Judging from the car wreckage we pass en route to the show, it's obvious this road has claimed many souls over the years, and similar to the driving risks on I-17, we were taking a risk with Ryan Adams & The Cardinals.

For years, ex fans and the music press have portrayed Adams as an over-hyped rocker who was really more interested in banging actresses, snorting vast amounts of pharmaceuticals, and generally acting like a drunken asshole on stage. Friends who have caught Adams live over the years confirmed that assessment wasn't too far off base, but that on a good night, Adams is worth the hype.

Hearing a 2006 bootleg of Adams & the Cardinals changed my perception and piqued my curiosity. What I heard was a loud, rambunctious group of musicians stretching out musically and generally creating an exciting air of unpredictability for the audience to soak up. The bootleg crackled with amp feedback while ebbing and flowing between loud rockers and mellow, drifty songs to create a nice balance for concert-goers.

Fast forward to 2007 and I unfortunately missed several opportunities to catch RATC due to work and life conflicts, but the 07 live show recordings confirmed what I initially heard on that 06 boot: This band can bring it live.

Finally in a position to catch the band at the Catalyst Club in Santa Cruz, shitty weather and car wrecks strewn across a treacherous highway were not going to deter me from seeing the band live.

Traffic forced our group to miss the opening song, but as soon as we entered the Catalyst Club, I could hear the rhythmic pounding of "Beautiful Sorta", a great head bobbing rocker that helped grease the crowd for the loud, sloppy Crazy Horse-style show we were in store for tonight.

As we made our way up the side of the balcony to the right side of the stage, the band glowed from a combination of sweat, smoke and back lighting as they rocked out a ferocious version of "Shakedown on 9th Street".

The balcony rumbled as Adams held court on the left side of the stage while the Cardinals, Brad Pemberton (drums), Neal Casal (guitar, vocals), Jon Graboff (pedal stell, vocals) and Chris Feinstein (bass) locked into the groove of the song on the other half of the stage. Pemberton's powerful drumming provided the foundation for "Shakedown" and would be a highlight all night long.

The band shifted gears for the next few numbers; a drifty, cinematic mood was created with "Battering Lines", while everyone in the crowd felt compelled to have "one shot, one beer and a kiss" with the honky tonk of "Kiss Before I Go", complete with amazing pedal steel work from Jon Graboff.

Gorgeous harmonies drifted up to the rafters of the Catalyst during "Cold Roses" and showcased the Cardinal’s ability to follow a musical idea on a whim, whether it's stopping the music cold and going acapella on "Cold Roses" or turning up the rock so guitarist Neal Casal could trade solos with Adams.

Of course, when a musician goes out on the musical ledge, they are bound to fall every now and then. The first glimpse of this reckless abandon for the abyss was spotted during the song "Mockingbird". The band transformed this playful, Grateful Dead style song into a Sonic Youth-style noise freak out that they barely escaped, saved only by a quick seque into the steady backbeat of the song "Off Broadway". Like the blind corners on I-17, it was a close call, but they managed to stay on their side of the road and soldier on.

After a ten minute beer and bathroom break, the band returned to the stage for set deux. Highlights included a Brit-Pop tinged rendition of "I See Monsters" that would have made Noel Gallagher jealous, a rocking version of "Everybody Knows" that scrapped off the studio sheen and brought out the Crazy Horse amp buzz, and a slow burning version of "Goodnight Rose" that showed off the interplay between Casal and Adams on guitar as well as more harmony-style singing.

One aspect of the Ryan Adams live experience shrouded in internet lore are the on-stage emotional meltdowns that have been known to derail and sink a show in the time it takes to have a sip of beer. Tonight, someone yelled out a request for "Come Pick Me Up", and Ryan quickly shot down the request and went into a long winded, humorous analogy about going to your mom's house for dinner where she's been slaving all day making a casserole and you "belligerently said fuck man, I wanted meatloaf". While it stopped the show cold, Adams was able to turn things around with humor and dedicate the next song to the person he just "lovingly berated". Another road hazard narrowly averted.

That dedicated song turned out to be an 18 minute rendition of “Easy Plateau”. Around the 12 minute mark, the song completely fell into a musical wormhole and emerged as a deconstructed no-wave jam, leaving half the Cardinals more or less staring at Adams as they attempted to find a way out of the cacophony. This wreck was one they would not escape and when the last shards of feedback died down, the band quietly left the stage.

The band exited, and then quickly returned for encore renditions of “Magnolia Mountain” and “Blue Hotel” to salvage the second set and end on a satisfying note. Adams & the Cardinals thanked the crowd and especially thanked an attractive female fan by saying “You’re really fucking cute as fuck. Goddamnit. Whoever you are, you’re massively cute,” causing the entire crowd to search the balcony for the attractive fan.

When we emerged from the Catalyst, the rain had stopped and the roads had cleared out, giving us a somewhat safer journey back over the hill to the land of micro chips and The Google. Ryan Adams & the Cardinals didn’t play it safe either tonight. A few times they grazed the guard rails before straightening back out and getting back in their lane, but it was nice to see a band so in tune with each other that they were willing to take some risks in front of fans.

Photos courtesy of

1 comment:

J Smiley said...

Great review man... I'm sorry I missed this tour. I did throw in my favorite r.a. album and have a listen though.