It hasn’t been easy to be a closeted Counting Crows fan all these years. When everyone else in the room is commenting pleasantly on the ways in which elements of Chavez’s body of work continue to act as a lasting influence, for example, is really no time to mention that lately you’ve been wondering just how many of the young, bearded folksters claiming a deep love for The Band got turned on to them through a copy, long since discarded, of August and Everything After. For years I’ve harbored a fair amount of percolating shame over my genuine fondness for the band, often looking to people whose musical opinions I trusted much more than my own to try and sort through my feelings. Few were willing to help. Counting Crows don’t really qualify as fun, and I don’t think they have a trace of kitsch so they aren’t a guilty pleasure, either; my long-held fear has been that liking them reveals some kind of failure in my own musical taste. Was it possible to love both Guided By Voices and Counting Crows? Bob Pollard, for one, doesn’t think so.
The one time I was ever able to get someone to be willing to offer up an opinion other than utter distaste for the band, what they said made it hard for me to ever listen to Counting Crows the same; “Look,” my much cooler, more experienced, and smarter friend said, “they’re okay. But it’s just that singer….he sings over everything. He ‘la la las’ over the guitar solos, he always sings over the bridges…he just never shuts the f**k up.” Their too slick, bleached-out version of “Big Yellow Taxi” that was receiving far too much radio play around the same time seemed like a perfectly good excuse to leave them as they were. So I did, though I did continue to wonder just what drew me to them in the first place. I had hoped that seeing the band live, after all of these years away from their music, might help resolve some lingering confusion.
The band, despite age, as well as switching out their rhythm section over the years and adding a third guitarist, doesn’t seemed to have changed a huge amount since they were Rolling Stone cover artists back in 1994. They create a casual and affable atmosphere, singer Adam Duritz is in jeans and a Beastie Boys t-shirt, and there’s little fanfare to distract from the music (they come onstage to Bill Withers’s “Lean On Me” and it’s surprisingly touching). Their live show is an occasionally uncomfortable mix of polish and genuine raggedness; one moment they’re indulging in awkward lead guitar machismo (there is an unexpected amount of pointing at the crowd) designed for polished arena rock while in another, a song seems to genuinely fall apart rather than end.
The band is far from scripted and they change their set fairly liberally from night to night. Opener “Sullivan Street” is one of the night’s highlights; it’s mid-tempo and could have felt restrictive but they manage it to make it feel expansive. Still, too much of the remainder of the set gets to feeling one note-y. Eight songs are covers pulled from their newest album, Underwater Sunshine (or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation), and it may be that the heavy inclusion of other people’s material keeps them from playing to their strengths, but too many of the songs lack any kind of real dynamic range and it causes the set to start feeling like a flat line. The original songs pull heavily from the later, less engaging, portion of their catalog, with the band’s first three albums being represented by “Mr. Jones”, and “Sullivan Street” from August and Everything After, a particularly obligatory feeling “A Long December” from their excellent second album Recovering the Satellites and three songs from follow-up This Desert Life.
The sound at Oakland’s Fox Theatre, a stunningly beautiful venue, is surprisingly hit or miss, and it doesn’t do them any favors as it tends to emphasize what at times might almost be called ham-fistedness. It’s most glaring on their versions of Gram Parsons’s “Return of the Grievous Angel” and Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”. It’s hard to pin these guys down; they have perfectly admirable taste but they can’t always pull it off. Still, they come off as true rock and roll believers, and that has to count for something. Adam Duritz ends the night by standing on the stage monitors, after the band has already exited the stage, and leading the crowd in a sing-along of “California Dreamin’”. It’s a nice moment, and he comes off as a performer genuinely looking for a connection with his audience. After having served as a sometime critical punching bag over the last almost twenty years, that he’s kept his band together and stuck close to his original vision, while managing occasional scores on pop radio, should qualify Duritz as a rock and roll survivor as well. As someone who continues to like both Counting Crows and Guided By Voices, I will now punch myself in the face.