Counting Crows w/ Special Guest Live: “25 Years And Counting” Tour 2018; Riverbend Music Center, Cincinnati, OH – Saturday, September 1, 2018
It was a hot, muggy night on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend when the Counting Crows brought their 25th anniversary tour to the Ohio River valley. Earlier in the day we’d seen lightning against dark skies, there was a full rainbow arc in the sky as we crossed the bridge in Cincinnati to get to the venue, and on the way home from the show the yellow-orange moon hung low in the sky like a half slice of lemon, which is to say in was a very warm, muggy night for a rock show at the outdoor venue near the river.
After well received sets from Boom Forrest and Live, the waiting music was a retrospective of Aretha Franklin’s hits, perhaps the only thing that made the longer than necessary wait for the headliners to hit the stage. But when Charlie Gillingham played the opening piano chords of “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” with drummer Jim Bogios snapping the quick snare beat as the other players fell into the groove, the crowd came to its feet to sing along with singer Adam Duritz and his invitation to “talk to me.”
With three guitarists, all capable soloists when the time came, it was fun to hear Counting Crows’ subtle mix of sounds—from folk and rock, even dipping its toe into country, and to see how the set was designed to give each player their opportunity to shine. In that opener, Duritz stepped up to Dan Vickrey on his right, to trade vocal and electric lead lines in a memorable call and response, but in one of the evening’s hardest rockers that followed, “Angels of the Silences” – appearing for the first time on this tour – David Immergluck, formerly with Camper Van Beethoven and John Hiatt, stepped forward with a serious display of emotionally intense soloing.
To mark the band’s silver anniversary, Duritz said he would share some of the stories behind some of the band’s best loved songs, beginning with one of the best loved deep tracks on their 1993 debut, “August & Everything After.” He described the work to find the right rhythm so that the melody would breath, the right feel for “Omaha,” which came together with guitarist David Bryson on acoustic, Immergluck on mandolin, and Gillingham setting the tone and flavor for the song on accordion. The crowd chimed in on the vocal, supporting Duritz most strongly on the line, “it’s the heart that matters.”
Next up came “Four White Stallions,” which appeared on the band’s 2002 album, “Hard Candy,” which Duritz described as a song they stole from one of Vickrey’s previous bands, Tender Mercies, which also included Bogios, with Gillingham often sitting in on keys. “Lots of bands in that position, with one album but headlining a show, cover a well known song, which is smart because the audience recognizes the music, but we weren’t that smart, we covered songs by our friends’ bands.”
Counting Crows’ unique blend of musical stylings and personalities draws it’s greatest strength from Duritz’ unique voice, often compared to that of Van Morrison, in that in live performances he tends to sing the words and melodies as if imbuing each phrase with new feeling and meaning. That connects well within the band’s musical arrangements, which like The Band, that featured Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm among other greats, and approached songs with a loose vibe that allowed for fresh readings, for new things to happen. Sometimes the sound feels like it could fall apart, come undone altogether, but as I noticed numerous times in Counting Crows live set, they could go from sounding loose and laid back, providing a musical backdrop for Duritz spoken-word poetic style of storytelling, and then snap back together in a moment that sparkled with musical intensity, rocking in lock step with an unexpected energy.
“Miami” was next, with a sad and poignant story about waiting in an airport for a girlfriend to arrive and the premonition of the break-up to come, followed by “Colorblind,” both songs including a great cello sound, played on synth by Gillingham. “God of Ocean Tides” followed, then “Washington Square,” which included photos of the NYC landmark on the screens behind the band, as Duritz described his neighborhood, talking about the band’s lives on the road, how it included a lot of “leaving and then coming home,” and the tension that coming and going can create in their personal relationships.
Two of his biggest hits, “Round Here” and “Mr. Jones” were sandwiched on both sides of “I Wish I Was a Girl,” one of the lyrics that mark Duritz as a vulnerable poetic voice, an anti-hero who avoids all the muscular machismo often on display in male lead singers. “Round Here” came with a story about the years before they were able to make a living with their music, and lived on “ramen, lots and lots of ramen,” and like petulant children, staying up through the night. Duritz broke into story-telling about “the girl on the car” when that lyric came up, while the band played behind him before returning to the song’s final verse and chorus. While “Mr. Jones,” the band’s first and probably biggest single, became a sing along, with Duritz noticeably lower in the mix so everyone singing along got to sing out that line about wanting to “be big, big stars.”
