The many corners of New York City — gilt, dark, strange, familiar, sterile, or sticky with last-call regret — show up again and again in Ryan Adams’s work. His first solo records, 2000’s Heartbreaker and 2001’s Gold, will lead you downtown to the East Village and the West, and back through to Alphabet City and the Lower East Side. On his current tour, which came through New York’s Beacon Theater last week, you’ll hear more than a few songs that carom between old apartments and favorite bars run by friends and collaborators. One of these haunts, the HiFi Bar, used to be Brownies, a 200-ish capacity room that saw some of Adams’s first solo gigs, as well as fledgling sets from Death Cab for Cutie, Interpol, and The Strokes; Adams wrote songs for 2003’s Rock N Roll, his fourth solo album, in the basement studio beneath the venue.
The music video for 2001’s “New York, New York” is famously one of the last to show the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center as a prominent part of the Manhattan skyline. A few years later, he screamed, “STAB ME IN THE FUCKIN’ EYE WITH THE FUCKIN’ EMPIRE STATE BUILDING” in a cut off 2007’s Easy Tiger. These landmarks and others loom over his music from these years, when he was a Carolina kid staring out from filthy bangs with guitar neck in hand somewhere below 14th Street, spitting out his own rock and roll addition to the New York canon.
A decade after Adams begged to be blinded by the city’s most iconic beacon, fans can cue up his greatest hits while they walk through the streets of his Manhattan — an act that elegantly blossoms if you’re near where Adams recorded a live acoustic album during two nights at Carnegie Hall in 2014. The ties between Adams’s past and present New York lives were cemented then in his career-spanning, stripped-down sets, weaving together songs from Heartbreaker, Gold, Cold Roses — the heavily twanged album he recorded at Loho Studios on Lafayette Street and put out with his backing band the Cardinals in 2005 — and his self-titled 2014 full-length.
Adams’s latest tour is a rejuvenating return, and a love letter to the city that shaped him. Prisoner, his first album of new material since that 2014 album, arrived in February on a wave of tabloid attention thanks to the dissolution of his marriage with Mandy Moore. He split the recording between Pax-Am, his Los Angeles studio (which he’s dubbed his own “Millennium Falcon”), and Electric Lady, the renowned studio founded by Jimi Hendrix in the West Village. While Adams now lives full-time in L.A., he revealed that the Carnegie Hall gigs played a hand in the spark that eventually lit the record, as the “energy of [New York] was really conducive to remembering who I was.”
The Prisoner tour shines by placing that new material right up against the best songs of his prolific New York years. (The 23-song set list at last week’s shows took six songs from Prisoner and April’s follow-up album of B-sides, with four more coming from Heartbreaker and Cold Roses each.) Though the intimate Prisoner release-week concert he played at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade shop back in February made for a fine debut of “Outbound Train” and “Doomsday,” in particular, that performance paled in comparison with his showing at the Beacon, which was rife with enthusiastic solos and octave-leaping vocal prowess, buoyed by unfettered joy and exceptional ability. Adams dusted off his “Wonderwall” cover, and spent more time with his acoustic than he did at Rough Trade, working fan favorite and typical closer “Come Pick Me Up” into the set list after omitting it from the prior date.
The sprawl of the Beacon’s stage allowed for a mightier set, with a pyramid of TVs hanging out directly between the giant custom Benson stacks — cartoonishly large amps that lent themselves especially well to the ringing chords of set starter and Prisoner lead-off track “Do You Still Love Me?” The only disappointment in New York was the relative lack of banter, as Adams’s comedic chops are delightful, and his occasional Muppets-esque howl back at some of the rowdier members of the crowd can be as entertaining as the music itself. He didn’t address the room directly until he was 14 songs deep into the set, when he gushed about coming back to New York, his “spiritual home,” and blurted out something about how his North Carolinian accent got punched on the subway once, or something. (No one said a joke has to make sense in order for it to kill.)
That Adams is a genuine rock star doesn’t discount how closely he often resembles a kid pretending to be a rock star — and that’s a compliment. If anything, his ability to lose himself so wholly in the verse at hand — which he did, waving around in a thick haze thanks to a super-aggressive fog machine during “Shakedown on 9th Street” — is a testament to the purity of his craft, in that he’s able to get back to the simplicity of his words and the chords that bring them to life. It’s his ability to invoke the past and work it into his present that is singular, and it’s clear that the corners of New York have more in store for Adams.