In February, the New York Times published a piece by Ryan Adams titled “The First Time I Was Rattled by a Heckler.” With a touch of humiliation and a fair degree of empathy, Adams, a restlessly creative singer-songwriter who last month released his 16th studio album in 17 years, recalls an incident that has dogged him for much of this century. In 2002, Adams was invited to perform at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, a longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry. A student of Opry veterans such as Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and Gram Parsons, Adams was, of course, honored and excited. The show was a disaster.
Early in Adams’ set, a drunken audience member began heckling the young performer, calling out requests and generally acting like an ass. Adams, now 42, writes that he tried but failed to ignore the man, who reached his nadir by shouting the title of Canadian rocker Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69” during the a cappella section of the song “Bartering Lines.”
“I felt a kind of disappointment and disillusionment that I had never known,” recalls Adams, who stormed into the audience, thrust $40 at the man, and asked him to leave. The incident went the early-Aughts equivalent of viral, and it threatened to become the kind of rock ’n’ roll story that bears as much legend as fact. Still, the episode changed Adams’ life.
“All of the humor and self-deflection I would ever learn came from that night,” he writes. “I am now grateful for it all. I know the nature of people. I know how they will throw insults and rock a boat just to watch a person go over the side. But I know they are not all cruel.”
Adams would be forgiven if he had arrived at the Parker Playhouse on Friday night expecting to get the Ryman treatment. The audience at his previous South Florida concert, in May 2015 at the Fillmore Miami Beach, subjected Adams to something worse than heckling: indifference. People standing close to the stage ignored the man on it, checking their cell phones and palavering throughout the show. Adams responded with humor, yes, but also with anger. The audience had it coming.
About the worst audience behavior Adams had to contend with Friday night was exhaustion. Backed by a four-piece band and wearing a denim jacket over a black T-shirt with the logo of the speed-metal group Slayer, Adams performed 26 songs in a set that stretched past two hours, with no intermission, no encore and no lack of intensity.
His stage had the makeup of a rock star’s basement, with towering speakers, a Dr. Pepper machine, plush white tigers and a video-game console displaying the title of his fine new album of breakup songs, “Prisoner.” It felt at once warm and exclusive, and the cost of hanging out with Adams and his pals was to keep up with them as they challenged the acoustics of the Parker Playhouse, which seats just shy of 1,200 people and whose walls, accustomed to absorbing the sound of folk acts, Broadway singers and high-school graduations, may not have been prepared for the volume produced by this band.
Opening loud and fast with “Do You Still Love Me?,” “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)” and “Gimme Something Good,” the one-time prince of alternative country quickly established that this show would favor his rock ’n’ roll side. Did it matter that his voice sometimes carried across the room at the same level as the guitars and drums, rendering his lyrics unintelligible to all but the most devoted fans? Not really. The “Prisoner” songs, in particular, benefited from the additional decibels, which forced their sadness and self-pity outward and moved them away from the emotional collapse Adams flirts with on the album.
And how else but jet-engine loud should he have played “Peaceful Valley,” a bucolic folksong from 2005 that on Friday came off like an Emmylou Harris song as performed by Black Sabbath? “Halloweenhead,” from 2007’s “Easy Tiger” album, was a late-set surprise, a stable marriage of Adams’ heavy-metal and FM-radio influences.
But it’s the three solo turns Adams took near the edge of the stage that will resonate long after the tinnitus subsides. Playing an acoustic guitar and wearing a harmonica around his neck, Adams performed the new song “Doomsday” — “my love, we can do better than this,” goes the desperate refrain — and two indelible numbers from “Heartbreaker,” his 2000 solo debut: the seductive “My Winding Wheel” and the Dylan-esque “Come Pick Me Up,” still his strongest statement of resistance and resolve. That the audience sang along with, and not over, Adams on this last song, and that he didn’t seem to mind the uninvited voices, proved just how far he and his fans have come.