Ryan Adams has overcome a lot in the past few years since falling off the stage, getting sober, releasing a barrage of post-fall solo and group records with his outfit The Cardinals in the late 00s, and then taking a hiatus to help himself deal with Ménière’s Diease before returning full-force with “Ashes & Fire”, his best record in ages and ages, which includes everything from breezy foot-stomping folk/pop (“Chains of Love”, “Ashes & Fire”) to psychedelic-influenced ballads (“Star Signs”, “Invisible Riverside”). Only a few weeks ago, Adams gave his die-hard fans (and unfortunately, a few eBay sellers out for a quick buck from said-fans) a real treat with the release of a 15-LP box set entitled “Live After Deaf”. The set includes live acoustic tracks from a myriad of shows Adams did in Europe in the middle of last year.
Anyone who reads my blog or knows me in person even a little bit is fully aware of what a huge Ryan Adams fan I am and so of course, I had to get my hands on one of these sets. Luckily, the Music Gods were shining down on me and I did end up being one of the fortunate few who were able to snap up this big huge musical gift. It’s beautifully packaged and produced and includes 15 high-quality vinyl records (but not too high quality so the sound is still warm, loose and flexible as LPs should be), each in its own separate numbered sleeve. The material on the records is priceless in a way that extends beyond even just the sheer quality of the tracks themselves.
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, another one of my musical heroes, once said, “Music seems to have an ability, beyond any other art forms in my opinion, to stir up emotional memories.” I think it’s for this reason that people enjoy Greatest Hits records and revisiting old albums they listened to when they were teenagers. They take you back. They take you back to times when songs played at parties, at sleepovers, on the radio, on Much Music back when Much Music still played videos. All of those memories recall a simple time when we were just kids and we were discovering ourselves and were un-tainted by heartbreaks, sex, real life, jobs, money and family commitments.
“Live After Deaf” functions as a sort of career retrospective for Adams. On “Live”, we hear Adams playing songs from his most recent release, all the way back to the best songs from his Whiskeytown days including the indelibly beautiful “Sixteen Days”. He even throws in a few favourite unofficial releases like “Halloween” and the aforementioned “Star Signs”. This set to me, is Adams at his best; he is clean and coherent, funny and charming, vulnerable, and has never sounded better. He is happy – his happiness and joy in revisiting these songs is completely infections and unpretentious, and demonstrates to me an artist who has confronted his demons. He seems proud and overjoyed to have the opportunity to stand on a stage alone accompanied only by a piano and a few acoustic guitars and share these songs – among the best and brightest tracks in his entire repertoire, with the people who have seen him through all the strife.
We have a few delightfully comedic moments included in the set including one of his infamous improvised songs (“Goodnight Bob”) and some pre-song chit-chat (such as when he breaks into a thrashing screamo interlude before continuing as normal, to play “Winding Wheel”). It’s moments like these that take the listener suddenly out of the bleak heartbreaking world of Adams’ early to mid twenties and conversely, the immensely artistic yet effortless tracks released in the last couple of years. They remind us what a clever, well-rounded and entertaining showman he can be when he is on his game, focused and enjoying the work he’s putting out.
Adams’ fans are no stranger to live recordings. An incredibly large and extensive collection of bootlegs exists online for those willing to search them out. I’ve heard many myself. The thing about these performances is, in spite of giving just as broad (if not broader) a glimpse into Adams’ long career, many of the performances lack a certain quality. Either the tinny sound of someone’s prerecorded tapes, or Adams’ drunk, high disorderly conduct make many of these old performances seem stoic, lacking in feeling, and lacking in passion. While it’s been sad that great art is born from suffering and/or madness, a theory that I tend to prescribe to, it is apparent when listening to “Live After Deaf” that great performances are born from passion, liveliness, happiness, and spiritual well-being.
My second thought, after immediately being transported back to a time and place when I was young and naïve and falling in love with the idea of falling in love to songs like these was, “Goddamn, Ryan Adams is a great live performer”. His husky falsetto all the way down to his gruff lower and softer tone, indicate a range of deep feeling. His guitar, mouth harp and piano sound crisp, sparse and meandering. Some of these songs are more than a decade old and if you didn’t know that, you would think this was the sound of a a seasoned performer playing brand new songs he wrote in his bedroom just a few weeks prior. Only a great performer can resurrect old feelings and make them sound as harsh and new as they did when the songs were written. I remember back to Ryan Adams’ apparently disastrous drug-induced set at the Edmonton Folk Festival in 2005 and it’s amazing to see how far along Adams is today. He’s not the guy who climbs up speakers, falls into a black abyss or yells at fans who yell out, “PLAY ‘SUMMER OF 69!”
Ever since 2004, I have been simply in love with Ryan Adams’ music. I discovered him accidentally when looking for something completely different and I’ve been hopelessly in love ever since. This set of tracks takes me back to any moment when I’ve played these songs either to comfort myself, celebrate, or simply to enjoy them. They are all of my university years, all of my lone car trips where I find myself singing along at the top of my lungs where no one can (hopefully) hear me, and they’re all of my lost summer evenings watching my city’s beautiful, long lazy sunsets. In short, these songs are as much a part of my life as anything.