August & Everything After – Live at Town Hall
It’s been ten years since Counting Crows spat out Hard Candy, and they’re still doing damage control for “Big Yellow Taxi,” a song that still gets rotation in every supermarket and dentist’s office in the nation. Insult to injury: The band recorded it twice, once as a hidden track on Candy and again with Vanessa Carlton for the movie Two Weeks Notice. On a good day, the song sounds like a band rolling Joni Mitchell for change; on a bad day, it’s the soundtrack of the sun burning out and killing all life on Earth. When the Village Voice named it the worst song of the decade, they confronted Adam Duritz with the harshest criticism imaginable: “Seriously, you know the line about how they ‘paved paradise and put up a parking lot?’ Like how they replaced something beautiful with something cold and heartless and commercial? That’s you. You’re the parking lot, [EXPLETIVE].”
So think of this new live album, which re-creates the band’s 1994 debut in its entirety at Town Hall in New York, as damage control, the kind of rehab that Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings couldn’t perform. This is Counting Crows resetting the clock to the moment when they were new and exciting, when they hadn’t squandered so much good will with an ill-chosen cover, when Duritz hadn’t dated one-third of the Friends cast, when the other guys were still included in the promo photos. It’s a smart move, and the audience noise suggests it’s a welcome one.
If it’s easy to hate on Counting Crows these days, these songs argue for at least cutting them a break, as Duritz evokes the tentative dissolution of relationships and espouses an idea of America(na) gleaned more from Flannery O’Connor than from Dylan or Van Morrison (there’s even a rarity from the August period called “Wise Blood,” in case you miss Duritz’s pretensions). As a songwriter, he can be cloying and self-indulgent, but these songs all possess a lived-in quality that imply a single perspective and personality. That made him a fresh voice in 1994—a voice that irritated people and avoided meter, of course, but that sounded inimitable nevertheless.
Seventeen years and countless shows later, Counting Crows are now more professional than hungry, and while they haven’t played some of these songs in many years, everything sounds efficient and practiced, lacking some of the high-wire abandon of contemporaneous bootlegs like 1994’s much better True Heart. The band have learned to react to and compensate for Duritz’s vocal improvisations, to follow his lead even as he scats and caterwauls. For him, these songs are starting points rather than scripture, to be dramatically molded and rethought with each performance. That approach gives “Anna Begins” and “Time and Time Again” new energy but stretches “Round Here” and “Sullivan Street” into awkward new shapes. And covering “Thunder Road” in the middle of “Rain King” can only reflect badly on Duritz’s songwriting and remind listeners that they could be listening to Born to Run instead.
Following an appropriately rambling version of “Mr. Jones,” Duritz explains that Counting Crows have two records coming out in the fall—this live album and their sixth studio album. It’s a pretty shameless plug, but absolutely necessary for a band that needs the good will of their past hits in order to move forward with new material. The new album will be crucial for the band, but it can’t be worse than “Big Yellow Taxi.”