For those of you who are familiar with Counting Crows’ morose recordings, let me assure you that lead singer Adam Duritz did not walk out onstage with a gun held to his head. In fact, there was not so much as a single tear or frown. Instead, Duritz looked surprisingly happy to be standing in front of the rain-soaked, sold-out crowd at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater on a Monday night. He must have had a good feeling about the performance, though, because he began the evening’s show with a rendition of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”, the sugary, flower-powered anthem penned by Scott McKenzie and John Phillips 30 years ago. Nothing could have better warmed the crowd or placed more grins on faces.
This was something of a homecoming for the band—the five shows in San Francisco represented the end of the supporting tour for Hard Candy, the group’s fourth studio album released last summer. Counting Crows originally formed in Berkeley, and toiled in the obscurity of the Bay Area music scene until a chance performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 shot them into the national spotlight. After releasing their debut album, August and Everything After, many of the band members relocated to Los Angeles. According to Duritz, the move was provoked by resentment from their Bay Area fan base, centered on all the new success. But there was no hostility in the air at this pre-holiday show, and Duritz looked genuinely relieved when the gathering sang along to both old and new songs.
Counting Crows followed the ode to San Francisco’s summer-of-love past with the title track from Hard Candy, a roots-rock anthem with more power than flower. With seven musicians onstage, it’s amazing that the group achieves such high levels of synchronicity. In particular, dueling acoustic and electric guitarists, Dan Vickrey and David Bryson respectively, harmonized wonderfully against a strong rhythm section made up of Ben Mize on drums and Matt Malley on bass. The six of them have been playing together for a long time, and could probably walk through a show blindfolded if they had to. Duritz, to his credit, certainly was not going through the motions; however, he seemed worn out and generally lacked energy, which was particularly visible during his solo lulls when he took time out to sit down.
It was hard to pay too much attention to the band’s stage presence, because the show featured one of the most amazing visual displays I’ve ever seen at a rock concert. Using a combination of theater lights, LEDs and background patterns, their lighting technician had as many spectacles to share with the audience as Counting Crows had songs to play. From completely bathing the band in lime greens and deep sea blues to recreating a nighttime sky on the backdrop, this alone was worth the price of admission. “Mr. Jones”, the high energy hit from their debut album, received a fuchsia treatment as Dan Vickrey strummed the tune’s opening chords. The crowd sang along with Duritz, and the group appeared to be having a blast.
The rest of the set featured songs from each of Counting Crows’ four studio albums, with a little more weight given to the latest stuff. The group treated “Goodnight Elisabeth” and “Long December” from Recovering the Satellites like old friends, taking the time in extended versions to catch up with the reasons why the songs were written in the first place. The new songs off of Hard Candy included “American Girls”, “Good Time” and “Holiday in Spain”. The band members joked with Duritz over which song was about which of his busted relationships. These new numbers were generally up-tempo and upbeat.
It may seem as though Counting Crows are taking advantage of the newly popular alt-country style, following in the steps of Ryan Adams and Wilco. But then you remember that this is the same way they’ve been playing for a decade. They haven’t changed; they’ve fallen back into fashion. This gives them an opportunity to show off what Joe Cocker would sound like if he were backed by Lynyrd Skynyrd. So when guitarist David Immergluck broke out the mandolin on “Time and Time Again” or keyboardist Charles Gillingham shows off his accordion skills, it was a perfectly natural part of the show. Of course, they included their new hit, a remake of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”, which they rolled through magnificently at the Warfield. The only piece that didn’t quite fit was “New Frontier”, which features bending synthesizers and smacks of time spent in the UK’s electronic music scene.
The group ended the set with “Miami”, another sweet melodic piece from the new album. Two encores followed, but by this time Duritz’s voice was broken, and his shirt was soaked through with sweat. Still they had enough in them to close out the show with the best song of the evening, a perfect version of “Hangin’ Around”. Duritz recruited some old friends from the audience to sing backup and dance onstage, while he climbed up on the ten-foot speakers, happy to be home.