August and Everything After — Live at Town Hall
[Eagle Rock (2011)]
For everyone who’s only heard the group’s sometimes uneven studio output, August and Everything After — Live at Town Hall is a reminder of just how phenomenal a live band Counting Crows was and is. The concert was recorded in 2007 at a sold-out show at Town Hall in New York and was the result of a spur-of-the-moment decision by Duritz during a tour bus conversation with the band’s multi-instrumentalist wizard David Immerglück. Since other artists have released recreations of their debut albums recently, the delay in this album’s release makes it seem like the Counting Crows are late to the party. For instance, Van Morrison released Astral Weeks—Live at the Hollywood Bowl, but that reproduction was a sad reminder of how unexciting Van Morrison has become. Fortunately, the Counting Crows manage redid their debut right, and here they blow the lid off Town Hall.
The band took some flack early in their career for what seemed like cribbing from Van Morrison—must have been all the sha-la-las, but Duritz’s passion for stream of consciousness and copping some of the rhythms from Astral Weeks also contributed—but the fact remains that certain brands of what became indie pop-rock (Death Cab for Cutie comes to mind) would have been unimaginable without the Counting Crows as a precedent, and those of us who like some drama and heart in our indie might all have been stuck with rock bands copying only Pavement’s relentless intentional mediocrity. For that, the band is notable even if the album performed here live in its entirety hadn’t become one of the great successes of 1990s alt rock radio.
The set list is August and Everything After, almost straight through, with a few deviations like the incorporation of “Raining in Baltimore” into “Round Here.” The same stream-of-consciousness tendencies that present themselves in the basic compositions come out in full force during the performances, which contains improvisation and expansion uncommon in rock bands of the poppier stripe. Sometimes it can get to be too much: Duritz writes such strong choruses and melodies that it’s a little disheartening when a song I’ve been listening to for 15 years suddenly changes to the point where it’s impossible to sing along. Or when you’re scratching your head when Duritz repeats a silly line like “Hello my little orangatan/Doris Day is on TV again” near the end of the otherwise religiously powerful “Murder of One.” But other times the improvisation works wonders, like the recitation (really, almost spoken) of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” right in the middle of “Rain King,” something they’ve been doing since the first tour. And the band can follow their singer so well that it often looks like they’re spontaneously creating the entire set on the spot; or Daniel Vickrey or Immerglück might play an off-the-cuff riff that you’d swear must have been composed years ago and saved up for this concert. Despite the mayhem of Duritz’s vocals, things are fairly tightly controlled; four bar guitar solos are the norm for most of the night, until the band finally cuts loose during “Ghost Train” (opening with a surreal solo by Vickrey and taking a prog rock turn throughout the song as the instruments pile on the dischordance) and somehow finds a half dozen more decibels to end the set with “Murder of One.”
Duritz is an energetic frontman start to finish, putting as much into the ten minute opener as many bands put into their entire sets. And he’s an excellent guide to the songs, too: What can seem a bit like rambling on the audio becomes much more compelling with Duritz’s theatrical gestures. This is the biggest reason to go for the DVD instead of the CD. The concert just makes more sense overall.
The band had parted ways with its label early in the aughts and has taken an active role in its fans’ bootlegging efforts, and that could dampen some of the appeal for appeal for hardcore fans just looking for a new take on some old favorites. But it’s also true that the concert contains a few songs that haven’t been performed live in a long time, and the chance to get some outstandingly footage and quality audio shouldn’t be passed up.
A DVD featurette, “In Depth,” which contains interview footage with Duritz and keyboardist Charlie Gillingham, with some enlightening background into the production of Counting Crows’ first album and earliest history, is also worth a look.
—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)