Concert review: Ryan Adams and Jason Isbell fill the Peabody Opera House with solo songcraft, Tuesday, January 31
The newly-renovated and recently-reopened venue is beautiful, with great acoustics that rival even the “acoustically perfect” Sheldon Concert Hall. The interior is spacious and ornate, with a large seal of St. Louis prominently displayed over the stage. This was my first visit to the Opera House since it reopened last year, and it was a pleasure; the venue was ideally suited to Adams’ solo acoustic performance.
Adams took the stage a bit late, with an intimate set up affording him a chair, two guitars in the red, white and blue hues he favors, and a small upright piano. His attitude was that of a guy just hanging out in his living room, playing a few songs for a group of close friends, rather than that of a man playing to a near capacity crowd in an intimate, early 20th century theatre.
He opened with his standard show opener, “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” from his classic album, “Heartbreaker.” What song he would do next on this (or any) night was anybody’s guess. Although shows are similar from night to night, his set list is largely improvised. A mercurial performer, he relies on notebooks and his own whims for inspiration. He likes to mix it up, improvising on songs as well as the set list, and, as he says, making it up as he goes along. It’s not all as off the cuff as he likes to make it seem, however. I recently saw his extended performance from the Ed Sullivan Theatre online on “Live on Letterman.” There he performed several of the same songs, and included some of the same banter. So, it definitely takes work to make it all seem as effortless and spontaneous as Adams does.
He was perfectly at home in this environment though, showcasing his songs, and sharing some amusing anecdotes and jokes between tunes. The crowd was hushed, and even occasionally shushed each other, as Ryan worked through a set emphasizing his latest release, “Ashes & Fire.” Every note and nuance of the performance could be heard, although the drawback to those wonderful acoustics is that every noise from the audience could be heard as well. Adams was both funny and engaging as he moved about the stage, deciding what to do next. He began seated, center stage, guitar in hand, occasionally adding harmonica and consulting his notebook for inspiration. He then moved to the piano to perform a few numbers; eventually he moved to another mike, set up on the other side of the stage, to perform standing. “Nothing’s gonna change,” he said as he moved over to the other microphone. “I’m just gonna stand — so large portions of my ass won’t fall asleep.”
Everyone goes to a show hoping to hear their favorite songs. And anyone who knows anything about Adams knows that he is an extremely prolific. He has a huge catalog, so the chances of hearing one’s own personal favorites may be small. Audience members occasionally shouted out requests, which Adams basically ignored. For me, however, the highlights were “Lucky Now” and “Chains of Love” from the new record, and one of my all time favorites, “Firecracker” from “Gold.” He also performed “The Rescue Blues” from the same album, and a reworked version of “New York, New York” on piano. It was quiet and engaging, but I think I still prefer the frenetic acoustic guitar version of the original recording. He is also known for his eclectic choice of covers, and included a version of the Oasis hit, “Wonderwall.”
Jason Isbell, formerly of Drive-By Truckers, opened the show. His short set of homespun acoustic folk rock was well received, and it was obvious that many in the crowd were as interested in hearing him as Adams. “I should hate Jason,” Adams remarked later. “His songs are so good.” He even joked that Isbell’s songs could kick his own songs’ asses in a barfight.
Isbell’s set differed little from his recent appearance with John Prine at the Touhill Performing Arts Center in December, but he seemed much more relaxed this time around. Isbell also commented on the acoustics of the venue before launching into a beautiful version of “Alabama Pines.”
Of course, Isbell came back out on stage to join Adams for the last song of the encore. After Adams, and the audience, sang “Happy Birthday” to Jason (his birthday is February 1) they closed the show together with the Isbell-penned, Drive-By Truckers song “Danko/Manuel” from the album “The Dirty South.” They sounded great together, leaving me thinking they could have shared a few more tunes.
If shows like this are what we can continue to expect at the Peabody, then St. Louis is lucky indeed to have this venue open once again.