“Shhhhh!” is printed across the front of one of the T-shirts Ryan Adams is hawking during his current tour in support of his fabulous second solo disc, “Gold” (Lost Highway).
It suggests that fame is the intention of least value for this 27-year-old singer-guitarist, an artist who has managed to fly ever so slightly above the radar as a solo artist and, previously, as leader of Whiskeytown, making one impressive artistic statement after another. On a night when a Mick Jagger performance was the hottest celeb-filled event in town, Adams’ show was the hottest ticket – the House of Blues was teeming with fervid fans and new recruits – and he delivered the sort of show Mick’s fans expected from the Stones a good 30 years ago.
Adams, a North Carolina native whose “Gold” disc is an open letter to a former lover he shared a life with in New York City, has fearlessly allowed his roots to show, banging out gritty rock ‘n’ roll and soaring balladry that’s heart-on-the-sleeve pure and familiar. He sang a Hank Williams number, dressed down Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” into an acoustic ditty and ground out originals indebted to great rock ‘n’ roll styles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. At a couple of points Thursday, he was seemingly employing half the licks and chords found on the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers,” embracing that album’s looseness and hearty riffs. Stonesy sloppiness is relished in the Adams sound, which fits theAmericana radio format but needn’t be hemmed in by that definition, and it works best when he knows exactly where he’s going – he only slipped when he failed to rein in a jam and bring it back into focus at the conclusion of a song.
The band, spiced by Dan Eisenberg’s soulful organ playing and former Dylan sidekick Bucky Baxter on pedal steel, can make like the Byrds singing obscure Dylan tunes in front of the Faces. It’s a sound that’s simultaneously sweet and abrasive and completely filling in songs such as “Firecracker” (which opened the 100-minute show), “Answering Bell,” “New York, New York” and “Rescue Blues.”
With the acoustic guitar, his introspective nature was amplified, and by mixing his two sides, the show became more enticing than his straight solo or all-rockin’ concerts. The gently romantic “When Stars Go Blue” and the wistful “Oh My Sweet Carolina” were among the night’s highlights, both tunes riveting in their tenderness.
Not that he’s asking for it, but Adams is becoming the songwriting bar-setter of his twentysomething generation, the peer whose articulation and completeness earns him comparisons with legends. He’s treading in musical territory blazed by Steve Earle and Uncle Tupelo dynamos Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, but they have ascended to the level of elder statesmen – and in each case, there’s some non-music-related baggage that clouds assessments of their work.
Adams is a voracious writer, and in interviews his comments on how songs flow out echo the quotes of Dylan from the early 1960s. It’s not unthinkable that Adams could make three or four wildly different-sounding albums every year over the next 72 months – not that any record company would let him, but there would be an audience eager to embrace every note.
Lost Highway has made an expedient run toward cornering the Americana market: Besides Adams, the label has issued discs by Lucinda Williams and Robert Earl Keen as well as “Tribute,” a wonderful collection of artists covering Hank Williams songs. (As he does on the disc, Adams sang a faithful-to-the-original “Lovesick Blues” on Thursday). “Gold” is a rock ‘n’ roll dream, as strong a contender as there is for album of the year. Once it starts cropping up on year-end lists, it may finally crack 100,000 units sold. It’s a pity it hasn’t already done that.