Bryan Adams Unplugged

June 2, 2008

Look who’s lined up on Burrard Street, waiting for the doors of St. Andrew’s–Wesley United Church to be opened. There’s weatherbabe Tamara Taggart and her musician hubby, Dave Genn. That’s local legend Red Robinson, and Attorney General Wally Oppal, and Mission Hill zillionaire Anthony von Mandl. Isn’t that Shark Club co-owner John Teti? And there’s White Spot honcho Ron Toigo. These are not people who typically wait in line—what has them queuing in the chilly weather? Bryan Adams has slipped into town to celebrate his mother’s 80th birthday at Le Crocodile, to check out his recording studio in Gastown, and—this night—to promote his new CD, 11, by playing an invite-only acoustic set in the church.

Inside the chapel, Adams—a whippet-thin vegan in black shirt and boots, with designer jeans that catch on his pelvic bones—is already participating, not altogether happily, in a Q & A with three dozen members of the media. Adams has always had a slightly edgy relationship with the press. It shows in his faint annoyance at the lame Qs (“What does Vancouver mean to you?” “Where do you get your inspiration?”), the banality of which the publicist has pretty much assured by warning us that inquiries about anything other than his musical career or the new album are strictly off-limits. It shows in his terse answers, and his impatience to get the hell out of the chapel and onto the stage.

Adams’s personal life is carefully guarded; for the past 16 years he’s lived in London, strategically hobnobbing with supermodels and venturing off every month to do 10 concerts all over the world while pursuing a parallel career as a photographer whose work has been exhibited widely and appeared in the pages of Vanity Fair and Vogue. Having sold some 65 million albums, been nominated for dozens of Genies and Junos and Grammys and Oscars, and played road warrior for the past three decades, he’s built a huge fan base and a dazzling net worth. Which is to say he makes music not because he has to but because he likes to.

And it shows. It’s no easy trick these days keeping an audience riveted for an hour and a half with just a guitar, a harmonica, and a microphone, but Adams—who turns 50 next year—pulls it off, alternating tunes from the new album with oldies so burnished by time that they evoke not just specific memories but entire chapters in a lifetime (“Summer of ’69,” “Run to You,” “Cuts Like a Knife”). Stripped of studio production, the songs reveal their carefully structured bones. The voice, ever more choked up and raspy in the Don Henley mode, still hits all the notes (no octave fakes, no guitar riffs in place of a vocal line, no pitch correction). The fans still listen reverently and cheer wildly. And the rafters, once he gets rolling, still rock.

The studio album, by contrast, feels in places like a de rigueur release meant to keep the turbines humming. Some of the arrangements and chord progressions are overly familiar, and some of the lyrics we’ve heard before (“Tomorrow may be raining/But tonight we’ve got the stars”)—or so it seems. Yet the simply arranged ballads (“Walk On By,” “Mysterious Ways”) hint at a less predictable future, and going acoustic is a great way to point to it. The crowd at the church may have witnessed Adams becoming the rock ’n’ roll version of Steve Yzerman, a spectacular goal scorer who added a chapter to his career by excelling at defence.

“Bryan was nervous,” said Bruce Allen, his manager, after the show. “He’d never done it before. It’s not easy going out there naked, but it’s a hell of a way to draw attention to the songs.” So successful was the gig that Allen cobbled together a 17-shows-in-18-days acoustic swing through the U.S., a fuller testing of the waters that had the added benefit of requiring only a skeletal entourage.

The way to get really good at something, Adams showed at St. Andrew’s, is to do it unceasingly for 30 years. It was 1978 when, as a teenager in a cheap apartment in Kits Point, he wrote “Straight From the Heart.” Say what you like about formulaic tunes, aggressive promotion, a paint-by-numbers approach to career: he’s turned talent, practice, and unrelenting drive into a body of work that has begun to rival—in its popular durability and promise of reinvention—those of artists like Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, and Van Morrison.

Between songs, Adams keeps the patter light. He has his mom, Jane, stand up and wave. He tells a funny, self-deprecating story about chatting with a woman in a hotel lobby earlier in the day, asking what she was doing later, and being told she was going to a concert. “Who you going to see?” he asked. “Bryan Adams,” she replied. Sure enough, she’s in the crowd, too, and happily waves.

At the end of the evening, after two hopping encores with longtime pal and bandmate Keith Scott, Adams stays and signs copies of the new CD, poses (with a less-than-convincing smile) for digital flashes, and submits to adoring hugs. People mill about, abuzz with warm feeling for the hometown boy made good, not wanting the evening to end. “It isn’t too hard to see,” he’d sung earlier, with an expansive gesture that took in the crowd, the church, the city, “we’re in heaven.”

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