It's not that he's bigger or better than ever; in fact, if anything, you could say he's dialed down the showmanship, the rich -- if occasionally extraneous -- band accompaniment. Instead, Adams is back to basics: a half-bare stage with one man, a microphone and a guitar at the middle of it, bathed in a soft, unwavering orange spotlight.
And yet we sense neither the empty space, nor the "smallness" of the production. Adam's spare, minimalist set-up dissolves the boundary between artist and audience, transforming a one-night musical spectacle into an intimate gathering among friends. That's not to say that his performances have taken on the air of a roughly-hewn coffee-shop gig; that formality and old reverence of Adams as a legendary singer/songwriter follows him around wherever he goes, for better or worse. But we treasure the small silences -- moments where we can hear the skim of a pick against string, when Adams leans into the microphone, takes a breath and begins to sing -- over any grand instrumentation he could possibly deliver. Space exists, and Adams fills it entirely with his aching vocals and larger-than-life presence, leaving nothing more to be desired.
That said, Baltimore's intimate set list wasn't one for Adams beginners -- or, simply put, for those unacquainted with Adams' pre-Cardinals work, both as a solo artist and a member of Whiskeytown, an old-school Americana outfit. While new material from his most recent release, Ashes & Fire, was received enthusiastically, classics like "My Winding Wheel," "The Rescue Blues," "Firecracker" and "Come Pick Me Up" earned the most whoops from long-time fans at the Lyric.
Which isn't to give Ashes & Fire short shrift. Critics praised Adams's thirteenth studio album from the get-go, with the Guardian's Michael Hann writing that Ashes & Fire "burns with purpose" and "brings [Adams's] talent sharply back into focus." The L.A. Times' "Pop & Hiss" gave it four out of four stars, writing that "Ashes & Fire recalls the best of “Heartbreaker,” except inverted, matured. Instead of strumming acoustically about the shreds of a relationship, [Adams] sings softly and nostalgically about distant youth and a love-filled future: its hopefulness, its vulnerability."
In fact, Adams's live rendition of "Dirty Rain" -- arguably his best song from the album -- filled the venue with loud applause, as did Ashes & Fire's title track, easing audience members into the beginning of his set. But for a long-time Ryan Adams fanatic like myself, the living heart of the concert was in the refashioning of old pieces, like Adams' Heartbreaker-era opener, "Oh My Sweet Carolina," a stripped-down "Dear Chicago," and "New York, New York" on piano.
But out of Adams's two-hour set, I couldn't pick just one gem. Whiskeytown's "Houses on the Hill," "Avenues," "Jacksonville Skyline" and "16 Days" were all concert stand-outs in their own right, delivered with just the right proportion of country twang and emotional verve. And we'd be remiss in leaving Jessica Lea Mayfield -- Adams's opening act -- unmentioned. The waif-like, 22-year old singer shocked and awed, delivering a succession of haunting melodies, including her understated single "Kiss Me Again" that brought her audience to their feet at the end of her act.
Sure, we miss the Cardinals crew -- Neal Casal, Jon Graboff, Brad Pemberton and especially the late, great bassist Chris "Spacewolf" Feinstein -- but after a five-year run, we're more than thrilled to see Adams's return to his down-home, acoustic roots.