It was around four years ago — during his recovery from a badly broken wrist, suffered thanks to a fall from a Liverpool stage — that Ryan Adams began laying the template for the current era of his career. Doctors had to sever muscles around the break in order for the wrist to heal; in the process of rehabbing it, Adams had to relearn how to play the guitar. As he explained to Harp Magazine at the time, the injury, the rehab, and an appreciation for the Grateful Dead and latter day Bob Dylan coagulated in his mind, and he realized he wanted to be a part of a unit, a looser, more expansive musical project. He formed the Cardinals. In 2005, he recorded two excellent albums – Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights – with the band, and one excellent album – 29 – without them.
When Adams first announced the three-albums in one year release schedule, it was chalked up – as almost everything he did was at the time – to his indulgent, confused personality. Fans and critics alike had more or less given up on the possibility that Adams would realize the potential he had brilliantly demonstrated on his solo debut, Heartbreaker, and chose instead to enjoy his ridiculous public persona. His prolific recording pace, his temper, the wild disparity of his catalog, and the girls he dated all eclipsed his output. He became fodder for easy punchlines.
The 2005 triptych changed that. Not one of the albums was the masterpiece once hoped for, but taken together they were a game-changer: they restructured the ceiling of expectation. Then came last year’s Easy Tiger, and this year’s Cardinology, two extremely solid albums released with no drama or grandiosity. It wasn’t a redemption moment, but a redemption climb; at some point between now and the loose old days, Adams has taken back control of his persona and the expectations placed upon him.
His Halloween show at the Apollo demonstrated what he’s chosen to do with his control — Ryan Adams has, prematurely, entered the latter stage of his career. He has cultivated a loyal base oblivious to radio spins or magazine appearances, obsessed with a sprawling back catalog, and so deeply appreciative of his presence that they’re perfectly happy watching him do his thing as if oblivious to a paying audience.
Friday night, Adams skipped the costuming for skinny jeans and a skinny tie, but more telling as to his mindset was his placement on the stage: he was decidedly amongst his band, never strutting to the center-front but enjoying his space on the left, where he would switch off between his guitar and the keyboard. The reverent crowed was docile, standing intermittently, but that was the correct response to the mood. All in all, it felt throughout like a grown up affair: an intermission, no encore and, other than “Shakedown on 9th Street,” which came late in the second set, not much rock-n’-roll action. Other than a muttered, “You alright, Apollo?” Adams did not interact with the crowd at all, and the crowd was just as whilling to whoop it up for guitarist Neal Casal’s solos or turns on lead vocals. The Cardinals seemed very content, running through mostly Cardinology and Easy Tiger, to be appreciated from afar, as a professional, exacting unit, as if on display in a museum.
And that’s exactly how Ryan Adams wants it. After an early career laden with unfair expectations and overshadowed by his personal inclinations, he’s settled into an impressive, fertile groove. He’s replicating, on a smaller scale, the relationship erstwhile titans Neil Young and Dylan have with their audiences. Even before it was necessary, he’s taught himself how to grow old.