I'd bet money that Ryan Adams was on Ritalin as a kid. And I say this not only because he has that kind of manic genius about him that so many hyper kids have, but because for the entirety of last night's show, he was grabbing spare attention any way he could -- even though he was already the focal point. Adams turned the packed-out Fox Theater into an impromptu comedy show, interspersing classic Cardinals songs with rambling jokes and improved blues riffs. And he wasn't the only one. Father John Misty played his show for laughs too, throwing in deadpan one-liners in the middle of his songs, at one point announcing, "This one's a real panty-dropper."
Maybe opener Jeremy Messersmith didn't get the memo about the improv theme, because his show was widely devoid of any chatty interlude. He admitted as much, saying "I'm not too good at the whole stage banter thing so how about just the regular 'How you folks doin' tonight? Rock and Roll!'" Messersmith played a clipped set that opened with his big hit to this point, Tourniquet, arguably his most solid of the night. It's easy to see the potential star power in the driving rhythms and huge sound. In fact, most of the set sounded like sad, pang-ing road trip music. If you've ever left behind everything you loved and driven across the dusty plains to freedom and the great unknown, then Jeremy Messersmith is so your jam.
Father John Misty took the stage looking like a kindly old hobo, complete with floppy hat and a loose-fitting suit. Fans familiar with his usual brand of heartfelt dream-folk were probably surprised by his presentation as a folksy troubadour dispensing yuks to the crowd. Most everyone didn't really know what to think, especially since the first words out of his mouth - something about how bad radio music is - were seemingly an insult to the radio-sponsored show.
He seemed to win the crowd over, though. The folks next to me were in hysterics over lyrics that I had always thought of as sad. Maybe it was his presentation. He had the air of someone who wants to be serious but is too self-conscious to be taken seriously, so they make constant jokes. A couple songs in, he tore the giant hat off his head and threw it down. "That's a goofy-ass hat...my hair is in that Eddie Vedder stage though. And with my voice, I don't want to be an exact doppelganger of that guy. Much as I care about social issues and all."
Misty sounded nothing like the pickle-in-mouth-singing King of Grunge, for what it's worth. Stripped-down versions of "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" and "Nancy" allowed Father John Misty's voice and his deep, broody lyricism to shine. But it's almost a shame because these songs are so big and dreamy in the studio versions that it's hard not to feel like something is missing.
When I first heard Ryan Adams about thirteen years ago, I was too deep in the throes of my anarcho-feminist punk phase to admit that I liked alt-county. But really, I would have been in good company. Adams is a North Carolina boy who famously proclaimed in song, "I started this damn country band cause punk rock was too hard to sing." Punk rock and metal remain close to Adams' heart, and it's always a jarring experience hearing his brand of country come out of a dude wearing a Slayer t-shirt. He seems to be embracing it more these days: all his tour shirts were designed to look like vintage Iron Maiden swag, and he just recently released a limited edition 7" full of classic punk rock.
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At last night's show, Adams was frankly hilarious, and it was pretty exciting to watch him riff on the audience and engage with his bandmates. For a dude with a recent history of being a little unpredictable, he seemed completely in his element. About halfway into the set, he introduced all of his bandmates like a muppet blues man, at one point chanting the bass player's name, Charlie, like a demented monster from a B horror flick.
He played a 12 song set that rambled through the best of his solo and Cardinals career, ambling into the jamminess of Cold Roses most for a good chunk of the set. But the treat for fans was that 3 or 4 times, he invented entire songs in the interims. His ability to alternate between the class clown and the virtuosic folk singer was really incredible. Toward the end of the night, the quips became too frequent to write down and I stopped trying. But he gave a heckler a good 5 minutes when he invented a song about Mississippi. "Come to Mississippi!" she yelled. "Now? I'm kind of busy right now, but maybe in an hour." He then got the whole band on board with a blues song about how "all the locals in Mississippi are so damn vocal."
The set may have been too short for the super fans in the crowd -- before the show, he tweeted that he would only play an hour, and he ended up leaving the stage after about an hour and a half. But it was solid throughout, with nods to the old tunes ("Sweet Carolina," which he joked was actually a Warrant song), and a few new ones from his upcoming record. Before launching into his closing tune of "Magnolia Mountain," he said his time limit was up. "And if you know anything about me, I'm not a rule breaker. Never have been."