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Counting Crows: Still Burning When the Bar Lights All Go Out

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Live at The Riviera Theater Chicago, IL on April 22, 2012

Counting Crows drummer Jim Bogios is seated behind his kit to the far left of the stage as his bare-knuckle drumming is full of force, vigor and cohesiveness in an awe-inspiring display. Bogios' terse assault on his kit is bolstered bassist Millard Powers whose four strings are exhilarating and euphoric as the five other band members follow their steadfast lead. Front and center is lead singer Adam Duritz whose arms are spread open as he sings "Hospital", a new song from their covers record Underwater Sunshine. "Hospital", originally done by Coby Brown, was an ace in an already loaded deck and the Counting Crows delivered it in a way that was beatific, tuneful, pressing and downright masterful. It was a gripping as any song I've seen the band convey. Watching the band's urgency explode off the stage was eye-opening if for no other reason than it wasn't an original song but you assumed it was. The Counting Crows are currently touring the most intimate venues the band has performed in since their debut nearly two decades back. The ability to see their fans faces up close is liberating as the band tears through ever changing set lists night-to-night. The tour is in support of their new record label with the first release being Underwater Sunshine an eclectic covers record that is much more than it appears on paper but a living and breathing work of art that will live on long after this tour cycle completes.

Encompassing a peculiar concoction of songs spanning nearly five decades of musical depth, Underwater Sunshine isn't your standard covers record. Most records contain copycat versions of well known songs to reignite interest for a summer tour but the Crows have curated a collection of songs that embody the spirit of the band. The carefully chosen songs are distant cousins to the Crowes originals because they contain the same emotional pull. Some of these records give fans an insight to where the band stole their tricks from and while Underwater Sunshine does this, it houses several songs from the last decade on it, giving them an audience they otherwise never would have found. Listened to top-to-bottom it feels like a wholly original body of work rather than a footnote in their discography. In concert, the songs were more muscular as the band delicately sprinkled the songs in between well known hits and lost album cuts. The collective effect was inspirational as the band gave their all to each and every song. The Gram Parsons song "Return of the Grievous Angel" featured a three-guitar attack of David Bryson, David Immergluck and Dan Vickrey which coalesced and marvelously took hold and could have been one of their own. "Like Teenage Gravity" (by Kasey Anderson) received its tour debut under a shadowy red light reminiscent of a scene from Oliver Stone's The Doors with an explosive guitar solo at its conclusion. The Bob Dylan classic "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" featured a jangly sing-a-long the crowd ate up and danced the night away to. In concert, these songs weaved in and out of the set like long lost friends and stood next to the band's deep cuts. The covers are fragile but are infused with playfulness and are anything but disposable. There is immediacy to the new material, whether they wrote it or not doesn't seem to matter on the concert stage. The songs yield the same truths housed within the Counting Crows musical catalog. Listened to in the context of the high-spirited musicianship, they're indecipherable to more than 90% of the audience which is a testament to their talents in interpreting and delivering these charming songs.

The rest of the set shifted between fan favorites and forgotten album cuts that for whatever reason never received the consideration they deserved when first released. The album cuts appeared to penetrate the deepest, notably a lamenting "Recovering the Satellites", the title cut from their sophomore record which had everyone in the audience singing along with it. Listening to "Colorblind" on 1999's This Desert Life is harrowing with its recurring and exposed piano chords but in concert the isolation melts away as the crowd partakes one-by-one before the end where the song's resolution becomes communal as the crowd tenderly whispers "I am fine" along with Duritz and Matt Malley's subtle piano playing. A soul searching moment on record can be a singular incident but amongst a sold-out crowd, it became a therapeutic mantra. "I Wish I Was a Girl" may be cut from a mellower mold, but the concentration of both the crowd and band was something to behold. Standing in rapt attention, the crowd hung on every word that took flight from Duritz, and they absorbed it wholly reflecting on their sense of purpose and where they need to go. The Hard Candy cut "Black and Blue" felt like a new song despite being a decade old. Hidden towards the back of the record, it was lost to me as it was smack dab in the middle of bigger and sexier cuts, but onstage at the Riviera it spread its wings to fly. "St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream" reflects the deep waters the band has entered on this tour. It jogged my memory for a song that I have no shame in admitting I had forgotten despite being the closer on This Desert Life and on their 2006 live album. It had passed me by until this buoyant musical display. Despite each record yielding it's fair share of radio hits, the band's followers have always taken note of the whole album as evidenced by the elated response to these songs throughout the show. This is what differentiates good bands from great bands; many acts have made careers of writing hits but how many have a bottomless, rich and piercing catalog that continues to resound?

The most endearing music acts have always found a way to simultaneously express themselves while having a direct pulse on their audience. The Counting Crows have made a career out of writing acutely personal stories that bring issues to the surface. The cumulative effect of their Chicago concert was one of true elative release. The wounded and fragile place we may have been when the lights went out feels distant and removed when the last note rings off the stage. It's a spine-tingling experience to have your past, present and future appear crystal clear through the words and sounds of seven individuals. Art at its most transformative takes someone to a higher mental plain-it's penicillin to the pain of life and for others, it urges and inspires them to take the road less traveled. The misfits inside the songs of the Counting Crows reverberate powerfully within the hearts of the audience in a way few other acts did. At their best, the Counting Crows live out anxieties and nightmares onstage amidst dreamy tempos, eclectic arrangements and enlightening performances.

As the Counting Crows strove toward the finish line, they delivered one knock-out after another as they took hold of the anguish from within and channeled it through their instruments. Duritz's vocal inflictions of "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby" pulled at you as the nearly ten-minute cut built momentum verse-after-verse. "A Long December" was full of cinematic bluster and "Mr. Jones" supercharged the crowd into a tizzy. The encore took the ever swelling intensity to the next level with blistering takes on "Rain King" and "Holiday in Spain". "Rain King" featured a slightly rearranged chorus with a thunderous chorus breakdown while David Immergluck's wondrous mandolin achieved a sense of majesty. As the eight-minute version strode towards its climax Duritz stood onstage with his arms spread singing with all his might and once again, letting us peak inside his psyche thus allowing us to dismantle our own. If the Counting Crows had never recorded another note after August and Everything After their music would still matter to this day. August and everything that has followed contains a yearning desire to be heard, understood and loved. The Counting Crows have largely created instinctive portraits of the human existence through timeless hymnal folk rock music over their two decade career. At its core is a yearning to be understood which is as irrefutable as the need to breathe. Their portraits of unfulfilled desires paired with an insatiable yearning to be heard. Whether it's their debut record, their follow-ups records, a covers record or under the lights of a concert stage the Counting Crows sincerely liberate themselves and their fans a rigorous set of high octane rock n' roll delivered with blissful conviction few can match.

Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter

Counting Crows: Still Burning When the Bar Lights All Go Out

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