Counting Crows: Rearranged, revealing, riveting
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What's the surest way to shut up a doubting critic? Play your heart out on stage.

Let me explain.

Two Fridays ago, in my Pop Life column, I wondered if the endlessly touring, slow-to-record Counting Crows were out of gas. It has been four years, I pointed out, since the band issued a proper new album, biding its time instead with cash cows like a retrospective and a recently released live disc.

That's enough to make any fan wonder if the group that a dozen years ago emerged as a new torchbearer for classic American rock - the sort handed down by the Band, Springsteen, Grateful Dead and the like - was now on a fast-track to irrelevance. Could it be that the Crows' fragile, prickly, lovably insecure vocalist-songwriter Adam Duritz has lost his inspiration, or just run out of meaningful things to say?

The necessary response to that question remains unheard. Earlier this month, when the band's tour with subpar partner the Goo Goo Dolls stopped in Las Vegas, Duritz reportedly told the crowd that the recording of a double-album, tentatively titled "Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings," was well underway. In fact, the first half (the presumably raucous and electric "Nights" portion) was done; the Crows intend to cut the acoustic "Mornings" comedown this fall.

Yet rather than use this summer outing as a chance to test out completed material - and flesh out the gone-mad approach of "Saturday Nights" as a means to palpably feel its sunrise hangover - Duritz and his six steady collaborators aren't touching the new stuff.

It's hard not to be disheartened by that. Last Thursday, the night before the Crows headlined Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine, I watched Radiohead bravely unveil eight fresh tracks before throngs of die-hards eager for more. That the Crows weren't willing to treat longtime devotees to even one new morsel suggests they have no faith in their fans' attention spans.

Which becomes a bewildering thought when you sit through 90 riveting and revealing minutes from the band at Verizon - and realize that most of that time they've done nothing but challenge true believers with emotionally wracked, radical rearrangements of beloved songs.

Take this night's slower, aching rendition of "Rain King," an epic version that momentarily drifted into another song ("Raining in Baltimore") and several passages of soulful lyric repetition à la Van Morrison in the early '70s. Or consider the warmth the players brought to the Dead's "Friend of the Devil," gently enveloping Duritz's barely restrained passion in that tune's sheriff-on-my-trail bridge.

And notice just how much Duritz threw himself into all of his well-worn gems, overdramatizing elliptical storytelling for heightened effect, tossing his barefoot and alarmingly hefty frame across the stage like a spastic drunk achieving transcendent clarity while teetering on the brink of a mental abyss.

I've seen the Crows four times since "Hard Candy" arrived in 2002, and not once were they so instinctive and free musically, nor was Duritz so overcome, compelling and intent on profoundly reshaping some of his best work (though I hear the group's Wiltern gigs in December 2003 were also something to behold).

What's more, he's rarely been so heartwarming and open. ""What else is this show if not about what's happening to me right now?" he joked, but for once such self-deprecation didn't steer toward pity.

This was therapeutic. Often he shared so much about the meanings of songs that the unexpectedly intimate performance felt like a counseling session, especially when Duritz related lengthy tales about a former flame he left emotionally bruised (making "Black and Blue" more poignant) and the car crash (not his own) and hospital recovery that led to "A Long December."

The latter tune was conveyed so movingly, its author so withdrawn into his memory yet still inviting visitors - "If you've listened to this song a thousand times," he told sympathizers, "then it's pretty much about you, too" - that it stands as the highlight of all the Crows concerts I've witnessed. But the entire set - which ran past sound curfew, leading Duritz to announce before an encore of "Holiday in Spain" that "we're gonna pay an enormous fine for this" - set me straight on a number of counts.

Primarily that Duritz isn't anywhere near being washed up. Frustration over being deprived new songs was balanced out here by the confidence the band applied to the old songs. And the new life that dreads-mopped Duritz breathed into "Anna Begins" and "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby" and a thoroughly unhinged take on "A Murder of One" render any notion of a permanent dry spell inconceivable.

He just takes forever to formulate fresh ideas, that's all.
Source: Orange County Register



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