Don’t Turn Your Ticket In, Don’t Get Your Money Back at the Door:
Counting Crows, Augustana, and NOTAR at the Starland Ballroom
When an act as stellar as Counting Crows launches its set with a cover of Van Morrison’s Caravan, it speaks volumes about the soul of that band: where it’s been, where it’s headed, and where it aims to take you. With Augustana joining the Crows for this joyful opener, the musicians cramming the stage line danced under the spots in an alternate universe deja vu that recalled “The Last Waltz.” At that storied gig, Van the Man quit the stage with a rare smile on his face. He would have been smiling last night had he been in the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey, for one of the oddest and yet most workable musical line-ups I have ever witnessed.
This three-hour set kicked off at 8:45, to a packed-to-the-rafters house. Instead of an opening act, all three artists — Counting Crows, Augustana, and NOTAR — alternately shared the stage, swapped musicians, covered and tagged each other’s songs, and yet still retained their separate artistic entities. It was weird and inspired. In fact, it was frickin’ genius.
Adam Duritz, king of the Crows, is still Everyman in his stocky body and dark dreadlocks springing and swinging like an unkempt ‘fro. The bare feet and prayer rug are gone, but his Everyman voice retains its signature high, yearning register. Like a latter-day Jesus, Duritz flung out his arms throughout the set as if offering himself to the crowd, for indeed, he was. Many moons ago, I’d read an extremely candid and courageous interview with Duritz, the Crows‘ singer-songwriter; the honesty in that interview was the same honesty he brings to his music. Without digging into his ghosts here, Duritz strips his soul bare while making poetry and, backed by his kick-ass band, also crafts some damned fine music. In perhaps his most famous song (Mr. Jones), he references Picasso, but in my eyes, if Duritz were a painter, he’d be Van Gogh.
Counting Crows emerged as a force to be reckoned with just as commercial radio was going to hell in a hand basket and I was beginning to retreat into my old music. I wore holes in their breakout album, August and Everything After, but truth to tell, those are the songs with which I’m most familiar. I’d wanted to investigate their newer material prior to this concert, but I deep six’d that notion so as to go into it with a fresh perspective.
Live, Omaha killed me, as it always does. Plaintive Irish opening strains and bittersweet melody are melded to the vivid images of that old man threading his feet through a bucket of rain “somewhere in the middle of America.” And this golden lyric nails it: “It’s the heart that matters more.” Indeed it does. Like much of Duritz’ work, Omaha echoes and portends loss even as it clings to hope and salivation.
After the exquisite Omaha, NOTAR, the white boy rapper, made his first appearance. I don’t get rap. I don’t like it; I never will. The first thought that zinged through my brain was, “Wanna be a homey? Allow me to drive you through a few choice neighborhoods in Brooklyn where I once had friends and hung; you’ll mess yourself without ever leaving the car.” Sorry, but I don’t tolerate posers, particularly in music. The musicians backing NOTAR, however — his and “theirs” — made him somewhat palatable and at times, even bordering on enjoyable.
It still floors me to see how many bands have lifted Edge’s style, even though the mimicry has become so prevalent in music, it is almost subliminal. Edge’s ringing, ethereal guitar was there in the rapper’s opening number. But when Duritz paired up with him to bring the song home, their tommy-gun delivery would have raised the dead. Later on in the set, I had to give NOTAR a hand when he invited BP (British Petroleum) to perform an anatomical impossibility upon itself.
Augustana, with whom Counting Crows seemed to have the most fun, was a nice little surprise. I was wanting to call them Gloriana, but this is only because of my second-hand exposure, which will no doubt prove toxic, to alleged “country music.” This is no country band. Up close and personal, neither is it the middle-of-the-road rock schlock that I also sometimes catch by osmosis. The only song of Augustana‘s I knew was, Boston. The band’s label apparently de-fanged it for radio audiences, and that was a crime. Live, it was a rip-roarin’ rocker and trust me, the audience roared — with pleasure. Fire shot out of the band’s canon a rockabilly tune, crescendo’d like an aria, and fuzzed into sweet, bluesy guitars. The song that told us, “You don’t know me; you don’t wear my chains” was a bit too Fray-like for me. But hey, Augustana are contemporaries with The Fray, whom I do like for certain songs, so I’ll make like Jesus and forgive them for that.
Jesus can now return the favor by forgiving me, for the Crows and Augustana collaborated on a beaut of song whose title I know not. Into My Hands? Into My Head? The two guitarists warbled their instruments and then morphed into true axe men as the tune went bluesy, backed by some hot staccato drumming. The Crows‘ A Murder of One was brilliant and beautiful. This snippet of lyrics is but a hint of this haunting love song:
There’s a bird that nests inside you,
Sleeping underneath your skin.
