ATLANTA For Ryan Adams, opening his solo tour at the Variety Playhouse on Friday meant digging up a few ghosts from the past and putting a few others to rest.
At the first stop on the 26-year-old singer/songwriter's fall trek in support of his new solo release, Gold, Adams admitted that he was returning to less-than-hallowed ground.
"Thanks for coming out to the first show," the scruffy-haired, denim-jacket-clad Adams told the crowd. "Nice to do it here, since this is the place I f---ed up last time I tried to play with a band."
That last time was back in spring 1998, when Atlanta fans witnessed one of the final meltdowns featuring Adams and his former band, North Carolina alt-country darlings Whiskeytown.
Adams has put time and distance between himself and his Whiskeytown days, issuing a stripped-down, emotionally raw debut, Heartbreaker, last year while splitting time between New York and Nashville. (Whiskeytown's posthumous Pneumonia was issued earlier this year.)
The Gold sessions brought a shift to the sunnier climes of Hollywood, where Adams hobnobbed with the likes of Alanis Morissette and Winona Ryder while recording the sprawling, multifaceted LP with several friends and notable rock progeny, including the Counting Crows' Adam Duritz, Ethan Johns (son of producer Glyn Johns) and Chris Stills (Stephen Stills' son) (see "Ryan Adams Reflects On Pneumonia, Gold").
As evidenced by Gold's generally brisk feel and upbeat outlook, the change of scenery has done Adams a wealth of good. Onstage in Atlanta, even though he didn't look tanned, Adams practically beamed as he comfortably led his touring band, the Lax, through a rootsy and rocking 25-song, two-hour-plus set.
Emphasizing the new, Adams and the Lax featuring childhood friend Billy Mercer on bass, veteran session hand "Bucky" Baxter on pedal steel, guitarist Brad Rice and drummer Brad Pemberton opened with an unreleased song, "Candy Doll," before knocking out a half-dozen new nuggets from Gold, highlighted by "Somehow, Someday," "Firecracker" and the Heartbreakers-ish potboiler "Nobody Girl."
After a brief, lighthearted detour through the country standard "Lovesick Blues," Adams was in good enough spirits to deflect an audience request for the James Gang's "Funk #49" with a simple, "I'm sorry, but f--- ya kindly," then launch into the honky-tonk shuffles of "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)" and "The Rescue Blues."
Adams and company also downplayed and rode out the typical first-night hiccups, laughing off a false start of another new tune, "La Cienega Just Smiled," and trying to pass it off as intentional.
"Sorry, that was in the wrong key," Adams admitted in between slugs from a bottled beer. "I'm a big enough stoner that I could have been in the wrong key, but I don't think so. We actually worked that out at soundcheck so we could finish our cigarettes. That's gonna work well tomorrow night, I swear."
After hotboxing a bit of the Rolling Stones' "Midnight Rambler" onto the end of "Oh My Sweet Carolina" via a harmonica-led workout, Adams made his sole nod to his Whiskeytown past by covering "Nervous Breakdown," the Black Flag song Adams' former band often played in concert.
But "Breakdown" was the only drop of Whiskeytown to be had at the show, as Adams instead relished the role of leader and focal point of a boisterous rock band cutting loose on his own tunes.
In a somber and poignant yet uplifting moment during the show, the crowd openly acknowledged the September 11 tragedy and paid tribute to New Yorkers by roaring in approval of the "I'll always love you though, New York" chorus to Gold's lead track, "New York, New York."
For the first encore, Adams returned to the stage with an acoustic guitar for several of his Heartbreaker ballads, including stirring versions of "My Winding Wheel," "Don't Ask for the Water" and "Damn, Sam (I Love a Woman That Rains)."
Bringing out the Lax for the last round of songs, Adams and cohorts then freely rambled through "Come Pick Me Up" and several other unreleased tracks before asking the audience for its approval and a little friendly advice.
"I'm sorry, that's as much as we know, and that's as long as we have," Adams said, "but this wasn't too bad for a first gig, right? Now, what's a good place to get really pissed at?"