Pop Life column: For Adam Duritz, creative daylight fading
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I vividly remember my first encounter with Counting Crows, though I can't remember the exact date. I recall it was sometime around my 24th birthday in late September 1993. I think I might have just seen the clip for "Mr. Jones" or "Round Here" on MTV the day before. I was bowled over by the album that spawned them, but the chronology of how I came to be aware of the Bay Area boys tends to blur.

I do know that the group's debut, "August and Everything After," had just arrived, ushered in on waves of critical hype proclaiming the quintet the next Band and dreadlocked vocalist Adam Duritz a throwback to primo Van Morrison - a welcome development at a time when rock had been overrun by grunge both great and godawful.

Given that (thanks to my mother's latent discovery and handed-down introduction) I had spent the previous decade immersed in the Americana grandeur of the Band, I hurried to the nearby Wherehouse and bought the disc, no questions asked. I spent that afternoon home alone, playing it again and again on my parents' stereo (it sounded better, warmer) and marveling that a group of guys roughly my age had so skillfully resurrected the Band's seemingly impossible-to-replicate vibe.

To be sure, they didn't do it nearly as instinctively. The Band was an original, creating an old-yet-new sound barely removed from its rustic roots; Counting Crows were - and, sadly, still are - an approximation.

An often brilliant one, mind you, one more apt to churn out emotionally wrenching moments than sell out to the machinery with cute ditties like "Accidentally in Love." The Crows have always seemed wise beyond their years, like journeymen rockers transplanted from another era. And at no time have they amounted to anything less than a first-rate rock band fronted by a profound (if tortured) lyricist far more willing than his peers to delve into the darker corners of his soul.

But even as I've redeveloped a deeper appreciation for them - the result of ardent fan Roxanne's influence - they've also never seemed to me anything greater than what they've always been.

Yet when they initially surfaced, I think a great many of us instant converts had very high hopes for their future. Sure, the band may have been merely serviceable; take away the mandolins and the Hammond B-3 organ and Dan Vickrey's occasionally searing six-string work and what's left is just a cut above average.

Duritz represented something more, however - a modern poet-songwriter in the Dylan mode, fearlessly chasing his muse (an esoteric, self-reflective creature he calls Maria) wherever she may lead yet maintaining enough self-awareness so as not to take himself or his music too seriously.

Indeed, he's often been able to make material that might be ordinary in another's hands (say, current road mates the Goo Goo Dolls) into something more substantial. When he wants to, that is. When he doesn't try so hard, we get "American Girls" or the band's pointless remake of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi."

Or worse. Consider the pair of stopgaps Counting Crows have issued while Duritz takes his sweet time finding inspiration.

It's been four years since the band's last proper album, "Hard Candy," a solid but unspectacular work suggesting that faithfully following the Crows' career was reaping diminishing returns. In the meantime, the group has released a not-quite-comprehensive retrospective (2003's "Films About Ghosts"), that nifty but inconsequential "Shrek" tune and now, out this week, a live album, "New Amsterdam: Live at Heineken Music Hall, February 4-6, 2003."

It's their second live set, actually - and the earlier one, 1998's "Across the Wire: Live in New York," was a double. That means the band has put out almost as much live work as studio jobs in a decade-plus. And rather than retreat, finish up a rumored double-album (half electric, half acoustic, like Foo Fighters' "In Your Honor"), they have taken to touring. Again. And with, of all acts, the Goo Goos (the pairing plays June 30 at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater).

Didn't Duritz insist - to me and anyone else who interviewed him last year - that they weren't coming back until a new album was done?

This development is pathetic, and troubling. It suggests Duritz is creatively washed up and willing to pick up a paycheck by teaming with an inferior touring partner. Compare him to forebears he idolizes, like Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison, and his reputation crumbles. Those legends have not only rarely let up in terms of output, typically issuing something new every year, but they continue to stretch their boundaries, challenging fans with new twists one moment, satisfying their need for nostalgia the next.

And those guys are four decades into their careers. Duritz hasn't reached the end of his second, yet he seemingly has nothing left to say. Maybe it's high time he broke away from the band, let the terror of creative independence fuel him.

He's still a compelling presence who, because he's spent the bulk of his days singing the same songs over and over, can now bring deeper resonance to familiar material. This new live set is nothing to scoff at; the Crows have rarely been stronger, and Duritz performs inspired versions of "Rain King" and "Catapult" and new-to-disc tunes like "Four White Stallions" and "Hazy" with so much evident ache and desperation that he often sounds on the verge of imploding.

But that was before "Accidentally in Love" gave him a big fat hit, and before he seemed willing to slip into the county-fair circuit for good. Is he done? Is he just in a lull? I don't doubt that Counting Crows could re-emerge in a year or two with their best album yet.

Then again, I also wonder if they'll ever finish it. Or if it will finish them.
Source: Bob Wener

Author: OC Register

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