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Counting Crows reviewed

Rachel Winterbottom joins an audience of smoochy couples at the MEN Arena

Written by . Published on May 13th 2009.

Counting Crows reviewed

Say to someone that you’re a big Counting Crows fan and you’ll get one of three responses: 1. They’ll simply look at you blankly; 2. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I love Mr Jones!’ and treat you to a rendition in their chosen key, or 3. They'll nod at you in a knowing and frankly baffling manner and smile smugly, as if they’ve always thought you looked the type.

Counting Crows has such a relatively small following in the UK that one of their supporting bands, The Hold Steady, actually has a bigger fanbase here. Still, touring for the second time in six years, they were back performing at the MEN Arena. During the first support act, Blind Pilot (who began their career by busking the Crows’ songs), there were so few people that it felt like we’d wandered in during a sound check. This was a shame as their soft, subtle vocals far outshone the more up-tempo The Hold Steady, whose main vocalist, Craig Finn, distractingly appeared to have no control over his arms.

But then, after a huge two and a half hour build up, as if signalled by a mighty crow signal in the sky, the fans appeared in their masses just in time for the Crows’ set to begin (seriously, how do people do this?) Suddenly, I wasn’t alone in my fandom. At last, here was a place where Counting Crows fans could stand up and freely admit: yes, we do love alternative country music.

To say that Counting Crows released their first album, August and Everything After in 1993, the crowd’s age range was mixed. The usual 40-odd year old grungy folk were there, some looking like they might have smoked a sneaky joint beforehand, but there were also gaggles of teenagers who could only be described as ‘scene’. Could it be true? Have Counting Crows finally become so obsolete they’ve been re-classed as cool by people who wear skinny jeans and only drink Starbucks coffee? Damn you, 'Mr Jones', for being so accessible.

The stage was a pretty simple set up – nothing fancy, just the band, their many instruments and some mood lighting. This lighting was operated by men who scaled mini ladders before the set started and perched themselves exceedingly high above us on the rows of spotlights, just like ninja roadies. Or ‘nindies’, rather. There were also the usual strategically placed breeze blocks so that Adam Duritz, lead vocalist and songwriter, could perform some spontaneous rock ‘n' roll moves by occasionally stepping on them for reasons best known to himself.

The Crows opened with 'Girl from the North Country' by Bob Dylan, and this set the mood for the rest of the night. Duritz, who disappointingly didn’t have his dreads sporting their usual ‘surprised pineapple’ up-do, then announced that they were going to play an entirely acoustic set. Queue a near unrecognisable 'Anna Begins', followed by 'If I Could Give All My Love to You'. At first you could tell the standing audience didn’t really know what to do with themselves. Counting Crows are hardly what you call rock, but their acoustic versions are the musical equivalent of taking a romantic bubble bath. As such, the crowd gradually divided into the sort of couples who like to put their arms around each other and gently sway, and everyone else.

I’m quite precious about Counting Crows. Their songs speak of uncertainty and those first, beautiful yet misjudged relationships, unrequited love, inherent selfishness, dissatisfaction, repeated mistakes and that aching, self-imposed loneliness. So to hear these much-loved songs sung so vastly differently was a bit like coming home to find that someone had been in while you were out and quietly rearranged all of your furniture. Like I said, precious.

Then they performed 'Colourblind'. The crowd went wild. Ok, so they immediately got out their mobiles and started recording, which is pretty wild for Counting Crows fans. The nindies did their job perfectly and the stage was sprayed with soft spotlights as Duritz played it straight for once, and stuck pretty much to the album version. It was a haunting, heart shattering rendition and Duritz, as with all his songs that evening, sang it like every word was a razorblade to his soul. The drama queen.

He even had a go at performance poetry: “This is not a song about love,” he howled out to the crowd at one point, holding out his arm and slapping a vein. “This is a song about addiction.” And then he launched into a truly astounding version of 'Mercury', which is a relatively simple song on the album. 'Mercury' proved that, as altered as each song was when performed acoustically, they were also utterly amazing reinventions of their recorded counterparts. Screw the need to hear the live version of each song exactly as it is on the album; I’d rather have music as a living, breathing and unpredictable entity.

Coming full circle, the Crows ended the evening where they began – with a Dylan song, 'You Ain’t Going Nowhere'. By this point, any disappointment the crowd might have felt about the acoustic set was gone. They were simply too blissed-out to care.

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EugeneMay 13th 2009.

I too was there...whilst it was a good night and very pleased i have finnaly been able to see them (been a fan for around 14 years), I was dissapointed by the acounstic nature of most of the records.They haven't toured for around 6 years and when they do, they play chilled out versions of their soft rock/country records...i felt a little let down, I must say!

carolMay 13th 2009.

i was there too...strange i was sure the hold steady ranted and sang mercury ...this being the fourth time i've seen them i can confirm each time totally different but always great..it wasnt all acoustic electric guitars gradually appeared . adam duritz was in great from vocally

DJMay 13th 2009.

The review states The Hold Steady has a bigger fanbase in the UK than Counting Crows. Also that Counting Crows play alt-country. Lazy 'journalism' or utter unfounded rubbish? Both.

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