The houselights dimmed, and the southern-tinged voice of Ryan Adams was immediately propelled from the massive speakers at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom, accompanied by looping synth samples and pounding bass.
It seemed like an odd introduction for alternative/country rock’s prolific resident badass and his band of virtuosos; but after all, it was Halloween in the city, and mass-weirdness was already afoot with the setting of the sun on West 34th Street.
Adams and his band, The Cardinals, took the stage and immediately launched into a melodious series of guitar riffs, played by Adams and guitarist/backing vocalist Neal Casal, grounded on drummer Brad Pemberton’s pulsating beat.
Pedal steel guitarist/backing vocalist Jon Graboff added depth to progression as he slid gracefully from note to note. Bassist Chris “Space Wolf” Feinstein maintained the parameters for the opening jam as an electric jack-o-lantern, perched atop a piano, grinned in approval.
At once, the unfurling soundscape fell silent, and Adams’ soulful voice rose to the heights of the auditorium.
“Lord take me home to the peaceful valley, down the winding river to your city, your soul,” he crooned to the delight of the packed ballroom.
The Cardinals had set the tone for the evening right from the onset of the concert: make yourselves comfortable, strap yourselves in and prepare for a meandering, sonic ride.
There was very little to no between-song banter and, much to the dismay of a few fans, charged rock numbers from the aptly titled “Rock N Roll,” as well as some of Adams’ most popular hits, including “New York, New York” and “Come Pick Me Up,” were conspicuously absent from the set list. Concert material came largely from the 2005 releases “Cold Roses” and “Jacksonville City Nights,” with a large selection also from Adams’ 2007 solo release, “Easy Tiger.”
Based on the song selections, it was clear that Adams’ infamous reputation as an attention-starved egotist has taken a backseat to the musical abilities of The Cardinals. In the November issue of Paste, Adams mused that he views himself now simply as the singer of The Cardinals. After watching Adams’ inner demons come to life onstage for the duration of 29 pristine songs, it was easy to see that he and the band have formed as a cohesive musical entity.
After a highly-charged rendition of “Blue Hotel,” a song from the band’s most recent release, “Follow The Lights,” Adams and The Cardinals wandered back into the same counter-melodic guitar movements that opened the show, and then slowly crept into the heart wrenching song, “Mockingbirdsing.” Other songs, like the barroom shuffle “Beautiful Sorta,” and a moving rendition of “Rescue Blues” that featured Garboff on lead guitar, produced raucous applause and delight from the sold-out crowd.
Despite Adams’ new sense of musical purpose that came with recent sobriety, he was still just as energetic and eccentric as ever. Seated before the piano, poised to begin a chilling rendition of “Night Birds,” Adams had a highly melodramatic, faux breakdown.
He pretended to hyperventilate while Casal said, “This is it. This is the real thing.” The evening also featured an unrehearsed birthday tribute to Feinstein and an initially mellowed-out version of “Halloween Head,” an anthemic song about having a “head full of tricks and treats.”
“It’s all the same old shit again. I’ve got a Halloween Head,” Adams proudly proclaimed.
Prior to walking off stage before the encore and after a performance of “I See Monsters,” Adams thanked the crowd for their attention and said how excited he was to have played the ballroom. “I just got to see Slayer play here, holy shit!” he said.
The band returned for a three-song encore and concluded the evening with the dark and brooding song, “What Sin Replaces Love.” The song rose gradually in volume until the ballroom brimmed with sound and Adams’ introspection came to an energized end.
The houselights came back up, and the crowd slowly filed out, abandoning the delightful madness of Hammerstein Ballroom for that of the restless city outside and the last remaining minutes of Halloween.