Ryan Adams Plays Intimate, Stripped-Down Show in Big Sur

Singer-songwriter's informal set takes advantage of breathtaking surroundings

Ryan Adams at Henry Miller library Credit: David Black

The Henry Miller Library on California's Big Sur coastline feels like it's in a different country entirely. Essentially a front yard with a small stage constructed under the redwoods – and within spitting distance of bluffs that fall into the Pacific Ocean – the Library (which has a capacity of only 400) proved a particularly powerful backdrop for Ryan Adams' solo acoustic show last night. The famously tortured singer-songwriter performed an informal but inspirational set that competed with crickets and the great outdoors. Adams himself referenced the surreal surroundings throughout the night, confessing that he’s had "some pretty psychedelic experiences on Pfiefer Beach," a legendary though unmarked spot just up the road from the Library. He also gave props to the deviled eggs from the local deli and compared Big Sur's enveloping and foggy redwood forest to the Ewok village from Star Wars more than a few times.

Showcasing a number of tunes from his current release, Ashes & Fire, Adams took advantage of the extremely intimate setting to strip down musically, relax professionally and loosen his proverbial tie for an evening of quiet heartstring music. Of course, just like the Adams of old, he came with no shortage of ad libbed one-liners and biting banter between songs. "Let's do some more happy music – bring on the sunshine," he said innocently at one point. "As I sing this next song, imagine a unicorn walking slowly across the room and then throwing up a rainbow into a toilet of sadness." He then launched into "Dirty Rain." Typical Adams.

Even classics like "New York, New York" got the hushed pin-drop treatment as he reconsidered the song for piano and turned tunes from his Whiskeytown period, such as "16 Days," into spellbinding solo acoustic ballads.

In a night of few actual surprises, the biggest coup came when Adams brought out opener Jason Isbell for an extended encore, beginning with a first-time cover of "Love in the First Degree" – yes, the song originally made famous by country rockers Alabama. It went well and while on stage, the pair decided to continue performing – except they had nothing else prepared. As Adams picked through his songbook looking for something appropriate, the two riffed off each other's improvised color commentary, like two old friends catching up at a bar. In perhaps the most touching – and genuine – moment of the night, when Adams began explaining the chord progression to his original, "Come Pick Me Up," Isbell waved him off: "I already know this one really well," said Isbell. "I gave this record as gifts . . . a lot." Nearly blushing, Adams responded, "I think you may have just found my last feeling."

As someone shouted from the audience, he was in Big Sur, though, which means it won't be hard to find more.

"Sweet Carolina"
"Everybody Knows"
"Ashes & Fire"
"Dirty Rain"
"Sweet Little Gal" (piano)
"Invisible Riverside"
"New York, New York" (piano)
"Winding Wheel"
"Please Do Not Let Me Go"
"Lucky Now"
"English Girls Approximately"
"Let it Ride"
"Blue Hotel"
"Carolina Rain"
"16 Days" (Whiskeytown)
"Houses on the Hill" (Whiskeytown)
"I See Monsters"
"Why Do They Leave"
"Jacksonville Skyline" (Whiskeytown)

Encore: (with Jason Isbell)
"Love in the First Degree" (Alabama)
"Dancing with the Women at the Bar" (Whiskeytown)
Improvisational “Relish” jam
"Come Pick Me Up"

Reviewed: Ryan Adams, 'Ashes & Fire'