Used to be a time when a Ryan Adams gig on Halloween in New York would’ve guaranteed something strange, like maybe he’d take the stage for a second encore dressed up as Gumby and play acoustic Oingo Boingo covers. But that was the old Ryan. The new Ryan, allegedly drug-free, now devotes himself with studious professionalism to playing major druggie-style rock — a bit of Zepp, a bit of Floyd, and a whole lotta Dead.
He happens to be pretty frikkin’ good at it. But did Ryan and the Cardinals have to be quite so laid-back? This three-hour set — with an intermission! What is this, a Broadway musical? — seemed to drag on for days. From the rear of the cartoonishly oversize Hammerstein Ballroom, the band looked so mellow they were almost narcoleptic. It was especially funny to see the posture difference in the shadowy outlines of Ryan, all slump-shouldered and slouchy, and his guitarist Neal Casal, who has the carriage of a Civil War general (plus, the dude wears a tie). The silly stage set, with two huge interlocking ovals and a backdrop of a thousand points of light, was bathed in blue, and there was not even a spotlight on Ryan, who now prefers to just be known as a working member of the band, not a star. In the dark, one could hardly tell that he’s clean-shaven and wears his hair in a short-but-shaggy style popular with lacrosse players. His voice, when he refrained from attempting Robert Plant–style histrionics, was excellent, and other than a bit of loopy, mostly inaudible chitchat with the band, he didn’t say much, just played the music, man, extending most of the tunes into lengthy jams with copious guitar noodling. When it worked, as on “Let It Ride” and “Goodnight Rose,” it gripped. But often, the band would get halfway into a song, the lap steel blazing away, and you’d forget what they were playing until they eventually worked their way back around to the chorus.
The crowd, which to a man came dressed up as white people, seemed faintly disappointed by the band’s almost complete disavowal of the old Ryan. We were with them. The few tunes from Ryan’s early records that they played were reworked to the point where they lost that spontaneous buzz that made them fun. That’s where Ryan is with his career, apparently — like Radiohead refusing for years to play “Creep,” he’s grown too cool for his old self. The new Ryan has a lot going for him, and when he closed “I See Monsters” with a stomping, metal-y flourish or when the band did an ace cover of Alice in Chains’ “Down in a Hole” during the first encore, you got a sense of how much better he’ll be when he finds more interesting middle ground between his new serious passions and the impetuousness that used to make him so exciting. So no Gumby on the second encore last night. In fact, no second encore at all. Bummer. —Hugo Lindgren