A few years back 2005, to be exact -- Ryan Adams brought his then-new band, the Cardinals, to the Town Ballroom for a highly anticipated show. At the time, Adams was the "it" boy, a critically lauded uber-auteur whose ability to compose and record new material by the truckload gave new heft to the term "prolific."
Though he crept in on the red carpet rolled out for the ascendency of "alt-country" -- something he helped push to the forefront as a member of Whiskeytown, and even more so with his solo debut, "Heartbreaker" -- Adams was preparing to leave such genre definitions behind. His audience, however, didn't seem to be ready for him to do so, and a backlash against Adams -- who'd begun releasing a few albums a year, unlike anyone else in his peer group -- was on the upswing.
The Town Ballroom gig found Adams and his band throwing caution (and audience expectations) to the wind. Adams on record was mostly about brevity and concision; he was essentially viewed as a hipster version of the singer-songwriter model, and as such, was expected to come out and play his songs, pretty much as they appeared on the albums those assembled had purchased, copied, digitally downloaded or just plain stolen.
This didn't happen. Instead, Adams appeared with a big Gibson semi-hollow-body guitar, a pair of nerd specs perched on his nose, his hair a shock of Mad Scientist-like bed-head, and proceeded to lead the band through a three-hour set of songs mostly from the then-new "Cold Roses" double-album. That was bad enough for some. But then Adams and Co. proceeded to do something that the hipster base clearly felt was akin to switching parties mid-term: They jammed.
Oh, the humanity! Improvising, stretching out songs, indulging one's musicianship and inviting the audience to come along for the trip -- this is what jam bands did, not what the new breed of alt-country snob had in mind at all. About halfway through the Town Ballroom show, I began to feel as if I'd stumbled into a time warp, where a crowd of Sex Pistols and Clash fans had stumbled inadvertently into a Grateful Dead concert.
It was, in a word, awesome!
It should be acknowledged that Adams did seem to be out of it that night. His between-song banter was obtuse at best, downright nutty at worst. Whenever the music stopped and he was left to confront the assembled audience, he looked like he was unsure of where he was and why he was there. Adams appeared to be ill at ease. Some among the crowd suggested to me that this was simply a result of him being quite wasted.
I'm not so sure. Musically, the band was in amazing form, blending country, anthemic '80s alternative, pop, rock and folk, producing a hybrid that echoed Neil Young, the Byrds, Gram Parsons, U2 and -- horror of horrors! -- the Grateful Dead. It seemed to me that Adams was going through a public birthing process and, naturally, this type of thing can be uncomfortable. It was clear, though, that Adams knew what he was doing.
Skeptics had their worst suspicions confirmed when, a short time after the Town Ballroom show, Adams turned up at the Bay Area Music Awards to jam with a whole bunch of hippies and jam-band types, among them, the Dead's Phil Lesh. Last year's "Easy Tiger" even pictured Adams and Lesh sharing a laugh in its liner notes. This was, again, awesome.
Having confounded expectations, gotten sober and managed to shed the strictures of his own skin, Adams now seems to be ready to make peace with his audience and his muse alike. On Wednesday, he began streaming his new album with the Cardinals, "Cardinology," on the "social music discovery service" iLike. Visitors to the site could listen to the whole album, for free, as many times as they desired, for 48 hours. If they chose to preorder the "Cardinology" album -- which gets its official release on Tuesday -- they were given a download of one of its songs, "Fix It," as well as a non-album bonus track. Adams is not the first artist to go this route by any means, but it's a model that suits his restless artistic nature like a pair of spandex biker shorts.
It's interesting to ponder what might've happened had this sort of technology been available to artists in the latter '60s. Maybe Bob Dylan would've given his "followers" the virtual middle finger by "going electric" via the Web. Would "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" or "Penny Lane" have been made available as bonus tracks for Beatles fans eager to get a preview of a new Beatles album? Maybe the Stones could've made "Satanic Majesties" a bonus companion album available only as a download, which might've made it a much more palatable exercise in self-indulgence (and drug consumption). Who knows? The good news is, the very technology that sunk the music business in recent years is now beginning to be employed as a tool of expression and communication by the artists themselves. That's cool.
None of this would matter much if "Cardinology" wasn't such a fantastic Ryan Adams album. It certainly numbers among his best. And hearing it, legally, a week before its official release reminds me of being a preteen who'd stay awake late on school nights to listen to the "album hour," when rock DJs would spin an entire new album before listeners could buy it.
It's all starting to make sense again.