The cliche is that ‘live albums’ are a way of fulfilling record contract obligations. But what if you had your own label and your only contract obligations you needed to fulfill were simply based on your own artistic ambitions? Chances are, you’d probably release something incredibly beautiful. You’d produce the heck out of one of your best live shows probably, and package it in such a way that it’s appealing to touch, smell even, in a gorgeous glossy box with a gatefold cover featuring stunning photographs of you and the set list and the stage. That’s what Ryan Adams has accomplished here, releasing yet another live box set on his own label, Pax-Am Records.
A few of the artists I love have released live recordings or live EPs and sometimes I find they somehow fail to capture what it feels like to see that artist in concert (for example, a good but not great live album is Wilco’s Kicking Television: Live in Chicago). Even Ryan Adams’ previous live box set, Live After Deaf was an absolutely lovely foray into a series of European solo acoustic shows but was not a glittering face-melt of live tracks that demanded repeated listenings as much as I would have hoped. What I love about Live at Carnegie Hall is, it does everything a live Ryan Adams show(s) should do: it made me laugh – a LOT; it shed new light on old tunes; it provided me with a diverse set list including some deep cuts and some big hits; it is crisp and clear yet warm and friendly in its sound production (partially due to minimal production but amped-up recording quality, and partially probably, due to the stunning acoustics of the legendary venue itself). Lastly, it reminded me of just how much I love this artist and it reminded me just how much an artist’s body of work has been there to comfort you, console you, make you feel good and loved and accepted and understood. When you listen to a favourite artist live, not only are you absorbing their energy (and the energy of people around you) but you are going to a kind of sermon, that is preaching the kind of solace and sanctuary you listened to countless times on your headphones, in your apartment, in your car. This collection of songs, spanning two nights, does all of this and evokes all of these feelings. I don’t know how it does that, but it does and it’s a real heart-filled, fulfilling treat to listen to.
Of particular note on the first concert are: the subtle and sprawling This is Where We Meet in My Mind (“this song is long, so if you need to go use the bathroom…” Adams warns before beginning), a solo acoustic version of Nobody Girl, a song Adams hasn’t played live in ages but with new low-key little twists and turns, and a slowed-down, virtually-transformed version of the 1984 punk rock Rats in the Wall.
On the second show records, we have a sparse version of Dirty Rain, one of my favourite later-day Adams tunes, and a very different re-working of the 80s alt-rock inspired Gimme Something Good. When these songs go acoustic, new feelings and subtleties are revealed.
I like how throughout the jams on the first set, Adams narrates, jokingly for the most part, what was going through his head when crafting some of these tunes. He’s rarely serious when he tells these stories and makes these bizarre Star Wars analogies to life events and so on. It makes for a very entertaining, well-rounded show where there is a schizophrenic mix of laugh-out-loud joke commentary and emotionally resonant, openhearted, straight-up playing. Adams is an amazing live performer (perhaps now, more than ever) due to his ability to take us within a few minutes or seconds, from one emotional place to the other, seamlessly, so we listen to beautiful alt-country acoustic tunes we deeply cherish, while having a ton of fun. Adams laughs with us, rarely at us, and it’s a blast. No two Ryan Adams shows are exactly the same, even if the set lists are similar. You’ll get improvised songs, raps, oddball stage banter and funny stories about fans tweeting him their thesis about Pink Floyd’s The Wall. What this indicates is how far he’s come since that fateful day when he allegedly kicked a fan out for requesting Summer of ’69 back in 2002. In fact, as recent as last night, Adams made peace with his connection with the Canadian pop-rocker and took back his live performance prowess by owning the requested song that gave him his ‘petulant asshole’ reputation as a live performer.
Live at Carnegie Hall is the perfect live album because it gives us everything we’d either expect, or have seen from a recent Ryan Adams live show. We get many shades of charming from a performer who is among the most elite songwriters of his era, and we get songs we know well and songs we don’t know as well but have become a part of fan lexicon due to their diversity of influences and the memorable moments they create. As of today’s date, I have seen Ryan Adams live five times – with his new band the Shining Twice, with the Cardinals twice, and solo acoustic once . Each show provided me with something a little different and gave me a little more insight and appreciation into an artist I’ve loved for the last eleven years. Most of those sides of Ryan are depicted on this collection. It’s wonderful.