In 2002, The Austin City Limits (ACL) music festival started off as a small, two-day event in Zilker Park and Ryan Adams was there. Fast forward to 2017 and Ryan Adams was back again, helping kick things off at Stubb’s Amphitheater for what has now grown into a six day, two weekend affair where people come from around the world to celebrate good times and good tunes. Though Ryan would be appearing the next day at the main festival, his performance at Stubb’s would be a full two hour affair with no breaks or encores, just Ryan and his band playing their hearts out. This appearance was one of many ACL Aftershows – an additional chance for fans to see their favorite ACL performers play at smaller venues outside of the festival itself. In the case of Ryan Adams, the show was sold out, and the crowd stretched thick from the front of the stage all the way to the back where crowded VIP guests stood watch on their special patio.
The evening kicked off with up and coming Aussie trio Middle Kids, who apparently have never eaten BBQ. Lucky for them, Stubb’s Amphitheater is part of the attached Stubb’s BBQ restaurant where the band enjoyed dinner before playing. “We just had some BBQ from this place. Amazing. It’s our first time having BBQ” one of the band members said between songs. Middle Kids may be a new band, but they already have a couple of radio friendly hits, which the crowd welcomed with loud cheers. Many in the audience sang along.
Sing-alongs are definitely a thing when it comes to Ryan Adams’s music. Ryan took to the stage almost two hours after sunset, and the stage was pitch black, with white fog misting up in front of a backdrop pyramid of blinking TV’s. It was difficult to see Ryan, but make no mistake, you heard him. He exclaimed “Let’s party, Austin!” as the opening chords of “Do You Still Love Me?” took to the sky. The crowd roared with delight as they started filming and singing along. The sing-along continued through Ryan’s first few songs, and immediately after the song “Two” finished, a guy behind me whispered, “I love you Ryan” just loud enough for those around him to hear and nod in agreement.
With “Prisoner,” things got even darker. The few pink and purple stage lights were turned off, leaving the glow of one small red bulb, a string of Christmas lights on Ryan’s mic stand and the ambient light from the blinking TVs. “Prisoner” is the title track of Ryan’s 2017 release of the same name, and it’s a dark love song. Ryan sang about being a prisoner of a love that he knows is wrong. Before the song ended, he sank into an even darker part of the stage to play a haunting guitar solo. The only light at this point was the bright glow of the full Harvest moon, and it lit the faces of the stone silent audience, hypnotized by the Ryan’s guitar chords. It was as though Ryan had escaped to play in the dark side of the moon, and we were there in the light waiting for him, waiting for him to return from his inky prison of a doomed love. It would turn out to be awhile, because with the next tune, “Doomsday,” Ryan showed no signs of stopping. He continued to play somberly with no breaks. It wasn’t until right before “Let It Ride” that Ryan finally broke the tension, encouraging the audience to “arrrghhhh” like pirates. We finally got a laugh, and a chance to reconnect again as one.
It was during this time when Ryan began telling stories of his early days in Austin and of stumbling out of Casino El Camino, dazed and trying to find his way home. He then told a more modern story of an encounter with a drunk man on the streets of downtown that he thought was funny, and dedicated “To Be Without You” to this man. Not long after, Ryan made another dedication, this time to the recently deceased Tom Petty, with the song “We Disappear”.
Throughout Ryan’s two-hour set, the sold-out capacity crowd never dissipated, standing strong until the last song was sung. The love was reciprocated by Ryan, who in the end told the people of Austin “I love this city . . . people have always been so great to me”.
Throughout the night, there were couples kissing and dancing to Ryan’s music. Perhaps it was the frequent harmonica… or maybe it was the dimly lit, moody stage… or Ryan’s velvety voice… or the talents of his band … or maybe it was the mix of it all. Or perhaps it was that full harvest moon of early October, but by the time the next-to-the-last-song “Come Pick Me Up” came on, couples were swaying in each other’s arms and engaging in full-blown make-out sessions. Those of us who (sadly) couldn’t use our tongues to twirl and dance in another’s mouth were using it to sing to the chorus, inciting others to just go ahead and “come pick us up, take us out, fuck us up and steal our records.” Was this in angst and disgust that we didn’t have a make out partner? Or was that just because we liked the song as it has a nice rhythm? Nevertheless the closing song “Shakedown On 9th Street” allowed for release with foot-stomping and booty-shaking in the good ol’ fashioned sense of things. At this point, someone howled up at the moon which had now stretched high above the trees that dotted the venue, reminding us that we are alive and things are good, especially in the company of Ryan Adams and his multi-talented, unnamed band who keeps to the shadows of the stage.