David Gray, Conor Oberst And Ryan Adams At KSCN Benefit Concert, Friday December 12th 2014
The second night of KCSN’s two-concert benefit series at the Valley Performing Arts Center was a three-male-songwriters night, with one Irishman and two Americans supporting a radio which has been promoting good music for a long time. It’s simple, my car radio has been stuck to 88.5 KCSN forever and even Macca occasionally gives them a phone call to show his support when he is in town. After Sarah McLachlan and Laura Marling a week ago, David Gray, Conor Oberst and Ryan Adams were playing the benefit, and it was a bill difficult to resist to, especially because of the two Americans? Oh it is just me, because Gray got equal love and acclaim from the enthusiastic crowd.
I first thought David Gray was headlining the show, at least it was a Twitter rumor but it turned out he played first with Ryan Adams as the headliner and Conor Oberst sandwiched between the two. Does it mean Ryan is the biggest deal of the three or the order doesn’t matter? In any case the show had drawn a good crowd in a very fancy place, yes the valley center is really nice, spacious and bright, made of light golden wood with a perfect acoustic. But fancy place means fancy rules, such as no phone or cameras allowed during the performance and a complete silence when people play… I was in the front, with a great view of the stage, but a security guy was planted 2 feet away from me the whole time so taking pictures was very difficult, while sneaking in a camera turned out to be the easiest part.
Radio morning host Nic Harcourt introduced David Gray who took the stage with five musicians, cello and piano, adding even more class to the décor, and he was obviously the one of the three I was the least familiar with, but everyone knows at least his big hit ‘Babylon’. Gray has a very distinctive voice, strong and crooning above sad cello and piano, and if I had never been a fan, he gave a very heartfelt and dramatic performance starting with ‘Birds of the High Arctic’ of his last album ‘Mutineers’, showcasing his voice. His set was mostly about slightly evocative ballads and atmospheric, almost desolated, landscapes, may be not emotional enough to capture all my attention, but filled with nice harmonies turning a bit thunderous and calming again. There was a sort of Coldplay feeling in all this, especially during ‘Mutineers’ a cyclic and ascending tune distilling a certain joy. Alternating between piano and guitar, he was often turning his back to most of the crowd when he was on piano, but the connection was there nevertheless. ‘You are amazing’, screamed a woman twice during the show, and he received the kind of applause that can’t be faked.
His songs, focusing a bit more on voices and harmonies than on moody music, were starting from a very quiet place to enter a more joyous, foot-tapping mode like during the almost tribal sound of ‘Cake and Eat it’, or were staying more melancholic with a breezy piano during the round loops of ‘Kathleen’. It was relaxing music, the type that left your mind drift away, stirring melancholy but with enough of these soaring choirs and shouted echoing voices to stay on the uplifting side. ‘We left England in a rainstorm to come to a rainstorm here,’ he said referencing the rain we just had in the morning…. ‘It’s a short set’, he also said toward the end – each performer played between 45 to 60 minutes – ‘it’s a canapé, not even a sandwich’, he continued before playing the well-known ‘Babylon’ and getting a standing ovation, getting back on stage to play ‘This Years Love’ with the same strong voice, but never going beyond this nice and engaging feeling.
They had brought a big drum set and a large vintage organ during the break and I was wondering whether it was for Conor or Ryan? It was for Conor, who turned out to be the loudest guy of the night. Looking younger than ever, surrounded by five musicians, he started his set almost alone with ‘Lenders In The Temple’ off his 2008 solo album, not the easiest song, but a long, tortured and wordy one, still breaking everyone’s heart at the line in repeat ‘That’s my fault, That’s my fault’. Soon it was the beloved Bright Eyes’ hit ‘Landlocked Blues’, and I heard the crowd going crazy at the line ‘If you walk away, I’ll walk away and he shot me dead’. What can I say, I fall in love over again every time I hear this, and no matter how shitty your life can be at the moment, you know there’s always be the chills of this optimistic trumpet after ‘Cause we’re coming for you’. Conor seemed to be in great shape, dynamically turning around with his guitar all set long, getting louder and louder with tracks off his new album, like ‘Hundreds of Ways’, a song about ‘All the possibilities we have every day’ – and fueled by this joyous alt-country-pedal-steel angst – then a luminous and thunderous rendition of a can’t-walk-straight song ‘Zigzagging Toward the Light’. Expectedly, the set was heavy on the new ones, and ‘Artifact #1’ started all atmospheric and jazzy with a mute trumpet, going loud and desolated again. It’s a song about memories’… ‘sometimes it’s better than the real thing’, said Conor before the song… err did he read my mind? ‘Soul Singer in a Session Band’ was empowering the crowd one more time, and I thought there was definitively something in all these songs, despite their delirium of words, that immediately connect with the audience.
