Monday, November 22, 2004

In the Presence of Genius

I had always had my doubts about Ryan Adams. Not about his genius, which is beyond question. He is an amazing songwriter, phenomenal singer, talented musician...all the ingredients are there. It's just that I had never seen or heard them come together all at once, either on stage or on disc. I began to wonder if I would ever have that experience, or whether I would just continue to buy the CDs and go to the shows, always waiting and hoping for that genius and never being blessed with its presence.

Well that all changed this weekend. I saw two shows that will live in my memory as being two of the most consistently brilliant performances I have ever seen by anyone. (And I have seen some performances in my day...) He was pulled together, focused, transcendent. He played two venues that could not have been more different--a dive bar in Cincinnati and the Mother Church of Country Music--and filled them both with magic. And this was not under normal circumstances--it was under the pressure of people in the audience hurling drunken comments, taunting him, wanting him to fail, expecting him to fall apart. Hardcore fans such as myself were holding our collective breath hoping nothing would break the spell, and nothing did. Not even at the Ryman, where one of his infamous meltdowns had occurred.

How does one explain the significance of the Ryman Auditorium in the world of music? To say that it is the Mother Church of Country Music is understatement. It is the place where Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, the Carter Family and other legends too numerous to count became stars. The place where you can walk into the dressing rooms and sit where Tammy Wynette did her hair. The place where you can actually stand in the spot where Hank friggin' Williams stood and look out into the pews (yes, the seating IS in pews), see the light filter in through stained glass windows, be in the presence of the gods not just of country music but of AMERICAN music. So there is significant pressure when musicians step on that stage, and they know it. (Well, most of them do.)

And Adams filled it with his own special light. His voice was at times otherworldly--there was a moment during “I See Monsters” when it was so quiet it seemed Hank himself could hear. The room was completely dark except for the string of white lights on Ryan’s mike stand, and there, silhouetted against the darkened stage, he truly had the voice of an angel. He sang with such quiet vulnerability, with such brave beauty—it was as though he were literally opening his body up and pulling out his heart, his guts, his soul right there on that Nashville stage.

How does one end such a performance? Adams chose to close the evening on acoustic guitar, again alone at the mike. Standing stage center in the dark, he gave a brief monologue on the why it is that musicians like himself find it hard to perform where the ghosts of Patsy and Jimmie stand next to you while you play. And then he concluded as any true fan of American music would: as he had throughout this tour, he performed the Man in Black’s “I Still Miss Someone,” this time dedicating it simply “to Johnny and June.” It was the perfect ending to a perfect night of music at the Ryman. Hank would have approved.

To paraphrase a famous quotation on another subject, it is difficult to put this kind of talent into words, but you know it when you hear/see/feel it. On Saturday November 20, 2004, I was truly in the presence of genius.

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