By Mark Guarino
At age 29, Ryan Adams has built a thick body of work behind him: four solo albums, two EPs, four albums with his former band Whiskeytown and an assorted array of side projects, singles and contributing tracks to tribute albums.
He embodies that time-worn American work ethic that dogged productivity must, in the long run, equal a kind of genius quality. And for his cadre of young fans — many of whom consider Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Replacements, the Smiths and many others Adams built a career brazenly imitating — that is what makes his appeal so novel.
But at his sold-out show at the Riviera Saturday, Adams did not own up to his bulk of songs as much as he sought to disown them. Instead of playing things straight, he looked bored and worked as best he could through the two-hour show to disengage himself from the music. At times he blamed his attitude on a flu bug but as the night wore on, the situation looked more like an artist tired of competing with the myth he himself worked to create.
Although Adams and band tore through the opening few songs (including “1974”) with a raw and lean four-guitar assault, he soon turned apathetic and played four different versions of “Wish You Were Here” — rock, speed punk, country and the last how Cookie Monster would have played it — proving there is indeed a thin line between versatility and a talent for killing time.
During the years he fronted the North Carolina alt.country band Whiskeytown, Adams’ propensity for chaotic performances and long side rants were kept in check by his bandmates, particularly fiddler Caitlin Cary and guitarist Phil Wandscher But as a solo artist, Adams was surrounded by five slick hires from the New York rock scene who looked like a second-string Strokes. Instead of providing a counterbalance, they did whatever their boss wanted. Which included participating in his rambling improvisations of a neighborhood stoner, watching him get fed up with his guitars and throwing them on the ground, trying to make up a Christmas song on the spot and turning his song “Do Miss America” into a long parody of bluegrass gospel. Watching a stage full of roadies and musicians laugh their way through some fake twang was pure high school amateur night.
By the encore, Adams got things together enough to play solo acoustic versions of songs like “New York, New York” and “Dear Chicago,” but their stripped-down versions did not spare them their innate bad rhymes and cliched slacker sentiments. When the band joined him, he made up for the lackluster by stage diving while crooning a song the Smiths might have written (“So Alive”). Like what came before, the spontaneity was straight out of a textbook written by someone else a long time ago.