Bryan Adams
at the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center,
York, Pa. (11 December 2013)

In January 1998, I was standing in a record store in Dubuque, Iowa -- you remember record stores, don't you? -- and I was looking for a cassette of good tunes that I could play in my car during long drives. I wasn't quite sure what I wanted. But the in-store music system was featuring Bryan Adams's new Unplugged album. As I ambled through the aisles, I heard wonderful acoustic versions of songs I had once heard in full form on the radio. By the time the recording reached the down-and-dirty blues cut, "If You Wanna Be Bad, You Gotta Be Good," I was sold. I gleefully picked up a cassette and paid for it while Bryan's voice and "The Only Thing That Looks Good on Me is You" resounded in the air around me. This album remains one of my favorites. It's the only Bryan Adams music that I own.

So how could I resist seeing Bryan Adams and "The Bare Bones Tour" when it came to a nearby venue? I thought the music would remind me of that time and of those long-distance drives, even though I would instead be sitting in a plush auditorium seat in a fancy downtown theater in York, Pa.

Well, I was wrong. The music wasn't like Unplugged at all. It was different and better and utterly amazing. I'm glad I treated myself to this experience. And Bryan Adams deserves every accolade he's ever gotten, both as a songwriter and as a performer.

It turns out that I'm coming late to this party. Bryan has been doing these types of concerts for a few years now. In 2010, he even released a live album based on them, called Bare Bones, although I must caution you that its set list varies from the one he uses now in person. And I prefer what I heard on this night.

Bryan walked onto the stage with his vintage Martin guitar already strapped on. After a quick wave or two to us, he picked out the intro to a solo acoustic version of "Run to You." We sang along and supplied the claps during the interlude, in lieu of drums. It was amazing how full the sound became, with all of the voices and a single guitar and an occasional foot-stomp from its leader; performing a song that most of the audience members knew and appreciated with participation, cheers and applause. And really, that's the way the whole evening went.

To be fair: for about two-thirds of the songs, Bryan was joined by fellow musician Gary Breit at a shiny black grand piano. His fingers added a bit of flavor to the mix, but the harmonies were far from flamboyant; and most of the time, they were barely noticeable.

Gary came onto the stage after Bryan gave us "It's Only Love." Together they launched into a set list that included "I Thought I'd Seen Everything," "Here I Am," "When You Love Someone," "This Time," "I Finally Found Someone," "Can't Stop This Thing We Started," "If Ya Wanna Be Bad, Ya Gotta Be Good," "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You," "Please Forgive Me," "Walk on By," "Heaven," "All for Love," "The Right Place" and "The Only Thing That Looks Good on Me is You." These were some of the best romance and relationship songs of the 1980s and '90s, and the crowd -- many of them, couples in their 30s and 40s -- took them in like oxygen. "Summer of '69" got a standing ovation. Sure, it was great to hear it in person. But I think I preferred "Cuts Like a Knife." Maybe it was the fun of singing along with all of the "nah-nah-nahs" that made this one my immediate favorite of the night.

Bryan talked to us between songs, too. He reminisced about the early days when he was first starting out on tour, when he had opportunities to open for groups like Foreigner and Journey. Those encounters led to everything else, for which he remains grateful. He also chatted about some of the individuals he's had a chance to work with and write songs for. Obviously, Bryan Adams is a performer who's comfortable with his own talent and his own celebrity status and the places where his fortunes have led him. Yet he seems still a little in awe of it all. Exchanging emails with Kenny Rogers? Yammering over the phone with Barbra Streisand? Sure, why not? He can hold his own with them -- even if he has to pinch himself later to believe that the exchanges were real.

He also made time for the devoted fans sitting right in front of him, some of whom have followed him around the country for a while. When one of them noted that Bryan should do something for the holidays, he ripped off a quick verse and chorus of his song, "Christmas Time." Later, during the encore, when a male voice from the rear shouted "Free Bird!" Bryan even opted to do a verse of the Lynryd Skynryd classic. Really. The result was less than stellar, even though we sang along.

Bryan and Gary offered an expansive encore consisting of "Somebody," "You've Been a Friend to Me," "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?" and "I Still Miss You ... A Little Bit." Then Gary waved good-bye to the crowd, and Bryan slipped into a harmonica holder to conclude the evening with the benediction of "Straight from the Heart." (Dylan or Springsteen, he's not. And that's OK. Who else is?) Then he too was gone. But he soon returned after the house lights came up, in order to autograph items for fans.

Two hours had somehow ticked off the clock. Though pianist Gary Breit had come and gone periodically during the performance, there had been no breaks for Bryan Adams. He had played non-stop. He didn't even pause to take a single slurp of water. And he had still hit every note, had strummed every chord, and had made it all look effortless. Which it must have been, to him. What a guy!

"The Bare Bones Tour" is just that: with no fancy sets, no glittering light shows and no pyrotechnics (though a fog machine provided a bit of beginning atmosphere). At its core, it's about one man and one guitar. Yes, just one guitar. No roadies running out to switch instruments, ad infinitum. And for the most part, Bryan Adams's songs use campfire chords as their basis, with nothing terribly intricate that the rest of us can't manage, if we want to try our hands at them. Simplicity and professionalism rule the day. And yet: Bryan proved that he could get more sound and nuance out of one Martin guitar than any neighborhood garage band could ever achieve, no matter how many instruments and amps they could snag from friends and relatives. You don't need glitz or calisthenics or eardrum-shattering sound to do the perfect job. You just need the person who can do it.

At 54, Bryan Adams is still writing music, performing music and heading a nonprofit foundation that helps disadvantaged individuals from around the world. It was truly a joy to watch someone in his element, doing with joy what he was meant to do. On this winter evening in York, I heard everything I wanted to hear, and much more. Now I can add new memories to the old.

by Corinne H. Smith
4 January 2014

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