Counting Crows: escaping into the music.

Review by Jeremy Elwood

I’ll start with an admission – I’m a big Counting Crows fan. I’ve seen them three times before, so I went along to Spark Arena with both expectation and comparison to contend with. So let me take you back in time to where it all began…

It’s an overused term, but Counting Crows rise to fame in the early 1990’s was truly meteoric. Formed in 1991, signed by Geffen Records (for a reportedly “ludicrous” amount of money) in 1992, their debut album August and Everything Afterwas released in 1993 and sold faster than anything since NirvanaFame hit fast, and, at least for lead singer Adam Duritz, hard. He’s publicly acknowledged that he lives with a dissociative disorder, and a quick scan of his lyrics since that first album makes his discomfort with his newfound success obvious. Don’t worry, this will all become relevant later.

As a venue, I have mixed feelings about Spark Arena, particularly for a band as nuanced as Counting Crows. On this night, it’s set up at what looks like about half capacity – the upper level is curtained off, the stage has been brought forward, and it’s a fully seated event, even on the floor level.  As it turns out, all of those measures are hugely beneficial to the show. 

Duritz himself appears bang on the advertised start time, albeit briefly. He’s here to introduce their opening act, a classy move that grabs the audience’s attention, not that Frank Turner needs much help in that regard. I’m one of the many new fans he won over as he belted out a tight set of acoustic punk songs about love, recovery and personal ups and downs – including a brilliantly timely ode to his transgender father Miranda. He’s coming back to NZ with a full band in November, and I recommend you check him out.  

The main event begins with Hard Candy, off the 2002 album of the same name. Since August and Everything After, Counting Crows have sold 20 million copies of their 7 studio albums, and the next two hours draw from all of them, but this is in no way a “greatest hits” show. Mr. Jones is the third song up, and major hits including Rain King, Anna Begins and Omaha get the crowd to its feet, but there’s also a spotlight on some of their perhaps more challenging compositions. The introspection of Colourblind, the weaving 8-plus minutes of Palisades Park, the stripped down melancholy of God of Ocean Tides (featuring just Duritz and astounding multi-instrumentalist David Immergluck on acoustic guitar). This is the first time I’ve seen the Crows in NZ outside a theatre (once at the Civic, once at the sadly lamented St James), but in many ways it’s their most theatrical performance. The crowd rise for some numbers, sit for more, and the band give them plenty of time and variation to do so. 

And make no mistake, this is a BAND. One of the finest I’ve ever seen live. The level of musicianship, the connection between all six players and the overall balance of their sound showcases a cohesion that is only comparable, to, um, The Band. 

Here’s where the potted history I provided earlier comes into play. In my previous experiences, Adam Duritz has been a wildcard in this finely balanced deck. I’ve seen him take his songs out into an improvised wilderness, particularly during Round Here, where it felt like he was himself  “…walking on a wire in the circus.” There were moments where it felt like only his connection to the musicians around him, his long-time friends and collaborators, could bring him back. There was an exhilarating danger to his high-wire act, a struggle that was magical to witness, but surely exhausting to summon night after night. 

That aspect is largely absent from this show. Duritz seems far more comfortable, more balanced, more in tune with, and loving the company of, his bandmates. He talks more, telling us stories about the songs, describing his last ill fated visit to our shores, and not only thanking us for coming, but explaining why he’s thanking us. This is a celebration of survival, for all of us. A Long December, despite being released in 1996, may just be the COVID anthem we never knew we needed. 

Overall, the show feels more mature and more relaxed. The songs feel slower, as if the band is giving them more room to breathe. They’re completely in control, doing exactly what they want to do, including the four tracks from their 2021 Butter Miracle EP back-to-back, as they were designed to be heard. Duritz is still mesmerising. His voice, if anything, is stronger than before – when he chooses to deploy it fully. On many songs he holds back, focusing on telling the story rather than showing off. (He would make a fantastic musical theatre performer, if this whole “30-year arena selling rock star career” thing doesn’t work out). 

The three-song encore sums it all up beautifully. Round Here, Hanginaround and Holiday in Spain all speak of the need to escape, in ways ranging from the extreme to the mundane.  That’s what live concerts are – an escape. One that Counting Crows seem genuinely delighted to provide. 

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