Bromance was in full flower at the Music Center at Strathmore on Tuesday night, when alt-country-Americana singer-songwriter enfant terrible Ryan Adams, counterprogrammed the State of the Union address with a generous, career-spanning solo acoustic set supported by the equally hyphenated Jason Isbell.
After Adams spent two hours living up to his reputation as both a flaky, distracted performer and a superb songwriter with a stunningly clear and nimble set of pipes, Isbell joined him onstage. (Isbell had begun the long evening with a strong, if too-brief set.) The two Southern men bantered while unhurriedly working out what to play. We’d grown accustomed by this point to lengthy intervals while Adams flipped pages in his dog-eared songbook and floated anecdotes that dissolved (“I don’t know where I was going with that”) more often than they landed.
Isbell took the lead, playing “Danko/Manuel,” the third song of the night he’d recorded with the Drive-By Truckers, the group he left in 2007. Adams answered with a tune from his old band, Whiskeytown’s “Jacksonville Skyline.” They ended the evening attempting to out-growl each other on a jocular cover of Alabama’s “Love in the First Degree.”
It was a finish that nearly lived up to the show’s breathtaking start. The Strathmore is the region’s best-sounding room for singer-songwriters, and Adams, having dissipated the promise of his fantastic early records (like 2000’s “Heartbreaker,” well represented in the set) with too many mediocre ones since, is the ideal patient for its rehabilitative properties. He opened with a heart-stopping “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” and the title track from his new “Ashes & Fire” album that followed seemed to hail from the same inspired country.
Eventually, Adams lost focus, and his indecision invited spectators to start calling out requests. Sometimes these prompted record self-reviews (“I hate every [expletive] song on that album,” of 2003’s “Rock N Roll”), sometimes improvised tunes: “I Got a Plan” mocked the very notion that he’d spend the moments preceding a gig playing basketball instead of making up a set list.
Then he messed up the very next song he tried to play.
These exchanges felt playful rather than confrontational. And every time Adams managed to settle down enough to actually perform one of his sad and lovely songs, it was easy to forgive the jittery, talky process that had got him there.
Klimek is a freelance writer.