Counting Crows – August and Everything After Live at Town Hall
Asking me to write an objective review of anything by Counting Crows is like asking a child to review a bowl of ice cream. Sure, it might not be quite the right flavour and there’s never enough of it, but you’re unlikely to catch me looking a gift horse in the mouth. Given how rare new material from them is, us Crows fans are prone to fits of rapture when it does appear.
Having duly shot myself in the foot as far as my credibility is concerned, I shall now proceed to tell you that this is a stunning piece of filming, a powerful performance and a restatement of the profound emotional depth of these songs which you should all rush out and buy, immediately.* Don’t believe me? Watch the video.
What we have here is a performance of Counting Crows’ debut August and Everything After. Released in 1993 and an out-of-the-blue success the following year, it went on to sell more than 7 million copies. The original is a fragile, beautiful thing of sparse elegance and staggering, heart-rending power. It frequently crops up in critics’ lists of the best albums of that decade. They never matched it for commercial success or critical acclaim, and to some extent have been living in its shadow ever since. Still, as legacies go, it’s not a bad one to be stuck with.
Only three of this band actually appear on August as members of Counting Crows: Duritz, keyboard player Charlie Gillingham and guitarist Dave Bryson. David Immergluck has the unusual status of having played on the album as a session player before eventually joining the band full-time in 1999, whilst Dan Vickrey joined the band shortly after they finished August in time for the 16-month tour that accompanied it. Two drummers and one bass player have come and gone since then, but the incumbents are more than worthy. Jim Bogios in particular is a potent addition, matching the drama and dynamic range of the songs with effortless competence.
Given there are three times as many guitars as there were on the record, it is both impressive and near-miraculous that the trio manage to add to the songs without treading on each others’ notes. If you’ll excuse a moment’s wild rock-journalist-hyperbole, I have been known to compare the arrival of Immergluck in Counting Crows to the introduction of Don Felder to the Eagles. Both arrived first on “difficult” third albums and brought a more natural, instinctive rock voice to their respective bands, liberating the other guitarists to do more interesting things in the process. Immergluck also plays mandolin and pedal steel, broadening the palette further. If you’ve pressed play on the video at the bottom already, you are by now experiencing Immy’s pedal steel abuse; I’m fairly sure that doesn’t appear in whatever the pedal steel equivalent of A Tune A Day is. Actually, I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing and that all pedal steel players are mutants from the planet Zog, so little sense does that miraculous instrument make to the rest of us.
Vickrey is a charming country-rock guitarist, but he also has a wonderful, underappreciated voice; he nails the backing vocal on Time and Time Again, a beautiful echo of the lead. (Those of you who’ve seen Crows live know he also sings the good stuff on Goodnight Elisabeth and A Long December, and has a nice line in hats.)
Headgear notwithstanding, Bryson is without a doubt the coolest. Les Paul Juniors, Gretsch hollowbodies and a distinct lack of histrionics, Dave is just getting on with it. He has so many of the crucial little shapes and figures that make these songs, some of them no doubt dating back to when these songs were nothing more than him and AD at an open mic somewhere.
August opens with Round Here. Less a song than a creed to Crows fans (I have actually seen people, admittedly in the States, entering a state that closely resembles rapture in the middle of performances of Round Here…). It’s such a powerful song, such a sprawling musical object, that the album, and thus the show, runs the risk of struggling to follow it up. In this form, with Raining in Baltimore shoehorned into the middle, it runs to almost 12 minutes. There’s not much I can do to describe what they do to this song live, but seeing as you’ve already gone to the bottom of this post and pressed play on the YouTube video, I don’t need to. Ah, the wonders of modern technology…
The remarkable thing is that playing the album top to bottom does work as a setlist; Omaha’s folksy charms, complete with accordion solo standing on the monitors, are just the thing to bring an audience back from the brink of Round Here-induced nervous breakdown. Mr Jones is, well, Mr Jones. Straight up, no messing around, just a great big radio hit about wanting to be a rock star. Which is just as well really, seeing as you’re about to be hit with the emotional triple whammy of Perfect Blue Buildings (a pretty much about hitting your head repeatedly against a wall because you don’t know what else to do any more), Anna Begins (a song so fucking horrible, so elegantly self-destructive that some people consider it dangerous to drive and listen at the same time), followed by the alternately triumphal and despairing Time and Time Again, you’re about ready to cry. Up swings the emotional rollercoaster once more in the form of Rain King, possibly the only rock song ever named after a Saul Bellow novel (answers on a postcard please).
