Hourlong sets at music festivals aren’t really the best musical environment for a performer like Ryan Adams, who’s written so many songs over the last two-plus decades that boiling it down to just a dozen or so is fairly limiting. Friday evening at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, he offered up 14 songs from various phases of his solo career, giving festgoers just a taste of his full songwriting range.
When Adams taped the “Austin City Limits ” TV show in 2014, he played enough songs a solo acoustic opening set before bringing his band out that the show was able to make two entirely separate episodes out of the resulting footage. Similarly, when he performed an official ACL Fest Late Night Show at Stubb’s on Thursday, he had room to stretch out with 26 songs in a greater variety of formats and arrangements.
Friday’s set at the festival was solid, but at times it felt rushed and workmanlike, as if Adams knew he had to get through the abbreviated set in his allotted time. For those who love him, there were still quite a few highlights: “Come Pick Me Up” and “To Be Young” from his 2000 solo debut “Heartbreaker,” “When the Stars Go Blue” and “New York New York” from 2001’s “Gold,” “Let It Ride” and the title track from 2005’s double-album “Cold Roses.”
But the spontaneity that has at times made his shows colorful and personable was mostly absent. His banter between songs was minimal, for better or worse. Adams has a longstanding reputation for interaction with the crowd that’s sometimes playful, sometimes volatile. On this night, he let his music speak for itself. And when it was good, as on the mid-set standout “This House Is Not for Sale” from his fascinating 2004 album “Love Is Hell,” it was quite memorable.
There was one exception to the otherwise noncombative night, but it was understandable. Early on, he scolded a fan for using a flash, a legitimate issue for Adams as he suffers from Meniere’s Disease, an inner ear condition that causes high sensitivity to bright flashing lights. (The addition of a hearing-impaired sign-language interpreter at stage left was a nice touch, perhaps also motivated by Adams’ condition; Meniere’s could eventually take his hearing in one or both ears.)
A slight surprise: On a day in which the grounds often rang out with salutes to Tom Petty (Asleep at the Wheel’s “I Won’t Back Down,” Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real’s “American Girl,” the Revivalists’ “Wildflowers” and “Refugee”), Adams stuck to only his own songs. He actually has a song of his own called “Breakdown” which isn’t a cover of Petty’s; Thursday night at Stubb’s, he played that song and dedicated it to Petty. Friday, there were simply too many songs to play in too little time. Nobody’s fault, really, but the fans who filled out the grounds at the Miller Lite Stage likely would’ve loved to hear more.