There’s no faking this one: Up close with the real Bryan Adams

by Ryan Snyder

Bryan Adams goes solo before a sold-out Carolina Theatre crowd (photo by Ryan Snyder)

Within rocker Bryan Adams’ recent sold-out show at the Carolina Theatre, there laid a perfect microcosm for the hypothesis of the somewhat short-sighted op-ed piece by former music critic and TriadStyle columnist Steve Almond, published in the Boston Globe last Monday. In it, he argues the pointlessness of music criticism as a trade, contesting instead that writers should only concentrate on music that they themselves enjoy. After plainly stating that he wasn’t actually very good at what he did, he described his short time in the field spent thinking of witty insults to color articles about artists that he didn’t personally enjoy. It was during an MC Hammer concert, while doing just that, when his epiphanic moment came.

Noticing that everyone around him was having a great time, in spite of his own preconceived notions about Hammer, Almond questioned the entire point of his presence. Never mind Almond believing the entire practice to be illegitimate because he sucked at his job; the point of his presence was to ask why the fans were having fun and try to answer it. This same question certainly came to mind while watching Adams perform two dozen of his hits and B-sides, with only an acoustic guitar and occasional piano accompaniment, to a clearly enthralled audience last Wednesday.

I’ll be blunt with my own opinion: I came into the show largely apathetic towards Adams’ music and left completely unimpressed with both his music and the man himself. In 30 years of performing, Adams still seems incapable of crafting and performing anything beyond the most basic piece of music, both lyrically and melodically. He’s yet to convince anyone that he’s a totally competent guitarist as indicated by his regular fudging of chords, most notably the two false starts of “Can’t Stop This Thing We Started.” His sparse choice of format not only exposed his limitations, but tested the acceptable number of onedimensional love songs a person should safely consume in a two-hour span.

But even more vapid than Adams’ lyrical sensibilities was his nauseatingly self-reverential demeanor. Of course, his Bare Bones tour is supposed to be an opportunity for the artist himself to connect with a crowd of fans willing to pony up for the opportunity to see him outside of the big arenas to which they’re accustomed. The only corollary to his canned banter, however, was a feeling that he’s the kind of guy who might be president of his own fan club. I got it. He’s Bryan Adams, the best-selling male Canadian musician of all time. He’s a big shot. But no way in Hades am I to believe that anyone would confuse him for Willie Nelson, as he implied in an attempt to cajole the audience into accepting his false modesty. John Mellencamp, maybe.

Adams’ hubris was particularly exasperating when relating a story about his trip to Vancouver to perform at the Winter Olympics’ Opening Ceremonies. In it, he described an encounter at a hotel where his tone gave away his astonishment that a casual conversation with someone in his own homeland didn’t lead to slobbering idol worship.

“Did you see the Opening Ceremonies?,” Adams said nonchalantly in a heavy, third-person Canadian voice, before expositing, “I didn’t want to tell him that I actually performed in the Opening Ceremonies.”

One other thing Adams probably wouldn’t have told the person, or the audience to which he was ballyhooing himself, was that he faked that entire performance, as he has a sordid history of doing (see: his performance on The Wall: Live In Berlin). His lip-synch job was so painfully obvious — the vocal track began playing a full two seconds before he put the mic to his mouth — that one can only speculate how little regard Adams has for his fans’ values.

Then again, maybe Adams is fully aware of his fans’ standards.

Music writers tend to consume a lot of live music and aren’t easily impressed by nature, but maybe the garden-variety Bryan Adams fan doesn’t adhere to the same strict conventions. Part of Almonds’ critique was that a rift exists between popular taste and critical opinion and, like Almond at the Hammer show, people here were clearly enjoying it. When Adams backed away from the mic for one of his dozen or so “quiet yells,” pianist Gary Breit finished it up with an outro tidy, though limited by the simplicity of the material.

“Good job, Gary,” a man behind me yelled at its conclusion. I turned around to see him wearing a big, dumb grin, mouth agape at what he perceived to be the zenith of showmanship, which brought me back to the question: Why are people responding to Bryan Adams this way, when it’s clear — to me at least — that so much better is out there? Fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen, whom I hold in the highest regard, can dazzle the harshest critic, yet is as humble and gracious as Adams is smug on stage. Both can their dialog from show to show, but only one sounds genuine in his delivery.

Part of my realization to that question came when Adams shot the hook of “Summer of ‘69” to the crowd, and nary a male voice came back in response. The other part, as to whether Bryan Adams is actually “good,” I can only address from my own findings: No, he’s not.

He still has the voice and he still has the looks to drive his appeal, but he’s essentially what an untouched McDonalds’ hamburger might be 30 years after being packaged; cosmetically sound, but still nutritiously questionable.