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Music Preview: Ryan Adams tunes up in Millvale to open for the Stones

Friday, January 10, 2003

By Scott Mervis, Post-Gazette Weekend Editor

Ryan Adams, who has yet to take a stage in Pittsburgh as a solo artist, has been playing music here all week. But not for public consumption.

Ryan Adams performs at the 2001 South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. (Jack Plunkett, Associated Press)

Adams -- once the boy wonder of the alt-country scene, now on his way to pop stardom -- has spent the new year holed up in Millvale, preparing for eight crazy nights with the Rolling Stones, starting this evening at Mellon Arena, and including two shows at Madison Square Garden.

Coming off a well-received, sometimes wacky, solo acoustic club tour to promote "Demolition," Adams bought time at Mr. Small's Funhouse, a studio in Millvale owned by Rusted Root's Liz Berlin and husband Michael Speranzo, to work out his band for the shows.

While he was here, he posted a call on his Web site for drinking holes in Pittsburgh. Among the suggestions fired back were Mad Mex, Primanti's and Dee's Cafe (with a warning about the wall-to-wall piercings and tattoos). As of yesterday morning, there were no Ryan Adams sightings, but the word was that he and the band might be heading for Polish Hill last night.

Tonight, he'll definitely be with the Stones. As a preview, let's take a look back at what he's done.

Starting out: Adams, from Jacksonville, N.C., formed his first band, the Patty Duke Syndrome, when he was 16. The influence was Husker Du, but during that time he started listening to folks like Gram Parson and George Jones.

Alt-country Nirvana?: Relocated to Raleigh, N.C., Adams formed Whiskeytown when he was 20 and quickly became the great white hope of the No Depression scene. Adams displayed his amazing grasp of all things Hank Williams and Paul Westerberg on the indie "Faithless Street" and debuted in the majors with the more polished and hypnotic "Strangers Almanac."

Early attitude: Asked if he would play to MTV, he told the PG in '97: "I don't want to be dancing around on camera, lip-syncing on my record. For what? So some kids will get into it and buy it? I don't want to be no country-rock Bush."

Flying solo: With all efforts of keeping Whiskeytown intact failing, Adams flew solo with "Heartbreaker," a stripped-down Dylan-esque affair, followed by the much-slicker "Gold," which, by chance, came out two weeks after Sept. 11 leading with the bubbly "New York, New York" (not the cabaret song).

Demolition Man: What do you do with 60 new songs? Adams wanted to release a boxed set. Lost Highway, his record company, said no. So he leaked a batch of them late last year on "Demolition," a nice, raw antidote to "Gold."

Friend of Willie: Adams can be seen on a great Gap commercial trading parts of Hank Williams' "Move it on Over" with Willie Nelson. He also appeared on Nelson's "Stars and Guitars" special.

No B in Ryan: Don't call out "Summer of 69" unless you really want to annoy him. Last fall, Adams stopped his set at a Nashville club and demanded that the heckler be escorted out before the set continued. He doesn't like Bryan Adams jokes. But, as Adams writes on his Web site, the guy "didn't ask for 'Summer of 69' once, he asked for it 15 times and the [bleepin'] security at the Ryman did [bleepin'] nothing ... so I did."

History here: Adams has never been here as Adams, but he fronted the various versions of Whiskeytown here three times. In the first of two shows at Rosebud, a nervous Adams had too much to drink and briefly left the stage to, um, evacuate, then quickly returned to finish a stunning set. At the Star Lake Amphitheatre, opening for John Fogerty in June of '98, he raged through a short set sounding more postpunk than country.

Alliances: Adams has appeared on records by Beth Orton, Lucinda Williams, Counting Crows, Alejandro Escovedo and Caitlin Carey (former partner in Whiskeytown), among others.

Conquests: Made the scene with Winona Ryder.

Punk Adams: According to NME, the British music magazine, Adams recently made an uncredited appearance on a vinyl-only release by The Finger called "We Are [Bleep] You." It's supposed to sound like Black Flag. Good luck finding it.

Impressionable: Adams gets a lot of flack about being derivative. He doesn't care. He recently told the Boston Herald: "I am [bleepin'] derivative. I play songs in G, I sing about chicks and myself being [bleeped] up. Hello! That's what all the great novels are about. I'm not gonna start writing [bleepin'] records about space aliens just because somebody says something."

Scott Mervis can be reached at smervis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2576.

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