Formed in the Bay area in the early 1990’s Counting Crows have enchanted listeners worldwide with their intensely soulful, complex and intricate take on timeless rock music. The band released Somewhere Under Wonderland —their seventh studio album, and first of new material since 2008, in September 2014. The album pushes into new terrain with a revamped songwriting approach that’s adventurous and visionary but still rooted in raw emotion.
Throughout Somewhere Under Wonderland, Duritz gracefully captures that feeling of renewal—a sense of beginning again despite not being entirely freed from the weight of the past—thanks to a warm and powerful vocal delivery that often embodies both hope and melancholy. Counting Crows have long thrived on creating gorgeously textured songs whose lyrics subtly unfurl into ever-shifting moods. Whilst the approach may have changed their tradition of delivering uncompromisingly honest music grounded in pure feeling has not. Perhaps it is Duritz’s well publicised battles with depressive illness that allows him to communicate such emotion in his vocal delivery and which generates such loyalty in his fans. Somewhere Under Wonderland has been a constant companion on my iPod since it’s release and I have been eagerly anticipating hearing how the songs transferred to the live environment.
Birmingham’s O2 Academy is a delightful little venue with a capacity of just 3000, unsurprisingly it was sold out. Thanks to O2 priority booking we were placed on the balcony and thanks to priority entry we managed to grab seats right in the front row just to the left of the stage. I would much rather have been down in the standing area but security were having none of that.
It says much about Adam Duritz that he came onto the stage to introduce the support band ‘Lucy Rose’ himself. He then stood at the back of the stage to watch a fair part of their set. Counting Crows began their set at exactly 9pm and opened with a lovely rendition of ‘Sullivan Street’, this was followed up with Untitled (Love Song) a cover of a ‘Romany Rye’ song. ‘High Life’ and ‘I wish I was a girl’ from 1999’s ‘This Desert Life’ made it clear that the show would draw from all area’s of the bands back catalogue. It was apparent from the outset that this was going to be a high intensity performance. The opening songs were amongst the slower and quieter numbers in the bands repertoire but Duritz and the band were clearly right up for it. After an eight week break following a 45 date USA Tour it would have been understandable had their been some early signs of ring rust but in truth there were none. If the build up through the first four songs was slow and steady the afterburners kicked in on a fantastic version of ‘Mr Jones’, the song that really propelled the band into the big time. It is great to see a band stretching themselves on well known songs and we certainly saw that here, Duritz’s vocal phrasing and timing put the band through its paces and from that point onwards they never looked back.
Mr Jones was followed up with my favourite track from the new album, ‘Possibility Days’. Duritz’s great strength as a songwriter is the ability to paint pictures with words and this track is a great example of that. He also transposes conflicting emotions beautifully. With verses like “And you know the worst part of a good day, Is hearing yourself say, Goodbye to one more possibility day” Duritz really reaches into your emotions . This was the first of seven tracks from the new album, one third of a brilliantly balanced set, only ‘Dislocation’ and ‘John Appleseeds Lament’ were not played.
I was really surprised to hear ‘Mrs Potters Lullaby’ getting an airing on the same set as ‘Mr Jones’ it is much more usual for one or the other to be played. As Duritz moved through this song he really started to work the crowd, getting them to sing out lines of the song. As the show progressed we were treated to showstopper after showstopper, with ‘Omaha’, ‘Friend of the Devil’, ‘A Long December’ and ‘Hangingaround’ all getting a runout. The intensity and emotion kept building. I had thought the days were a performance could move me to tears were long gone, but with ‘Washington Square’ I don’t mind telling you I had tears in my eyes and a lump the size of a halloween pumpkin in my throat.
Duritz allows the band to express themselves and everyone got the chance to show off a bit at one point or another. The band left the stage after 95 minutes allowing Duritz to change his shirt. They returned for a three song encore with a superb ‘Palisades Park’ followed by ‘Rain King’ and ‘Holiday In Spain’. Palisades park is developing into a real strong point in the shows, running at 8.25 on disc the song is at times exultant and at times heartbreaking. This tale of self discovery, with its changes in pace, allows each of the musicians to demonstrate their skills in turn.
As the show drew to a close after just under 2 hours I was totally drained. It must be said that a Counting Crows gig is a emotional experience. I would go as far as to say that this show would be in the top 10 of the many hundreds of shows I have seen over the last forty years. A stunning performance. I can’t wait to see Counting Crows again. Fortunately I don’t have long to wait as I will see them again in London next week.