NEW YORK — “Did everyone have their n–s felt when they came in the door?” Ryan Adams asked a couple of songs into his set Thursday night, referring to the security pat-downs each ticket holder had to endure before entering Webster Hall. “Of course not all of you have n–s,” he continued, “although you showed up, so you probably are nuts.”
This shticky banter epitomized Adams’ upbeat performance and solidified his shift from heartbroken miserablist to spirited rock star. Instead of showering the crowd with melancholy country-folk songs and tales of woe, Adams kicked out the jams, told jokes and spouted non sequiturs. At one point, he burst into an impromptu monologue from the film “Mommie Dearest.” At another, he told the crowd he wasn’t going to play his old songs, then he and the band started a carnivalesque jam with the lyrics “You want to hear our old songs/ But we’re not gonna play them for you.”
True to his word, most of the tunes were from Adams’ new album, Rock N Roll, a triumphant celebration of his favorite rockers from the past three decades. Dressed in a loose tie and magenta jacket that he quipped made him look like a librarian, Adams powered through his well-crafted if somewhat derivative originals with passion and reverence for his influences. And his backing band, which included two additional guitarists and a keyboard player, provided the singer with a sturdy musical bed in which to toss, turn, joke and mope.
“Burning Photographs,” a cross between the J. Geils Band, Tom Petty and Buffalo Tom, may have carried a downcast message as Adams crooned, “You’re doomed to repeat the past, nothing is gonna last/ I burned all your photographs.” But his delivery brimmed with enthusiasm, as he downed a glass of red wine (one of many he consumed during the show) and urged the crowd to dance to the music. During “Shallow,” an amalgam of the Georgia Satellites, Hüsker Dü and Oasis, the singer sawed away at his guitar and shouted like Kurt Cobain. He concluded the Stooges-meets-Stones cut “1974″ by stepping atop a stage monitor, throwing back his head and posing like a hair metal hero. He later inexplicably praised Iron Maiden’s 1984 Powerslave tour.
In addition to songs from Rock N Roll, Adams played reflective, sobering cuts from his new EP, Love Is Hell, tracks that were more reminiscent of those from his disconsolate 2000 solo debut, Heartbreaker. Yet even these sadder selections were performed with verve and dramatic flair. For the show opener, “The Shadowlands,” Adams positioned himself at stage right and squeezed his eyes shut tight as he sang, and after the tender “This House Is Not for Sale,” he convinced his band to play the number again as a hardcore punk tune.
The only two pre-2003 songs Adams performed were Heartbreaker‘s yearningly catchy “Come Pick Me Up” and Gold‘s “New York, New York,” the track that was embraced by a grieving nation in the days following September 11. Although Adams hails from North Carolina, he has spent much of the past decade in the Big Apple, and is so fond of his current hometown he arranged for proceeds from ticket sales to go to two of the city’s charities. Of course, after making the announcement, the rocker chastised himself for sounding like Bono. That’s typical Adams: Though he often comes across as self-important and pretentious, he’s equally self-deprecating and humble, which prevents his ego from raging out of control.
Adams ended with an encore of his current single, “So Alive,” which sounded even more like U2 live than it does on record. And it appeared that he’s learned a few tricks from Bono — without his guitar he was free to roam the stage, and he worked it, swinging his microphone over his head like a lasso, singing directly to a group of screaming women, and guzzling a glass of wine, toasting the crowd, holding the bottle in the air and nonchalantly tossing the empty goblet on the ground, where it shattered.
Even when a surly concertgoer shouted out the names of Bryan Adams songs, an act that used to infuriate Adams, the singer brushed the heckler off with a condescending, “I don’t have time for you right now.” Clearly there wasn’t time for anything but rock and roll.
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