I was living in San Francisco when the Berkeley-based Counting Crows released August and Everything After in 1993. Songs like “Rain King,” “Omaha,” and “Anna Begins” seared into my mind’s musical database as new favorites. Two decades later and my ears still perk up at the first strains of those now classics. On tour for their latest record Somewhere Under Wonderland, the Counting Crows came to the Bowl on Wednesday, September 30, and I was eager to hear them play live for the first time.
The Crows walked on stage to audience shrieks of anticipation — a nearly sold out show of diehard fans, it seemed. The crowd squealed again when the band launched into the musical intro to the beloved “Sullivan Street.” In contrast to the crowd’s energy, lead singer Adam Duritz, clad in black jeans and a black T-shirt sporting a T. Rex graphic, sat on the edge of the drum kit riser chomping on gum waiting for his cue and looking like he had little interest in being there. His enthusiasm didn’t increase once he began singing. “Sullivan Street” is quintessential Counting Crows material and one of their best from August and Everything After. Durtiz’s delivery on this night, however, lacked his signature quavering vocal passion. In fact, the whole first half of the set was disappointingly bland thanks to Duritz’s seemingly blasé attitude. Musically, the band was spot on and polished. However, despite the technically lively instrumentation, Duritz’s lack of movement, one-dimensional vocal re-interpretations of hits — “Mr. Jones” and “Children in Bloom” were nearly unrecognizable — and laissez faire approach made for an uninspired listening experience. Perhaps Duritz was tired or distracted or just having a bad evening, but the result was disappointing.
And then things changed. An hour or so into their set, Durtiz walked offstage while the band did an instrumental outro to “Children in Bloom.” He returned with a different T-shirt with an image of David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust era and a different attitude that transformed the second half of the evening. Durtiz sang “God of Ocean Tides” with his trademark fervor. His intensity continued with “Goodnight, Elizabeth,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” and “Scarecrow.” Even when things slowed for the lovely “Long December” the energy didn’t wane.
By encore time, Duritz had turned things around enough to offer a glimpse of the powerhouse live band the Counting Crows can be — and probably have been on other nights. They ended the evening with “Rain King” and “Holiday in Spain,” two hit songs from their early days. And while I was underwhelmed by Duritz’s performance, the sparks that flickered by the end of the show made me feel that it may have just been an off night for the singer. One thing is definite — the Counting Crows have created some of the catchiest and undeniably memorable pop/rock songs of our time.