Concert Review: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals in Boston, MA 2/21/09

Concert Review:
The Cardinals
Orpheum Theatre
Boston, MA
(Listen to the show here: tapers rule!)

Ryan Adams is not a rock star

Sure, Ryan Adams may appear to be a rock star. He’s certainly got all of the trappings – a reputation for erratic behavior, the celebrity fiancée and a passionate fan base – but he couldn’t make it any clearer that he really does not want to be a rock star.

From the moment you walk under the Orpheum Theatre’s marquee that merely says “Cardinals” it is obvious that Ryan Adams just wants to be the lead singer for the self-described “professional rock band.” Even the way he sets himself up on stage – hopelessly alone on the right side, set back behind the monitors, legs twisted at an impossible angle, crouching and reluctantly attacking the microphone – highlights his discomfort with being a front man.

The Cardinals are anchored by the talented duo of bassist Chris Feinstein and drummer Brad Pemberton, who provide a heavy backbeat with minimal flash, except for Chris’s occasional strolls to the front of the stage. What really distinguishes the band’s sound is the amazing pedal steel guitar playing of Jon Graboff. Having Graboff’s slide presence instead of a full-time keyboard player gives the Cardinals a slight country twinge with a distinct sound for a rock band – while keeping the music guitar-driven. But the real MVP of the band is Neal Casal, a tasteful guitar player with a beautiful tone and an excellent singing voice. It’s the on-going conversation between Neal and Ryan – the vocally harmonies and the intertwining guitars – that truly energizes and elevates Ryan’s songs.

It’s quality songs that provide the fuel for a talented band to achieve lift-off and Ryan has produced an astounding catalogue of original material over the last decade. Ryan’s a true triple threat – singer, songwriter and musician – and he excels in every role.

Set One:

I See Monsters – a perfect opener, building to a full rock-out frenzy and setting the tone for an energetic night
Everybody Knows – muscular version with great harmonies from Neal & Ryan
Fix It – stellar guitar work on their first cut from Cardinology
Let It Ride – driven by Graboff’s steel, a nice country stomp
Two – a short and sweet version
Easy Plateau –this classic was stretched out, jammed out and featured the great a capella breakdown
A Kiss Before I Go – decent, if slight, country tune
Wonderwall – amazing performance of Oasis’s hit that built up to an excellent jam
Come Pick Me Up – a real treat with a beautiful vocal delivery
Cardinals Intros – one of the fun surprises of the evening, each band member was introduced with a unique mini-jam (four bonus songs!)
Peaceful Valley – this is a really dark, deep tune where the heaviness of the music is offset by the beauty of the harmonies – jammed out really nicely
>Beautiful Sorta – the Peaceful Valley jam led right into a strong, rocking version
Evening Joke featuring Jon Graboff – a terrible joke by Jon which made the whole bit even funnier
Freeway To The Canyon – a tender Neal Casal song, great melody and vocal delivery
Goodnight Rose – they turned this average tune from Easy Tiger into a platform for a truly Dead-esque jam (think “The Other One”). Ryan & Neal were completely locked in at this point, playing in tandem.
Ryan banter – a funny story about Taco Bell
Grand Island – another good Neal tune to end the first set.

I was honesty surprised to get a set break at this point, figuring they’d just play a long one-setter. It was only 10:00 but it certainly felt later. We already had 14 great tunes, some long jams and a lot of energy. The taps were shut off and Ryan promised to come back and play until curfew.

Set Two:

Shakedown on 9th Street – straight-up rocker to kick off the second set.
Rescue Blues – Graboff switched to guitar for a nice Rescue Blues. Could’ve used some keys, but was a treat nonetheless
Oh My God Whatever Etc. – a beautiful rendition with great harmonies
Stars Go Blue – nice subtle version
Magick – great rocker off of Cardinology
Oh My Sweet Carolina – the crowd went crazy for Carolina – great harmonies and pedal steel
Off Broadway – spacey and jammed out. Really nice.
Born Into a Light – good version
Down In a Hole – A heavy, perfect cover of this old Alice in Chains tune

Seconds after “Down in a hole” ended the house lights came up. Ryan wasn’t kidding – he played right up to the 11:00 curfew. It was a jarring end to the show, but the Cardinals can’t be blamed for Boston’s blue laws!

The idea that Ryan Adams may retire after this tour due to a painful inner ear condition seems both absurd and cruel. The Cardinals are absolutely at the top of their game right now. There was not one bad song or off moment during the entire 2.5 hour show. They’re a band with a very unique sound. They’re absolutely a heavy rock band – not for the faint of heart – but they also possess a very melodic, country feel. They’ve got a legitimate front man in Neal Casal, but they also have the monstrous talent of Ryan Adams. It’s hard to describe Ryan’s presence. He’s got incredible skills as a singer – he can modulate his tone and delivery to fit each song or arrangement. But he could also be the lead guitar player for a heavy metal band. When he wants to he can shred – big, sloppy riffs and solos. And yet he doesn’t overly indulge himself or frequently play the role of “guitar god”. He defers to his bandmates and that’s truly the secret of The Cardinals’ success – they’re a band. They listen to each other. They play together. They are a professional rock band.

If this is really their last tour then please do yourself a favor and catch one of their remaining shows. You won’t be sorry.

But Ryan, I’ve got some bad news for you, pal. You are definitely a rock star.


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