Published Aug 27, 2016The night before his Harvest Picnic headlining set, Ryan Adams hinted that he was working on "a set list so fucking dark for tomorrow it makes Love Is Hell sound like a Nintendo commercial." The man kept his word, but no amount of advanced warning could have fully steeled the southern Ontario crowd for the onslaught of feels that poured forth from stage on Friday night (August 26).
Walking on stage and taking his seat between the two acoustic guitars that he would switch back and forth between all evening, Adams introduced himself to the audience by simply stating: "I'm as excited about sad music as you are."
Proving his point, he opened with Heartbreaker heartbreakers "Oh My Sweet Carolina" and "My Winding Wheel," before delving deeper and darker into a one-man rendition of his Cardinals cut "If I Am a Stranger."
As heavy as some of Adams' extensive song catalogue is, there are still moments of levity when he performs. Quick to joke and improvise, he's comfortable and charming when bantering on stage, whether dedicating "Gimme Something Good" to a Twitter troll or wondering "Why didn't I just buy a mandolin?" out loud as he struggled to tune a guitar with a capo on the fifth fret for "Let it Ride" or simply praising Canadian weed and TV shows.
But his M.O. for the set was obvious the moment he lost himself in song, instantly transforming from a jovial stoner dude into the solemn singer-songwriter responsible for "Ashes and Fire," "Why Do They Leave?," "Tears of Gold" and "Damn, Sam (I Love a Woman that Rains)," which were each made all the more poignant by Adams' solo acoustic setup.
The stripped down nature of the show also served to showcase Adams' stunning vocals. Often buried beneath the buzz of a full-blown band, the simplicity of last night's setup let his voice shine — rising, falling, breaking and twanging at precisely the right moments to pierce its way into the ears, then hearts of everyone in attendance.
Jacksonville City Nights highlight "The End" was particularly striking. From its introduction as a story Adams wrote about his "beer-amid"-building father at a time when the pair were estranged ("I suspect he fucking hates this song"), to the refrains of strangled wails directed at his North Carolina hometown, to the final echoing repetition of the title phrase, the song sent chills through the crowd that were completely unrelated to the rapidly cooling night-time air.
In addition to the classics that have been tugging at fans' heartstrings for years, there were a few unexpected but welcome surprises, like a cover of Alice in Chains' "Nutshell" and a rarely — if ever (Adams couldn't quite recall) — played "Sweet Illusions," from the Cardinals' Cold Roses, which was prefaced by what turned out to be a totally unnecessary "Sorry if I fuck it up."
The show eventually ended on a familiar note for anyone who's seen the guy live before — after curfew, and with "Come Pick Me Up" because, as Adams put it, we're masochists.
It's not our fault he makes pain sound so goddamn beautiful.