CULTURE- MUSIC- REVIEW- Contagious enthusiasm: Ryan Adams and co. convert skeptic

Ryan Adams

There's a unique sort of enthusiasm reserved for Ryan Adams fans that I've never really understood. I was surprised, for example, when I learned that the Paramount concert had sold out, then astonished when I learned how quickly the seats had gone. When a second show was announced and the same thing happened, I was dumbfounded.

It's even more confusing up close. In college, I was recruited to play auxiliary guitar for a duo of die-hards. Their set list was built from a hodgepodge of tunes scribbled on a piece of paper divided into three sections: "originals," "covers," and "Ryan." (I'd curse under my breath every time they'd file a Hendrix tune under "covers.")

This time I was outnumbered. Adams was supposed to be here in July, but he was reportedly grounded by high winds on a New York tarmac. So now he got to entertain twice as many local fans. I attended the first night, September 13.

It was only 8:40 when he took the stage– pretty early for a rock star of his caliber, I suppose, but then again, one shouldn't mess with a house that's already been stood up. Right away, I was impressed by his eagerness; Adams actually chased after hired-gun guitarist Neal Casal on most of the trickier runs. That's more than I can say for most of his songwriterly alt-country peers.

Casal fought back on "Dear John" with killer harmonies that rivaled Adams' own, exposing the trump card for the night's performance: the Cardinals are much more than a rhythm section– think Flecktones or Double Trouble here. Moptops or not, they're consummate professionals, and it's really no wonder that Adams wanted to put out his last record under their name.

To all outward appearances, Adams was having a ball. I'd be excited, too, if I were playing with these guys: Jon Graboff bounced around on his lap steel with intonation precise enough to make a piano player jealous, drummer Brad Pemberton brewed up a thunderstorm on his toms for "Easy Plateau," and before I knew it, the band had become more than the sum of its parts– even though one of those parts was a guy whose songs get their own category on the list.

The Dylan-inspired "To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)" came across cleverly reincarnated as a heavy, loping lament, but ultimately was still a dubious choice for the finale. I left without "La Cienega Just Smiled," "Answering Bell," or any of the songs I'd still found tolerable even after those excruciating bar gigs. Even "New York, New York," the breakout hit from Gold, was left behind.

I was surprised to find that I didn't really care. I came in as a skeptic, but Adams and his killer ensemble won me over. After years of making mid-tempo alt-country, he's still enthusiastic about his music, and as improbable as I might find that, it's also pretty contagious.