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Look at Me, Don't Look at Me 

Ryan Adams plays a safe set in the dark.

RYAN ADAMS | VICTORY GARDENS THEATER AT THE BIOGRAPH, JUNE 19

Ryan Adams has gotten where he's gotten on the strength of two separate but related talents. One is his ability to write pretty, often beautiful, and occasionally brilliant music at a rate to rival one-man songwriting factories like Willie Nelson and Prince. The other is his ability to make you look. Being a Ryan Adams fan involves following not just his music but also his life, in magazines and on blogs and occasionally on Page Six. Adams's breakups and substance-abuse problems and relationships (rumored or real) with starlets inevitably seem to reveal another level of meaning in his songs: when he drawls, "I just can't stop it / It hasn't killed me yet / But give me time" on the recent number "Off Broadway," it's impossible not to theorize about what "it" might be.

Lord knows drama alone can't sustain a career, which is why Courtney Love is making her living these days by auctioning off Kurt Cobain memorabilia, but Adams has the chops. In fact, just following the musical part of his career is a daunting enough task. He released--Jesus Christ--18 albums' worth of new material through his Web site over a couple of weeks last year and has announced a forthcoming five-disc box set containing bootlegs, demos, and two whole unreleased albums. Most recently he's released his ninth proper studio album, Easy Tiger.

The whole Ryan Adams package--the drama and the music, the songs and the man--was manifest a couple weeks ago when Adams played the Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph in Lincoln Park as part of a low-key prerelease tour at a series of relatively intimate venues. With limited space available the show sold out well in advance, and several people on the sidewalk under the marquee were offering up to $200 to anyone who had a ticket to spare.

Those who got in took their seats in an acoustically dead room, which even with just the audience chattering couldn't have sounded more different from your typical echo-box rock venue. Once the lights were dimmed, it was also almost totally dark. Adams took the stage alongside his backing band of several years, the Cardinals, under dim blue lights on a stage set with facades of apartment buildings and lengths of chain-link fence. The lights didn't go up once the musicians had settled themselves on their stools, and they didn't go up when they started playing, and they didn't go up at any other time during the 90-some-minute show. On one hand, this produced a sort of dreamy atmosphere that's a good fit for the personal nature of Adams's music, which is best appreciated alone and in the dark. On the other, it gave the impression that Adams, despite his almost pathological need to act out in public, was trying to hide.

Adams doesn't just write a lot of songs. He's also a stylistic butterfly, focusing mostly on retro-leaning country rock but dabbling more or less seriously in Dead-esque acid folk, hardcore punk, and--as his Internet alter ego DJ Reggie--stream-of-consciousness rap. Easy Tiger, more than any record he's released so far, synthesizes these disparate modes. Influences like Gram Parsons and Neil Young can be clearly heard, but there's a psych-ish echo on some tracks, a punkish guitar chug here and there, and even a taste of DJ Reggie's singular lyrical style in the impressionistic "Halloweenhead." The set list at the Biograph was heavy on Easy Tiger material and reached as far back as Adams's solo debut, Heartbreaker, but any stylistic weirdness was shorn away, and the songs were mostly played in the "classic" Ryan Adams style--sweet acoustic guitar, humbly grand piano lines, yearning pedal steel.

For someone who's a veteran of the manic shows he's put on in the past--like my date--the presentation was curious. "It used to be so dirty," she whispered to me in the middle of one song, and although I'd never seen him in concert before, Adams's sedate approach to the material seemed off somehow. Not that anything was bad--the fact that most of the songs were played in midtempo-ballad mode hardly marred their individual beauty. But the whole thing--the barely there lighting, the refined approach to even some material that was originally very unrefined, like the tame take on "Halloweenhead"--made me wonder if Adams was trying to send us a message, purposely doing the opposite of acting out.

Given the devotion evident in the audience's passionate response to each and every song, I doubt that anyone in the room was unaware that Adams is supposed to be clean and sober now, and you could almost feel the eyes straining to read the labels on the cans he was drinking from--was he sipping a beer on the down low up there in the dark? Why was the gifted multi-instrumentalist center stage without an instrument? Why was he sitting on a stool while twitching and shaking like a man who wants to stand up and rock out? Did it mean something, or was I just applying my own meaning to his gestures, the same way I do to his songs, whose capacity to bear personal interpretation is part of what makes them feel so meaningful in the first place?

Maybe he'd just figured out that the best way to hear his music is also the best way to play it. In between the sad, elegant songs he joked around like nothing serious was going on, and maybe nothing was. But in the lull between songs, he kept taking off a pair of glasses and wiping them off in a sort of compulsive tic. With his face mostly in shadows, it took me more than an hour to figure out whether he had started wearing prescription specs or whether, as dark as the room was, he was sporting sunglasses. It turned out to be the latter. Whether their purpose was to block himself in or keep us blocked out, I couldn't say.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

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