After years of watching them deconstruct these songs, acoustify them, reelectrify them, slow them down and then leave them out all together, it’s a joy to hear them reunited. Of course, they’re bigger, better and matured by 14 years of life on the road, none more so than Sullivan Street, which Immergluck launches into widescreen country-rock glory with an opening slide solo that leaves you grinning like a madman. By the time they’ve stretched the ending out, brought it down and back up again, it’s pushing 10 minutes and the crowd is rapt throughout; when you can see people singing along to an improvised vocal they’ve probably never heard before, you know they’re really paying attention.
By Duritzian standards, the number of other peoples’ lyrics is quite moderate. Sure, we have most of Springsteen’s Thunder Road in the middle of Rain King and a snippet of Prince’s Sometimes It Snows in April in Sullivan Street, but otherwise it’s mostly his own words.
Moving Raining in Baltimore into the middle of Round Here has the effect of turning the end of the set into one long, loud, bluesy jam. Ghost Train was always grungy, but the arrival of Vickrey into the band made its live performances nastier, more grungy than the album version. Injected with a shot of Crazy Horse-esque riffing and shot through with menacing green spotlights, it creeps and crawls its way, sinister and dark, straight into A Murder of One.
Out of the darkness comes an organ drone, then Immy, all spiky black hair and devil-horned Gibson SG, smashing the same note again and again. “Step right up!” exhorts Duritz, and the band proceeds to turn it up to 11. Wrung out over 12 minutes, stretched taut and let fly three or four times as it rises and falls, A Murder of One rocks. It’s as great a performance of the song as any I’ve seen or heard; better than the version on Across a Wire, as good as the Paris ’94 version so widely bootlegged before its eventual release on disc 2 of the deluxe edition of August in 2007, or an astonishing, ragged recording from Charlotte, NC that I treasure. It morphs through Sordid Humor’s “Doris Day”, U2’s “Red Hill Mining Town” and back, gloriously, into its conclusion as Vickrey and Immergluck trade wild, untamed solos.
The credits roll and then it’s just a matter of watching the “in-depth interview” with Duritz and Gillingham. If nothing else, it is long, clocking in at nearly 40 minutes. It’s one for the enthusiasts, too, discussing the minutiae of making and touring the album, their rise to fame and how they arrived at the sound of the album. For anyone who’s read interviews over the years, or indeed the sleeve notes of the deluxe edition, there’s not much here you haven’t heard before.
More interesting is the story of how the DVD ended up being a straight-through performance of August; this wasn’t the original plan, it turns out. A sprawling, Last Waltz-esque film featuring guest appearances was apparently planned, but after surprising the rest of the band with this setlist a few weeks before filming, Immergluck and Duritz decided to repeat it with the camera rolling. It is a pleasant side effect of the band’s freedom from Geffen that they are able to do things like this. I can’t imagine a label reacting well to a complete change of plan a matter of weeks before filming (the sleeve notes tell us . The result is beautifully impetuous, improvised, spontaneous; just like all the best bits of their long and storied live career.
*That is assuming you already have August and Everything After, without which very little of what I’m about to say will make much sense. If you don’t already own August, you should. If you are a close personal friend of mine and I haven’t already bought you a copy for Christmas at some point during said friendship (which would be unusual), remind me. Of course, you could always borrow one of mine. At the last count I had 4; the original DGC pressing, the subsequent Geffen pressing, the 2007 two-disc Deluxe Edition and, best of all, the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs gold disc remaster I found in Bleecker Street Records for $15 (copies routinely go on eBay for more than £100…).