When you open your wings to speak,
I wish you’d let me in.
After the short break, the gloves came off. Counting Crows, which I’d always suspected could have been a fusion jam band, proved my suspicions correct. Whatever songs opened the second act, they were downright Charles Ives-ian. If you’re looking for a more contemporary reference, try Dave Matthews. Alternately, the progressive rock-jazz was psychedelic and discordant, with Duritz’s ever-rising vocals erupting out of his arched throat in a pained, primordial howl. Both the Crows and Augustana, easing me into blues heaven, drove dueling, screaming guitars. The rapper emerged and somehow enhanced the guitarists’ musical chops with his barking and wild, aggressive gesticulations reminiscent of a person I know who uses such signals to indicate that his wine glass is empty. By contrast, Duritz wove his arms gently through the air, a latter day Flower Child. Orchestrating like Leonard Bernstein and visibly moved by the music, he was a counterpoint for the rapper’s chop-chops, yet the visuals and the music blended and worked.
Mr. Jones began as a poem in the mouth of Augustana‘s lead singer, but then went elsewhere, into a song I did not know. Before it was nearly over, Duritz hopped on stage again to take up the thread and do it justice. He must have sung this song a million times since it first put his band on the map, so the band took broad liberties with it. At one point, Adam picked up the mic stand, aimed it at the audience, and invited us to sing along. It was a decent rendering, but the lyrics are still the standout in this bouncy, deceptively happy tune, particularly:
I want to be a lion.
Everybody wants to pass as cats.
We all want to be big, big stars,
But we got different reasons for that.
This may have been Duritz’ plea to the universe to nail a record contract prior to his actual signing. But it goes a lot deeper than that, speaking to the fears that fester in the human soul. We most of us fear that we will pass without anyone ever noticing us, without anyone ever thinking we are beautiful, without ever truly touching another soul. Mr. Jones gives those night-sweats a voice.
At well past eleven, I’d assumed the Crows would not perform my very favorite song, Rain King. A few weeks ago, I’d stumbled upon my old copy of August and Everything After, opened all the windows in my house, and revved up Rain King, so that my neighbors would not accuse me of never giving them anything. I played that song about thirty times in succession, called a friend who has been exploring great music over the past few years, and introduced her to the band and this song. But I didn’t want to talk. I only wanted to immerse myself in this exquisite song, which I deem quintessential Counting Crows. Screw the rapper “poets,” for this is universal poetry: a song of pain and fear, loving, dying, thinking you’re dying, faith in a God one cannot see, and the hope of ultimate release … but not today. Today is for the living, despite all the obstacles. In Duritz’s vocals and the gorgeous melody lay the joy of simply breathing and hoping, of making it through one more day.
They “tagged” this song with A Little Help from My Friends, and I wish they hadn’t. For one thing, nobody’s gonna nail this song like Joe Cocker, standing solo in the spotlight and jerking like he’d downed a bottle of bleach, once did for me in Madison Square Garden. And for another thing, it’s a sacrilege to futz with a song like Rain King. Rain King is a liberation, period.
Oddly enough, or perhaps not so oddly, the band didn’t end with Rain King, which was preceded by Duritz’s turn at the keys for the spare and lovely Raining in Baltimore. They closed their set with Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Mine Land, This Land is Your Land. This was preceded by a heartfelt soliloquy from Duritz, to register to vote and to cast our votes, regardless of our political affiliations, so that the yobos in charge won’t turn “the Garden State entirely into a parking lot.” This, of course, was a reference to an iconoclastic Joni Mitchell song, Big Yellow Taxi, and covered by the Crows as a release to radio. The song was somewhat scary when Joni first released it; it was scarier when the Crows covered it. And in light of BP’s rape of our Gulf waters and surrounding environs, it’s downright terrifying. I fervently hope that those who have yet to vote, or who have given up voting, take Adam Duritz’ advice.
Whoever put this triple-threat lineup of artists together, calling themselves “The Traveling Circus & Medicine Show,” I’d like to shake their hand and clap them on the back. Music on commercial radio has been dead, largely, for the past eighteen or so years. We can argue why, ad nauseum. We can burn the guilty parties at the stake (please, God!). Or we can create tours such as this. By adding Augustana and NOTAR to the Counting Crows bill, and by juxtaposing musicians and songs as was done last night in the Starland Ballroom, positive change can occur. The youngsters who come for the two newer acts are exposed to the eternal beauty of the music of Adam Duritz and his friends — and may thus be inspired to seek out other artists of integrity not heard on the radio. Judging by the reaction of the audience last night (college kids to seniors), I’d say they liked it. If this keeps up, who knows? Real music, enduring music may just make a comeback. Like the Rain King‘s perspective, hope springs eternal.
By the way, I got a great price on tickets for the Counting Crows concert by looking through the classifieds.