Monday, December 8, 2003

Say what you will about Ryan Adams being a classic rock poser. At the 9:30 Club Sunday night, new rock’s enfant terrible showed he had learned another trick from old rock’s legends: showmanship.

Maybe it was those warm-up gigs for the Rolling Stones early this year, but Mr. Adams was rivetingly erratic Sunday, keeping a sold-out audience on its toes for more than two hours.

“Didn’t he just play that?” … “Is he playing it again?” Yes, he’s playing it again. And a third time for charm. Mr. Adams and Co., five dudes who must have the patience of Job, finished “Wish You Were Here” (his tune, not the Pink Floyd classic) without incident.

On this current tour in support of Mr. Adams’ latest album, “Rock N Roll,” the singer-songwriter has occasionally played jokey “speed metal” renditions of songs immediately after playing the straight version.

“Wish You Were Here” was the same every time.

Mr. Adams had other antics up his sleeve: There were false starts; unenthusiastic fans plucked from the floor and offered a seat onstage and a bottle of water; tangential digressions between songs that screamed alcohol buzz.

For “Do Miss America,” he huddled his band mates for a barbershop vamp, turning the rocker into a singsongy countrified head-bobber.

Those were the tamer stunts.

There are two small balcony perches that look down on the 9:30 Club stage. Mr. Adams found his way into both of them and sang Juliet-style to us 900-odd Romeos.

There are two ways out of those perches: through the door and over the wrought-iron railing. He tried both exits. The second time, he John Wilkes Booth-ed his way to the top of a speaker and back down to the stage, having learned from his botched first attempt at balcony theatrics.

During “Shadowlands,” a song off the first “Love Is Hell” EP (the second comes out today), Mr. Adams somehow managed to lock himself out of the backstage passageway. He sat, stranded, smoking, eyeing his band, which at that point had taken on a new guitar player: one of the roadies.

This all may sound like a bit of circus, but Sunday’s show was more tightly disciplined than it looked. Two shows for the price of one, actually.

With his band, Mr. Adams flogged all of “Rock N Roll” save for its title track. (Maybe it got bumped from the set list by one of the bonus “Wish Your Were Heres.”)

The encore set was the real treat. Mr. Adams returned to the stage with an acoustic guitar this time and played nearly a full set’s worth of solo numbers — stunners all.

There was the better-than-it-should-be cover of Oasis’ “Wonderwall”; “Bartering Lines” from his “Heartbreaker” debut”; and “Jacksonville Skyline,” a blast from his Whiskeytown past.

When the lights came up, bodies started pouring toward the door and then pivoting back into the club for yet one more encore, his current single, “So Alive.” Just as surprised as the audience, the 9:30 crew struggled to reactivate the lighting.

Undaunted and shrouded in near-complete darkness, Mr. Adams waded into the audience. Hoisted on shoulders, singing the U2-esque epic, he was visible only in silhouette.

It was one of the most arresting images I have ever seen at a rock concert.

Sunday’s marathon gig came roughly a year after Mr. Adams last played the 9:30 Club. Last year, he was by himself; much of the audience sat in folding chairs. It was a quietly folky evening.

What has changed since then? Not much, on the surface. Mr. Adams scored no hit singles. Critical notices of “Rock N Roll” were mostly positive, but then, so were reviews of Mr. Adams’ previous albums.

Mr. Adams’ celebrity has been sustained almost solely by the rock press and word-of-mouth raving. With each new album and tour, there are skeptics who say the 29-year-old has yet to pen a real masterpiece.

The debate over Ryan Adams the composer wasn’t settled Sunday night and may never be, but there can be no doubt now about another character: Ryan Adams the performer.

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