I was at The Berkeley Cafe for the Wednesday Jam when I get a tap on the shoulder. "Go to Slim's, right now." I grabbed my friend. "We have to go. Now."
Slim's was packed with patrons, a band in the back. I listened and realized it was Raleigh expatriate/bad-boy Ryan Adams and components of his old act Whiskeytown--Skillet Gillmore and Caitlin Cary--together again at a place where Ryan sort of got started (after vowing never to play in Raleigh again), playing a spontaneous after-show on the heels of his Meymandi gig.
Adams, some of you may remember, had sort of a tough time in this town (a varying amount admittedly of his own doing). Raleigh, for its part, was hard on the lad, certain journalists taking him to task for acting, well, like a rock star. For my part, I have always gotten along fine with Ryan, accepting the reality that life at the top can have its share of liabilities. It takes an industrial-sized ego to climb up that particular pile. Bad behavior? Big deal. Famous people frequently act up. Frank Sinatra makes Ryan look like a Boy Scout, Sinatra at one point driving a golf cart through the window of the Sands in Vegas after learning that his credit line at the casino had been suspended.
But more than that, Raleigh has this catty tendancy to slag anyone who enjoys a measure of success, viciously attacking from behind most anyone who makes a splash--"sell-out" being the most frequent (and predictable) epithet. If you decide you don't want to stay dumb, closed-minded and utterly provincial, we will spend the rest of eternity talking about what an asshole you are.
Not Wednesday. Inside Slim's, there was this really cool vibe, the packed crowd jammed up to the small stage, swaying to the music. I climbed the stairs for a look. Ryan had his buzz on. I hadn't seen him in five years, the only contact being items in the papers and TV. I saw a cardboard cut-out of him in Manhattan once, but that was as close as I had gotten.
He'd changed, aged. Five years is a long time, especially at the top of the music circuit. He wore glasses and had developed an air that reminded a bit of The Backsliders' Chip Robinson, sort of rode hard and put up wet.
Ryan flogged away at his six-string, playing his old stuff while the audience listened, mostly quietly. You could feel sort of a vibratory exchange between him and the crowd, sort of an emotional exchange--the return of the prodigal, I guess.
At one point, the lad, full of feel-good booze, I guess, stumbled on the lyrics. He kept playing and the audience took over and began singing the song. Soon the room was full of the joined tones of dozens of ragged voices. Ryan smiled a sideways smile and just kept playing as the words soared over the bar. It felt like a page had been turned, the animosity cancelled.
"Welcome home," I said to him after I'd wormed through the crowd of the star-struck clamoring for a glimpse.
He looked at me for a second, finally registering that it was I--with a few more wrinkles. He smiled, a little woozy.
"Thanks. It's good to be here."