Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Counting Crows - Echoes of the Outlaw Roadshow

Let me preface this review by saying that it’s incredibly hard for me to say anything negative about Counting Crows. Without the lyrical grace and emotional inflection of frontman Adam Duritz, I probably wouldn’t be writing these words. One of my earliest musical memories was hearing this band for the first time. My family and I were climbing into the car after some bike trip, and my brother decided it was an opportune moment to slip my step-dad's copy of August and Everything After into the CD player. He skipped forward a few numbers, “Mr. Jones” issued from the speakers, and I fell in love immediately. That memory was one I considered a lot a decade later when I picked up the band’s greatest hits collection (called Films About Ghosts) and began to discover Counting Crows beyond just the singles. At that point in time, I think I owned about six CDs, half of which were Creed (I am not proud of this), but that record, which contained 16 of the Crows' “best” songs, was a turning point. Throughout that winter, I played the album almost every afternoon, and those songs breathed vitality and life into the bleak winter landscape that had taken up residence in my hometown: the rip-roaring electricity of “Angels of the Silences,” the emotional swell of “Round Here,” the poetic perfection of “A Long December” and “Mrs. Potter Lullaby,” and the nostalgic beauty of “Recovering the Satellites,” they all became a part of me.

In the nine-plus years since, Counting Crows have only released a single album of original content. Needless to say, I became a die-hard fan of the band at precisely the wrong moment. Following four terrific albums, spaced out on an every-three-year timeframe from 1993 to 2002, Films About Ghosts was the band’s way of telling the world they were taking a breather. Half a decade would pass before their fifth full-length—2008’s lukewarm Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings—hit the streets, and then Duritz and company would take another four years to come up with last year’s Underwater Sunshine, a well-executed cover album, but a cover album nonetheless. In the meantime, the band has done their best to mollify their fans’ growing restlessness with a series of live albums—a document of the Hard Candy tour in 2006 and a special full-album performance of August & Everything After in 2011—and their latest release, called Echoes of the Outlaw Roadshow, is the next in that series.

To be fair, Counting Crows are a transcendent live act, and each of their live records bears its own significance and personality. Where their first concert album—1998’s Across a Wire—was a double-disc affair showcasing the band in both stripped-down acoustic and full-blown electric environments, Echoes of the Outlaw Roadshow finds them as a seasoned collective of professionals, comfortable with traversing their entire catalog, transfiguring old favorites, resurrecting deep cuts, and delivering covers like they’re originals. In fact, the finest moment of the disc is the Bob Dylan song that kicks it off. “Girl From North Country,” culled from Dylan’s 1963 breakthrough, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, is one of the legendary singer/songwriter’s most yearning compositions, and this cover is as good as they come. Performed at the start of the show, with just vocals and acoustic guitar, “Girl from North Country” is a stark and intimate reminder of Duritz’s ability to generate pin-drop intensity in a room. Where many bands from the 1990s radio-rock scene now rely heavily on old hits and crowd sing-alongs to carry their shows, the Crows’ greatest asset as a live band has always been their gift for maintaining rapt audience attention in less-familiar territory.

“Round Here” is a perfect example of the above phenomenon. Originally the song that broke the silence at the top of their debut, “Round Here” rarely maintains the same arrangement and format from tour to tour. (Legend has it that the song has also never been exactly recreated in the manner it appears on record.) While the general road-map of the song remains the same—the chiming guitar intro, the poetic verses, the dynamic emotional build-up—Duritz and company frequently pepper it with alterations, improvisations, and interpolations of other artists’ songs. The “Round Here” that appears with this collection is one of the best, bursting breathtakingly into loose improv sections and sly snippets of Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing.” “Darling summer’s almost over, before the world gets too much colder/Come outside and run away with me,” Duritz wails spontaneously over the song’s elongated mid-section: for a moment, this feels like the Crows of old.

But beyond the first two tracks, the most notable thing about this particular live album is the setlist. For a band that has supported a bootleg-trading network within their fanbase for almost as long as they’ve had a fanbase, it doesn’t make much sense for Counting Crows to keep going back to the well for more “official” live releases, but if they’re going to do so, it’s at least nice that they try not to retread songs that have already appeared on previous concert discs (with a few exceptions). This particular release is loaded with deep cuts, from the harmonica-laced blues of “Mercury” (a forgotten gem from the experimental second side of 1996’s Recovering the Satellites) to a pair of songs from both This Desert Life (the road-trip folk of “Four Days” and the downright-bizarre “I Wish I Was a Girl) and Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings (the hazy emotional breakdown of “Sundays” and the haunting siren song that is “Le Ballet d’Or”). But it’s Hard Candy—which celebrated its tenth anniversary last year—that supplies the rest of the highlights.

Often dismissed as a misguided and overproduced expedition into the realms of mainstream pop music, Hard Candy is one of the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned albums in recent memory. On record, the studio gloss and soaring hooks masked a complex lyrical web, a collection of songs that revealed Adam Duritz’s increasingly serious battles with insomnia, depression, and mental instability. On the gorgeous “Carriage”—one of the forgotten late-album tracks which gets resurrected here in wonderful fashion—amidst a gentle acoustic lilt, the burn of a lone trumpet player, and lyrics about “chocolate bars and baseball cards,” a once-meaningful relationship all but vanishes into the tragedy of a losing an unborn child. “Up All Night,” meanwhile, is one of the five best songs Duritz has ever written, the kind of glorious, dusky anthem you play in the car at night when the weather is finally starting to warm up.“This is a summertime song,” Duritz announces at the song’s outset. “Hard Candy was a late night album.” If you need any extra encouragement to catch the Crows on their tour with the Wallflowers this summer, look no further than this penultimate scorcher.

Ultimately, Echoes of the Outlaw Roadshow is a solid document of a great live band. The covers are good, the setlist is unique, and there are a few transcendent moments. But Counting Crows—Duritz especially—are too talented to become one of those bands that only plays live shows and releases cover albums. Maybe I’m biased, since I’d call August & Everything After the single greatest album of the nineties and since I love Hard Candy more than anyone else I’ve ever encountered, but I truly believe that Duritz has the skill, both as a songwriter and a frontman, to land in the pantheon of greats. Even if he never writes another song or never releases another album, he’s got a pretty killer legacy to leave behind. But I’d like to think that this band still has at least one classic left in them, and while frequent concert tours and live albums are nice to have, but I’m infinitely more excited for that next step forward.

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