The stage crew moved a small piano front and center for Duritz to sit and play on “Goodnight L.A,” and then the band’s second most successful single, “Long December.” The set closed with “Hanginaround,” a party song that included a nice bass solo from Millard Powers and opening act Boom Forest’s John Paul Roney on background vocals, reminding me of all the ways Duritz made a point of sharing the stage amiably with all of his remarkable musician friends, while still setting the tone for the evening. Just like the record, the song ends with the players haphazardly dropping out, and walking off the stage at once.
They came back to encore with “Palisades Park” and my personal favorite of the night, “Rain King,” which starts of with the memorable guitar intro played by Bryson, which of course also became a sing along on choruses. “Holiday In Spain” closed out the night, with Gillingham on piano, Immergluck on pedal steel, and Duritz imagining that perfect escape to Barcelona, and all of his fans eager to hitch a ride.
Counting Crows’ special guests on this tour is Live, the York, PA band whose 20 year career featured early hit album, “Throwing Copper” (1994), where the band was often compared to acts like U2 and R.E.M. The original quartet had broken up in 2009, and the three instrumentalists had regroups a couple years later with a new singer, and recorded one album. In 2017, original singer Ed Kowalczyk rejoined the band, making this summer tour a reunion, with the promise of future music in the days to come.
Live opened their set with “All Over You,” one of several hit singles from “Throwing Copper,” and followed that with their newest collaboration, “Love Lounge.” The original quartet was joined onstage by second guitarist Zak Loy, who started out playing mostly rhythm, then added slide guitar as the set progressed and become more prominent toward the end of the ten song set, with three songs in the encore, and second drummer Robin Diaz, who worked with Chad Gracey to give the band’s compositions a bit of a polyrhythmic feel in the percussion end of things.
The result on the early “Pain Lies on the Riverside” and “Dolphin’s Cry” was a dense, heavy sound, brought to focus by Kowalczyk’s howling vocals, and guitar solos by Chad Taylor. Perhaps that the band was fighting its way back from dissolution that it felt that Live was trying a little too hard to make a dynamic connection, which was highlighted in a mistake of Spinal Tap proportions, as Kowalczyk called out to the crowd from “Detroit,” which was the next stop on the tour. Immediately aware of his mistake, the singer asked that no one post his error to youtube, and later in the set made sure we heard him say that he knew where he was, inviting “Cinci” to join him and sing along.
Unlike Counting Crows, whose music feels almost timeless, Live’s biggest songs feel like time capsules from the 90’s that haven’t aged as well over time as one might have hoped. So it was surprisingly pleasing when they pulled out a cover of an old Jimmy Reed country leaning rock & roll classic, “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” where Loy added a bluesy slide guitar solo.
But Live was at it’s best with the big crunchy guitar intro from Taylor on “Lakini’s Juice,” from the “Secret Samadhi” disc, and two more from “Throwing Copper,” “I Alone,” and “White, Discussion,” that last song of the set, which featured Taylor and Kowalczyk singing vocal harmonies arm in arm, as if to signify that all animosity has been resolved.
Kowalczyk returned solo for the encore with two acoustic songs, “Heaven,” written for the birth of one of his daughters, and “Turn My Head,” with Taylor reappearing near the end for a lovely guitar solo. The band came back for one final reminder of those good old days when the band was in it’s youthful heyday, “Lightning Crashes,” their biggest hit.
Boom Forest opened the show, the brainchild of singer John Paul Roney, whose keyboard focused pop was supported primarily by a drummer whose name I missed, and is not listed on the BF website. Roney has an engaging voice and an equally compelling personality as he strove to build a musical connection with an audience that obviously never heard his songs before. His pop songs made a great impression as he worked the crowd, garnering a warm and friendly response.
-Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb