Amidst the pleasant yet bland newer material remains hope that the Crows can one day recapture their wet-behind-the-ears, nervous and energetic charm.
Of the hundreds of bands who got their big break in the "alternative" rock explosion of the early '90s, Counting Crows was part of the percentage of bands who benefited most. On the success of inescapable radio hits "Round Here" and "Mr. Jones", and the artistic promise of their dramatic, precocious debut August and Everything After, the Crows made everyone's list of superlatives as the band most likely to be in it for the long haul. One could imagine hyper-caffeinated frontman Adam Duritz and company one day settling into a comfortable, gray-dreadlocked middle age, still cranking out raggedly beautiful Band- and Van Morrison-inspired heartland ballads as one of their generation’s most trusted and beloved bands. Well, they’re still around, and successful enough that their longtime label Geffen is happy to put out a live album of mostly recent songs with New Amsterdam: Live at Heineken Hall. But although their intensely loyal fanbase will be ecstatic about the chosen material and its presentation, anyone returning to the Counting Crows after a prolonged absence will likely be reminded why they stopped listening in the first place.
Let's start with the fans; by which I mean, of course, fanatics. Any touring rock and roll band has fanatics, and these cult followings tend to want the same things from live recordings: clean, clear sound, an imaginative setlist, and song readings that depart noticeably from their studio counterparts. Counting Crows have clearly done well by their fans with New Amsterdam. I can imagine a few minor quibbles about the length (fans generally like their concerts spread across two discs), and the compilation-style nature whereby songs are brought together from three different performances, but that’s about it. The recording quality is perfect. Every instrument is distinct in the mix, sharp and bright. The audience noise is so minimal as to be almost unnoticeable. If not for the slight room-reverb on Duritz’s voice, it could pass for an in-studio performance. The song selection will also surely please the, let's call them, Crowlings. No aforementioned "Mr. Jones", which they did play all three nights in Amsterdam, but which no one honestly ever needs to hear ever again, ever. No "A Long December", another mega-hit, though not quite as ubiquitous as "Mr. Jones". And no "Big Yellow Taxi" -- thank whatever deity you see fit to thank, plus two more (though it is a bonus track on some copies, so watch out).
Instead we get stronger album cuts from August... and Recovering the Satellites, such as "Omaha", "Goodnight Elisabeth", and "Perfect Blue Buildings". "Rain King" opens the album as a stretched-out, seven-minute epic jam. "Elisabeth" is also dismantled from its concise folk-pop origins, with the audience helping Duritz with the hook, and every member of the band getting a shot at melancholy solo glory. "Hanginaround", from 1999's This Desert Life, spasms playfully toward the end, adding a welcome smidgen of frenzy and danger to the song's milk-safe catchiness. And then there's the slew of songs from their last studio effort, 2002's Hard Candy. Fans should be thrilled that this set is heavy on Candy, showing the band's faith in the unwavering material that the general public knows least.
But that begs the question: why isn’t the general public as familiar with the tough, nervy "Good Time" or the fantastic "Miami" as they are with the old tunes? Was it a failure of PR, the decline of MTV, or the general fickleness of popular music listeners? The answer is most likely some combination of all three, plus a few others. But I have my own special theory, which goes like this: Adam Duritz once wrote some songs about rain. Then he wrote about sleeping. Then sleeping in the rain. With angels. Sleepy, rainy, girl angels with four-syllable names. And boy did that shit grow tired fast. I suspect a lot of folks jumped ship -- down to Ryan Adams or laterally to the Jayhawks or a move in some other direction. The point is, a lot of folks desired change, and Counting Crows didn't appear to offer it. Checking back on this live set confirms that as pleasant as their jangly anthems are, it's about as adventurous as a high school reunion. You're excited to go back at first, show everyone your new self, and revel in the good old times. Then you realize it's the same old halls, the same smell of industrial-strength floor disinfectant, the same graffiti, and then it's time to go home. The exception to that seems to be "Hazy", a seemingly improvised piano-and-voice piece exclusive to this disc. There's definitely an unrehearsed vulnerability in the slight sketch, something sorely missing from even the strongest material elsewhere. Performed in 2003, it offers hope that Counting Crows can recapture that kind of wet-behind-the-ears charm that endeared them to so many, so many more years ago.