Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Whiskey Heartache, Harmonica Highs & Stars Gone Blue

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals Live
I did say that this blog will be full of random reflections as well as just philosophies on writing.  So here I am, keeping my word.  Variety is the spice of blogs and all that. Today I'm glad to be mixing the content a bit with the inclusion of some musing on  - music. 

Music is my other great love. Actually not really 'other' - I happen to think that both music and literature complement each other perfectly, like ying and yang, left and right, or  - salt and pepper. Both are art. Both are  expressions of emotion through a medium that requires writing. Both inspire extreme passion and devotion. Without music, life would have no soundtrack. Nothing to register its highs and lows and in-betweens. 

Without music, the world would be a very silent place. Music adds colours to situations, adds tone and texture. It adds significance to ordinary events. It turns up the volume on what we would otherwise miss. Tunes us in to the frequency of emotions. My music collection is like a catalogue of every feeling that's ever arisen in my life, every mood, every contemplation, every realisation. And without certain songs to capture and define and amplify those feelings, I'd be quite deaf and dumb to life.

Anyway, the inspiration for this blog comes from a concert I attended last week which I just have to acknowledge in writing, ah - write a 'review' so to speak. I'm a frequent concert-goer but not a reviewer (trying to put the magic of music into words is not an easy task; hence the almost week long procrastination), but this one, I'm gonna try.  Ryan Adams, well-known American singer-songwriter from North Carolina.

I've been a fan of Ryan Adams ever since I heard his lilting voice on a late night radio show years ago, singing about stars and feeling lonesome and blue. (otherwise known as 'When the Stars Go Blue') Everytime I picture him I see the stars and stripes of the American flag, a young thirty something guy with irredeemably messy hair and faded blue jeans, (Gold album cover) hunched meticulously over his guitar, singing on a porch swing-seat under a hot Southern summer star-lit night (my imagination). 

His music has that seductive Southern vibe without the country jingle jangle, all  acoustic guitar and raw rugged vocals.  What's unique about him is how prolific a musician he is, having produced a stream of albums in a short period of time. And also of course, how ubiquitous he is, being able to do rock'n'roll, country-alt ballads, folksy-americana, band jams, and pared-down solo acoustics. His is the music of rolling along on open highways with the top down, wind blowing through hair, horizons up ahead of desert canyons, bristling long grasses in endless meadows, and swinging on porch seats on streets with names like Cherry Tree Lane and Meadowlake, contemplating life while drowning your blues with a late-night night-cap; songs of whiskey-tinged heartache, cigarette ash regret, beer lazy sunny evenings and tears laced with a cut-to-the-bone deep melancholy longing to love and be loved. 

As a writer, the first thing that endeared me to Ryan Adams was his lyrics, which are simultaneously simple and smart, honest and allegorical, tender and tough, and full of weird and wonderful references. And the fact that he has a song for every mood known to man! He can do mopey and lonesome: Oh My God Whatevr Etc, Come Pick Me Up; mournful laments: Why Do They Leave?; laidback bluesy: Touch, Feel and Lose, Mockingbird; defiant rocker: Note to Self:Don't Die; sad and sorrowful: I Taught Myself How to Grow; affectionately attentive: Wildflowers, Two; celebratory and foot-stompin':  Firecracker, Gonna Make You Love Me More, New York, New York; down-in-the-dumps dreary: Slyvia Plath, The Shadowlands; subtle love songs to people and places: Damn Sam, I Love A Woman That Rains, Desire, My Love for You is Real, Oh My Sweet Carolina, Meadowlake Street; and metaphorically meaningful: I See Monsters, World War 24, Halloweenhead.  He writes all his own songs, plays all his own instruments - namely guitar, harmonica and piano. He is quite simply, a hugely talented singer-songwriter.

The stage-set of the Olympia in Dublin last Wednesday night was sparse and dimly-lit, appropriate to the sparseness of the solo acoustic performance. This was Ryan Adams up close and personal - no band, no gimmicks, just a red, white and blue guitar (which he spent ages intricately tuning all night) and a piano. He  was melancholy as hell and as moody. But that did not take away from the beauty of the  raw rendered songs with Ryan wringing out his blues for the audience, his voice varying from whispers to whitewater riffs. You could hear a feather drop throughout his quiet opening rendition of 'Oh My Sweet Carolina.' (Indeed, there were feather-like dust-motes floating down on the stage all night of which he indeed noticed - he's nothing if not sarcastically observant.) His in-between banter was scarce and at times, wittily weird, but he's not a man for making small talk, just songs. Songs that tell stories and songs that require a close listening. 

And so the night was full of songs with stories, highlights of which included a new melancholy offering 'Dirty Rain' (inspired by our June weather I wondered?) and an encore of a summer evening lullaby 'Strawberry Wine.' My impression of him was that of tempermental and moody, (he'll sing what he wants - take it or leave it!) but also brilliantly creative and so aware of life.   Another reason I like him so much - he is an artist in the true sense of the word. Not in it for the money, the fame or status, just in it to make songs. To transform his experience of the world into some tangible expression that can affect and relate to others. To heal the hurt by turning it into something else: "Anyway my pain kind of went, I got sick of it -- and it’s in me somewhere for sure, but I figure if I keep it in this imaginary box in my heart and let it loose when I sing, well, we all win a little bit more and I hurt a little bit less." Well-said Ryan.

Strumming silver-star chords and teardrops from his guitar, hellbent on lashing out the heartbreak, voice rising and falling with the highs and lows of each note, as sweet and sour and strong as whiskey, when he sang you could see what it was exactly he was made of and why it was exactly he was doing this. The final image I have of the  night  is of him unslinging his guitar, picking up his leather jacket and bidding us goodnight from a midnight blue strobe-lit stage, as the audience began to wander off not star-struck, but most definitely affected by the intense performance of a real musician intent on nothing more than being true to his art.

Until the next time,

~ Siobhán

Check out out an acoustic rendition of 'When the Stars go Blue' by Ryan Adams here:

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