ryan adams, battery park, 7-4-03

Months ago, Ryan was promoting this show (through rambling posts on his message board) as “his last show”. To anyone who knows even the smallest bit about Ryan Adams, this information was taken with the largest boulder of salt imaginable. That said, spending the 4th of July in New York City, down at Battery Park, watching Jesse Malin and Ryan Adams play for free, wasn’t the worst idea in the world.

Jesse Malin is, quite simply, one of the good guys. He just lives and breathes rock and roll in a completely natural, unaffected manner. It’s just HIM. He reminds me of the bastard son of all of the Ramones, except there’s a lot more substance to his lyrics. D-Generation were a great fucking band, and his latest incarnation is pretty damn solid as well. They played a solid, thoroughly enjoyable set to open, including dedicating his cover of Bruce’s “Hungry Heart” to Joey Ramone. Right fucking on.

Ryan comes out wearing a blue-and-orange shirt reading “New York” (the New York magazine style logo), Robert-Smith-esqe hair as usual, happy and ebullient and just a touch nervous. He was happy to be there, plain and simple. Of course, he opened with the only possible choice for that day: “Firecracker”. The Pink Hearts are backing him up, and there was a two-man horn section also onstage. Me, I [heart] horn sections. And while they weren’t exactly the Miami Horns, they weren’t as bad as a lot of people around me seemed to think they were. I think it would have helped if they had been mic’d better, and also, integrating a horn section into a live act is not a trivial thing. But, to me, the bigger point was that Ryan was trying to put some effort into this show and make it something special.

Given the context of the show, I was absolutely expecting to get all of the hits, and Ryan wouldn’t have been doing his job if he hadn’t played them. It would have been self-indulgent and selfish. Speaking of – yes, those words are often used to describe Ryan Adams onstage. I guess there’s no other way to describe it than – Ryan was on his best behavior, he was using his company manners.

So he played the hits, and he pulled out some deep album cuts, and he also threw in one unreleased song (a fiery “Vampire”) and one new one (“Chelsea Nights”). And it wouldn’t be a Ryan Adams show if he didn’t start riffing verbally on one theme or another; he began by imitating a antihistimine-impaired heavy metal fan who had been mowing lawns all summer so they could go see Metallica. Later, he’d go off on this deeper-than-he-let-on quasi-prayer to the four elements, starting with water, moving on to air, and dirt, and fire. Of course, this was also tempered with a song about how great America is because of cheese (prompting a woman to run through the crowd towards the front at near the end of the show, holding a saran-wrapped block of mushy Cheddar in her hand – “Ryan! I’ve got cheese!” Fans in the front rows obliged her by throwing it onstage.) And he even made fun of himself, launching into an improv along the lines of, “It’s all about ME, you know…” But for once, it was absolutely tongue in cheek. However, it was priceless to have a vantage point of his backing band, particularly Billy Mercer, who were only half-laughingly rolling their eyes at Ryan behind his back as he sang this little ditty.

For the last number of the day, he brought out Jesse Malin to sing a song I referred to later as “Street Fighting Happy Man” because while it most definitely started out musically as “Street Fighting Man,” when Jesse started singing, it was the lyrics to “Happy”. The band recovered just fine and I’m sure most people didn’t even notice.

In summary, my usual complaints about Ryan live were nowhere to be found: he was sober, he wasn’t cranky, he rambled but not excessively, his voice was in fantastic shape (and the man just has one of the most heartbreaking, wonderful instruments in rock and roll today, no matter what you think of him), and finally, he actually PLAYED the fucking guitar instead of using it as a prop, and he played it damn well.

Later that night, I stood in the middle of Avenue A at the corner of 7th Street and watched the fireworks both at the end of Manhattan and on the East River, through the trees in Tompkins Square Park. Traffic crawled to a standstill, the cops drove by and only asked us to move out of their way, and for more than a New York minute, the city was full of magic.

Seems like a fitting end to the day.