The Church of
Ryan Adams

If concerts are church services for musicians, the message of the sermon on October 20th was: an engaging performance, not fancy effects, is all it takes to deliver a great concert.

We congregated in the former chapel of downtown Eugene’s First Baptist Church, now Jaqua Concert Hall at The Shedd Institute. The creme-colored, semi-ornate balcony wrapped around three quarters of the auditorium, and we looked down upon rows of pews. The stage backdrop was tall and grandiose, aching for a pipe organ to fill its vastness. An amplified voice reminded us to politely power down our phones, signing off with an irksome “God bless,” and the lights dimmed.

We were a full house anticipating a sermon by an unintentional preacher.

Only a Turkish rug, a chair, a lone acoustic guitar, an upright piano, and a couple of microphones decorated the stage. I hate to say that seeing such a stripped down setup made me worry about my attention span. No other musicians to see or hear, no special lighting effects, and no real set elements to relieve my eyes from watching the same thing for who-knows-how-long would make me fidgety if the musician alone couldn’t keep my attention.

Respecting fans cheered almost uncomfortably loud for the formal setting as the unassuming Ryan Adams, shaggy hair shielding his eyes and wearing a red-and-black-striped sweater over a rock-and-roll t-shirt and jeans, took his seat on stage. When the applause waned, Adams, aware of his notoriety for writing brooding folk ballads, quipped, “Alright, let’s rock. Very slowly…in a corner.”

He immediately established himself as a capable one-man ensemble, his voice slow-dancing skillfully in step with the gentlemanly country guitar for “Oh My Sweet Carolina” from his lauded 2000 album, Heartbreaker.

Oh my sweet Carolina,
What compels me to go?
Oh my sweet disposition,
May you one day carry me home

Somber harmonica sympathized with the guitar like a cowboy removing his hat and placing it over his barreled chest. Muscles in my body relaxed, and I slithered into the music. At the end of the song, a drunken audience member yelled, “We love you!” and Adams lightened the mood by saying, “That’s my dad.”

He followed with the title track from his latest album, Ashes & Fire, and then moved on to “If I Am a Stranger” from Cold Roses. I admired his ability to command the acoustic guitar. When he soloed, the accompaniment didn’t drop but remained subtly underneath. He managed to carry himself musically the way a rhythm guitarist would.

The last note rang out, the audience clapped, and a woman in the back row sneezed.

Adams quickly responded. “Bless you.” The audience giggled.

Encouraged, Adams grinned and continued, “Somebody’s allergic to sad songs out there. If that’s true, put on a hazmat suit! I’m fresh out of beach music.”

The entire night, Adams swung effortlessly between bearing his soul through song to bantering anecdotes worthy of a comedy contract. In the middle of “The End,” a bittersweet song about his hometown of Jacksonville, he improvised lyrics about a waitress who turned out to be a robot from the past warning him not to write this song. A verbal, Hollywood-sci-fi action scene ensued, becoming more and more absurd over the guitar strumming. When the spontaneous tangent was over, he finished the song as written, and the audience cheered. We were all so riled up afterward that he said he needed to take a moment to focus, and he covered his face with his hand.

There was silence as we waited for him to regroup, 800 sets of eyes on one man on a stage. Still covering his eyes, he rambled something like, “I’m imagining a dog with tennis shoes on……..cigarette smoke smoking itself……a box of cereal eating a bowl of cereal…”

He was relentless. The audience gasped for air between fits of laughter. But, no matter how derailed from the music we got, he always led us back on track, delivering a generous and sincere twenty-three-song adventure through the dysfunctionally beautiful Ryan Adams world.

Set list
Oh My Sweet Carolina
Ashes & Fire
If I Am a Stranger
Dirty Rain
Sweet Lil Gal (23rd/1st)
My Winding Wheel
Lucky Now
Invisible Riverside
Everybody Knows
New York, New York
Withering Heights
Let It Ride
Strawberry Wine
Please Do Not Let Me Go
Crossed Out Name
The End
Dancing With Women at Bar (Whiskeytown)
Chains of Love
My Blue Manhattan
Sylvia Plath

Ryan Adams doesn’t have a band, choreographed lighting effects or dramatic set pieces to capture an audience’s attention. He doesn’t even have any radio hits. He just knows better than most how to tell honest, heart-wrenching stories with guitar strings, dissonant piano chords, painstaking poetry, and a warm, whiskey voice sliding in and out of Neil Young-esque, emotionally-charged imperfections. He also has the wisdom to provide comic relief after leading you into the anxiety-ridden rabbit hole of his neurosis.

He was never boring. His performance was passionate, delicate, and mesmerizing, like the crackling, dancing flames of a campfire.

He convinced the audience to fake the encore routine while he created a nest at the back of the stage with his leather jacket, laid down and took a 30-second nap. He even told us he planned to play “Come Pick Me Up,” and we still stayed despite the ruined surprise. We gave him an enthusiastic, lengthy standing ovation; then, he dusted himself off and returned to his chair to play “Cry on Demand,” “Wasted Years” (an Iron Maiden cover), and “Come Pick Me Up.”

I didn’t need to know all of the songs to enjoy the show, and it was a long concert to endure without much familiarity. Through his performance, Adams, in the place of the preacher on the former chapel’s altar, graced us with a sermon about how to deliver a great concert. It was like church for aspiring musicians and another dose of religion for his loyal followers.

Adams heads to Europe next and then finishes his sold out tour in the U.S. in December. If you don’t have a passport, I’d definitely try to catch him the next time.

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