By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Sep 26, 2007 at 10:03 AM

Last night's Ryan Adams & The Cardinals show at the Riverside Theater was easily one of the most anticipated performances of the year in Milwaukee. Not just because he's a huge name with a prolific career, not because his new album, "Easy Tiger," is really good, and not even because he disappointingly canceled his previous engagement with us in January.

There is a reputation that precedes Mr. Adams, and he is widely known for hosting animated, engaging live shows that are sometimes laced with dubious, yet always memorable, behavior.

Still, going into the show last night, I wasn't sure what to expect. He's had a massively sobering year and who knows how much cutting mass quantities of coke and heroin from one's daily diet -- however good for his health -- might alter his infamous stage presence?

Adams and his Cardinals sauntered quietly onto stage and dove into a lengthy instrumental that left most of the audience in the dark, literally. The stage lights never rose above a dim glow and, save for the thousands of tiny twinkling stars used as a backdrop, noodley guitar parts and soft croons emitted from a nearly indistinguishable Adams.

The mood was eternally ethereal, which actually worked quite well, given the set list. Adams and the band lost themselves in extended jam sessions accented by color-changing waves of little lights for a first half that felt altogether psychadelic.

To be fair, it's never been a secret that Adams adores the Grateful Dead -- and a solid section of his work reflects that love affair. But the nice thing about his selection of work is that it is massive and eclectic, so finding what you're in the mood for is only a matter of pushing play on the appropriate CD. Live, of course, he is the master of the mood and when he lays it all out for you, you can't help but think, "Holy crap, this band is jammy."

Mid-show Adams switched to piano and lit a cigarette, which still did nothing to illuminate his shadowed face. It was well over half an hour in and neither Adams nor the band had uttered a word to the audience -- something it was well aware of and vigorously attempting to encourage by yelling random quips at the stage.

When Adams finally addressed us, it was in a whisper: "Don't feed the bears unless you want to get bit." It became immediately apparent that Adams didn't care to be bothered by banter; he had some songs to sing and was determined to stay focused -- a point driven home by another whispered proclamation, "I have a feeling that people of my generation don't have any patience."

And if it was anything the 32-year-old singer-songwriter exhibited last night, it was patience. In many ways, the show was like an extended metaphor for "Easy Tiger" -- it was slow, paced and careful, and more beautiful the more you let go and let yourself indulge in it. The second half was characterized primarily by new songs -- "Goodnight Rose," "The Sun Also Sets, "Off Broadway," and "I Taught Myself How to Grow Old," -- which was, by far, the most he represented any of his eight or so albums.

Maybe this is the new Ryan Adams -- calm, cool, collected and coy? Either way, there appears to be no end in sight for this prolific writer, despite his contract with Lost Highway soon coming to an end. Meanwhile, "Easy Tiger" remains one of the most captivating albums of the year, even if his live rendition of it seemed slightly less so.

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”