Ryan Adams at the Riviera Theatre


December 15, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

Ryan Adams would like us to think that it's incredibly difficult being Ryan Adams -- young, talented, clever and outrageously prolific.

In fact, what's difficult is watching the spectacle of the 29-year-old North Carolina-bred singer and songwriter acting out the whole tired "troubled artist" routine and trying desperately hard to convince us of his genius.

Adams came to a packed Riviera Theatre Saturday night with a six-piece band to promote his official new album, "Llor n Kcor" (that's "Rock 'n' Roll" backwards), as well as the two EPs that followed a few weeks after that release, "Love is Hell, Vols. I and II."

Midway through the show, the spiky-haired alternative-country poseur cursed his label for failing to see that the two EPs are as worthy of hype as the album, though the record company is absolutely correct in trying to reign him in and force him to focus: The concert was proof once more that Adams is his own worst enemy, detracting from his modest talent by thinking that every idea he has is a good one, and thereby giving us as much garbage as greatness.

Though Adams is now as notorious for his bad-boy behavior as he is for his music, the show started promisingly enough, as he and his accomplished band tore through hard-hitting versions of new rockers such as "1974" and "Note to Self: Don't Die." For the first five songs, it seemed as if he might finally be playing to his strengths -- delivering catchy and motivating roots-rock that is derivative of everyone from Paul Westerberg to Morrissey, but undeniable nonetheless.

Then things started to go to hell. Adams played "Wish You Were Here" (his song from the new album, not the Pink Floyd classic) four times in a row, giving it to us straight, then as hard-core punk, then as a spoofy country ditty and finally rendering it as sung by Cookie Monster, simultaneously dissing the barked vocals of the nu-metal genre and paying homage to "Sesame Street."

These 20 minutes of shtick derailed the momentum the group had built up, and so it went through the rest of the 100-minute set. The band would pick up speed over the course of a few solid songs, and then Adams would act out, inviting all of his musicians and the members of the opening band, the unimpressive Adams clones the Stills, to gather around two mikes for a hokey mock-hootenanny version of the sexist new ditty, "Miss America."

Later, he improvised an acoustic song about the snow in Chicago, using it as an excuse to further his pointless feud with local alternative-country heroes Wilco. "Buy me a video camera so I can make a movie called 'I Am Trying to Bore You to Death,' " he crooned, sneering at the Wilco film, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart."

Adams can release three CDs in a three-week span, but the fact remains that he still can't write one song as original or as heartfelt as anything by Jeff Tweedy.

The set ended abruptly and jarringly after 15 songs as Adams threw down his white Stratocaster and stormed offstage -- he'd been whining about suffering from the flu, and for a while it seemed as if he might not return. But the delay was as calculated as the ridiculously long wait before the start of his set, the better to fuel anticipation.

Eventually, sure enough, the performer returned to offer five songs solo acoustic, playing the young Dylan role that made a fan out of Elton John, but offering nothing nearly as impressive lyrically or musically.

The show ended back in full band mode as Adams eschewed the guitar and ran around with the microphone, imitating Courtney Love by jumping into the crowd several times during the anthemic singalongs "Burning Photographs" and "So Alive."

The fans (who skewed younger than Adams) ate it all up, but you had to suspect that it was because they'd never seen the real Courtney, much less the Replacements or even Wilco.

Absent an historical musical context or a functioning b.s. detector, it is possible to mistake Adams for being as talented and clever as he thinks he is. But then there are plenty of people who can't tell the difference between plastic flowers and real ones, until they bend over to take a whiff.