Stage right at The Egg on Thursday stood Ryan Adams in an Iron Maiden T-shirt. Stage left sat workmanlike Jon Graboff playing pedal steel, the plaintive whine in most country music. In between, the rest of the Cardinals provided Krazy Glue between those extremes of Adams’ tastes and talents.
Mercurial, prolifically inspired and with gloriously poor creative impulse control, Adams led the Cardinals through a sprawling show spanning more than two hours and welding noisy metal meltdowns to lyrical laments that could have emanated from some hillbilly hollow, and cheerfully chugging country-rock.
This was a real band, with white-hot chemistry or mellow ease as the songs demanded. Adams makes fine records, and lots of them, but he sang better onstage than in the studio and played like one of the guys. Something special happened when he sang, and it wasn’t just his voice. He performed big, underlining the big feelings behind the songs and drawing everyone inside. All the Cardinals played and sang well, but you couldn’t take your eyes off Adams when he sang.
They hit the stage just before 9 p.m. and finished well after 11. They played most of the unreleased “Cardinology” and last year’s “Easy Tiger” albums, rocking like crazy, and the songs “Bartering Lines” and “Shakedown on 9th Street” from the “Heartbreaker” CD.
Belying a reputation for withdrawn, encore-less shows, Adams chatted up, and wove CS&N-style harmonies with guitarist Neal Casal on a beautiful encore of “Dear John,” wandering back onstage after the house lights came up. At midset they debated taking a break, then decided the conversation lasted long enough for fans’ bathroom or beer breaks and resumed.
The new love song “Cobwebs” featured romantic “A-a-ah” harmonies to mellow effect to start, but then the vintage “Wonderwall” climaxed with scream-drone guitars. They stayed intense with a hard-rocking new “Magick,” a tribute to rock radio, then mellowed into “Cold Roses” with spectacular a cappella singing. “Sinking Ships” might be the best of the new tunes, spiced with slow, sweet pedal steel and great vocals by Adams and Casal — unless the dramatic lost-love cry “Fix It” is, or “Natural Ghost,” which Adams claimed he was terrified to play because they’d never performed it. The other Cardinals started it — so he had to sing it. By the end, he felt comfortable enough to play the main solo.
Exciting, Grateful Dead-like country-rock jams really soared. “Peaceful Valley” swooped like hawks from grass-roots level to very high altitude, and their set-closing “Easy Plateau” launched into a “Space”-like cacophony. Casal’s best solo lit up “Everybody Knows,” with Adams carving cozy counter-melodies around it: Even the leader listens and responds. Love songs soared, too, because Adams’ voice lifted them, especially “Come Pick Me Up” and “When the Stars Go Blue.”
Uptempo, Adams and band were thrilling, but even when they mellowed into country, most of the fans who completely jammed The Egg stood through the whole show.