Jonathan Wilson, the producer of Conor’s last album, was playing guitar and when Conor announced they were closing with a John Prine’s cover (‘Pretty Good’) someone stupidly screamed ‘I have a boner’, leaving Conor a bit perplex… ‘Jonathan too,… I haven’t had one in ten years!’ he added. ‘Pretty Good’ seemed to be more a band pleaser than a crowd pleaser, although it was a total triumph
The stage cleared up a bit for Ryan Adams but Ryan had brought on stage his own universe on stage, an American peace-flag, a cat silhouette, a stuffed tiger, some vintage arcade-style games… Of course, Ryan has this new album to promote, and he started with the brand new ‘Gimme Something Good’, showing his revival classic rocking sound, but he also brushed his large catalogue with ‘Let it Ride’ and ‘Magnolia Mountain’ off Ryan Adams and the Cardinals’ ‘Cold Roses’ or Dirty Rain off ‘Ashes & Fire’, ‘Dear Chicago’ off ‘Demolition’, or even ‘the delightful ‘When the Stars Go Blue’ off ‘Gold’ and ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina ‘Heartbreaker’ sang in duo with a friend, Phoebe Bridgers. What can I say, these new songs are powerful rockers, in the most classic sense of the term which could explain the presence of a lot of 50-something guys in the audience, but with his hair in his face, his Misfits shirt and his laid-back attitude, Ryan Adams looked like a rebel accidentally pleasing every generation, riding the big guitar-riffs and the arena rock lightning like a true rockstar.
The older songs have always been the most effective for me, like the quiet and soulful ‘Dirty Rain’, violently exploding just like the hurricane that flooded LA the same morning, or the delicate Springsteen-esque ‘Dear Chicago’, or the sweet and thoughtful ‘Lucky Now’ that he performed alone standing in front of a mic wrapped with blue lights, or one of my favorite ever, ‘When the Stars Go Blue’.
Did you say rock star? When someone asked for a song, Ryan humorously thanked the guy for this request, ‘That’s not on the list, we are gonna exercise free will and play the setlist’. At another moment, after another request for ‘Nobody Girl,’ Adams said, ‘Why don’t you play ‘Nobody Girl’?’ making everyone laugh. Despite this biting humor, Ryan stayed on the funny and very polite side and may be because of too many exchanges with the audience, they didn’t play every song on the setlist: ‘La Cienega Just Smiled’ was on the setlist and apparently Ryan didn’t exercise enough free will and very regrettably skipped this one! He also covered Jenny Lewis’ ‘She’s Not Me’, off her last effort ‘The Voyager’, produced by Adams, and they closed the show with a moving ‘I Love you but I don’t Know What to Say’, a few ‘harmonica burps’, and the ‘shortest song of the night’ – and a vibrant ‘Come Pick Me Up’…
Curiously, last time I had seen Oberst and Adams perform, they were both playing solo, at UCLA’s Royce Hall for Oberst and at Walt Disney Hall for Adams, and then they were both back, with a full band and a wild energy, both making great connections with the crowd. Ryan was showing his enthusiasm for KCSN, declaring he would even ‘do some kind of motorcycle stunt if they asked him to’, even though he didn’t ‘know how to ride a motorcycle so the stunt would just be him getting on one.’ But I was hoping for another kind of stunt, one he would be more familiar with, I was hoping all along for a Conor-Ryan duo to close the night, I mean, they have the same sensibility and probably know each other’s songs and their common friend Jenny Lewis could even have shown up to do the back up vocals, right? But it never happened, a big missed opportunity for a celebrating night, I just would have loved to see the reaction of the crowd, and these generation Y’s songwriter heroes not following their setlist for once.