Ryan Adams Charms Yet Another Loutish Houston Crowd

Ryan Adams, still the best hair in rock and roll.
Ryan Adams, still the best hair in rock and roll.
Photos by Violeta Alvarez

Ryan Adams Bayou Music Center December 3, 2014

The story of Ryan Adams' performance at Bayou Music Center Wednesday night can be boiled down to one song called "Amstar." Born of something a fan shouted at the stage, the word was deemed by Adams to be the name of an especially disagreeable intergalactic supervillain with an appetite for shitty weed and other mood-altering ingestibles, so the 40-year-old singer and his four-piece band worked up an impromptu Pink Floyd-style space-rock jam about him.

This "Amstar" turned out to be a pretty decent tune, too; maybe it will even end up on an album sometime. It came toward the end of Adams' two-hour set, and made a fine example of not only his band's musical interplay but the way they were able to prevent the sometimes-unruly audience (more on them later) from seizing the upper hand.

Adams is easily one of the of the most talented and idiosyncratic popular musicians now hovering around the late-thirties/early-forties mark. Wednesday night his stage was adorned with four oversized Fender amps (the kind you can see on the cover of Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps), upon one of which perched a some sort of cat doll; a life-size Bengal tiger that was either stuffed or synthetic; and the classic standup arcade video games Asteroids and Berserk.

L-R: Amplifiers, arcade game, musicians.
L-R: Amplifiers, arcade game, musicians.

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Although he has never reached what you might call true mainstream popularity, Adams has produced more than a dozen albums marked by better-than-average songwriting and moments of true brilliance, and done so at a pretty steady clip since his '90s days fronting alt-country holy terrors Whiskeytown. That's plenty to earn enough fans to fill a mid-size hall like Bayou Music Center, because if you're of a certain disposition, when the chance comes around to hear a song as wistfully romantic as "When the Stars Go Blue" or "La Cienega Just Smiled" (just to name two), you're a fool not to take it.

But Adams and his bandmates are also such gifted players they're fun to listen to regardless of the lyrical context, and a two-hour performance is like a guided tour of an artisan's workshop. On a day that we lost former Small Faces/Rolling Stones keyboardist Ian McLagan, it was especially heart-warming to hear such excellent B-3 playing all night, as on "Dirty Rain" and the country-ish "A Kiss Before I Go." Overall there were plenty of prime opportunities Wednesday to close your eyes and soak in the beautiful music, or open them and enjoy the pastel-pink and purple backdrop of tiny stars.

Unfortunately, the show was also never able to work up much in the way of true momentum. The only song of the entire set that could safely be said to "rock" was "Am I Safe," about three-quarters of the way in. That wasn't what Adams was really going for here, true, but two full hours of almost exclusively slow and midtempo songs can't help but drag in at least a few spots, especially when the band has been known to take a lengthy instrumental solo passage or two. (Or three.) [Ed. Note: thanks Ryan.]

Plus, any artist who changes guitars on almost every song is sometimes going to create a few uncomfortable silences between them; and that's totally besides whatever was going on between Adams and the room's sound engineers.

Story continues on the next page.


Hello, kitty...
Hello, kitty...

And so that leads nicely into our "B" plot, as they say in the movies. Specifically, this scenario resembled a controlled experiment pitting a notoriously testy performer in front of one of our typically ill-mannered Bayou City audiences. The fun was compounded all the more because the crowd was expected to sit in their seats for two full hours; indeed, the action started after the first or second song with a shouting match at the back of the hall brought on by someone standing up.

That opened the door to a cavalcade of catcalls and other inconsiderate behavior that included a constant parade of people getting up and down from their seats, sometimes between songs but often not; something dropped on the floor near the stage that took several moments and several people to resolve; and an another episode down front that required at least a half-dozen visits from the BMC security staff. Also, the constant shouting between songs inevitably drew Adams' attention; this time after "New York, New York" when someone yelled out for Whiskeytown's "16 Days."

"I always wonder what time of the set list" this happens, he mused. "You know, when your shit starts creaking."

For his part, the singer was cheery all evening long, even loopy at times. As things were wrapping up, he graciously praised the "well-behaved" crowd, and seemed to mean it (?!). The delicate balance between artist and audience eventually got him off on a tangent about Danzig, which led to he and the band working up a simmering and ominous version of "Mother" right there on the spot. Then, during Adams' monologue about how the "last song" is never really the last song, somebody yelled "Go back to the Mucky Duck!", almost as if on cue. It might have been a joke, but it might not have.

Amazingly, the mood in the room never turned ugly, although it did get pretty weird at a few points. It's nonetheless worth pointing out that Adams has not performed in Houston since October 2008, a full U.S. Senate term. That could be a coincidence, if you believe in that sort of thing. But Adams is hardly a shrinking violet when it comes to touring, so knows how many times he might have been here between now and then if a goodly number of his many Houston fans only knew how to act right?

Personal Bias: Casual to medium fan. Loved "Oh My Sweet Carolina" and "Lucky Now," though.

The Crowd: Date night for the thirty/fortysomething set. Also "Yell things at Ryan Adams" night.

Overheard In the Crowd: "Come to Houston more often!" Ummm...

Random Notebook Dump: Couldn't help but wonder if Adams was going to wander over and start playing one of those arcade games during the especially long solos.


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