There are only two types of musicians. There are those who believe that, once it’s recorded, a song’s finished. And there are those who believe that a song’s never done. Bob Dylan, for one, has spent the past 50 years out on the road reimagining his back catalogue to the point of rendering it almost unrecognisable.
Counting Crows, who famously namechecked the singer on their debut single Mr Jones, never go to Dylan extremes. But the band clearly believe that songs are meant to evolve, that the version you fell in love with on the radio is just a starting point.
Most often, like on a ragged Angels Of The Silences or buoyant Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby, this means new vocal phrasing from Adam Duritz while the six musicians around him hold the line, keeping the chunky riff or familiar melody firmly in place.
But more than once during the band’s headline show at BluesFest 2018, Duritz applies his talent for crafting lines like “see the way that light attaches to a girl” to equally poetic spoken-word interludes. Time and time again, his already narrative lyrics quite literally become full-blown stories.
Midway through Miami, while the band provide subtle musical backing, he begins recounting the moments the song captures (including such vivid imagery as an aeroplane’s silhouette flying straight into the sun). Towards the end of his recollection, Duritz starts singing his story to the song’s melody and, as the band join in, essentially crafts a brand new verse before returning to more familiar ground.
It’s a dazzling feat he repeats on Round Here, remembering the earliest days of the band, complete with vivid descriptions of the building they lived in, the train tracks nearby, and the dented tins of soup they bought from the local 99c store. The memories really kick in, though, as he recalls nights “wrapped and blanketed and swaddled in volume” and how an immersion in music “carried us from childhood to adulthood”.
“We just hoped that someone would notice us,” he continues, “and then you did.” It’s such a simple, understated line, but by including the O2 Arena audience so directly in his story, Duritz instantly makes a stronger connection with his fans than an evening long of sincere “thank you’s” ever could.
It’s a masterclass in storytelling that’s only completed once the song’s back in full swing and the singer effortlessly slips in callbacks to the details he’s just shared (from parking lots to train whistles).
Of course such fluidity is only possible with excellent musicians. In this 25th anniversary greatest hits set that encompasses southern rock (Hanginaround), anthemic indie pop (Rain King), sunny folk (Holiday In Spain), and maudlin ballads (A Long December), every single song depends on every single member of Counting Crows, regardless of how flashy they are. While guitarist David Bryson is as discreet as a ghost in a fog where no one notices the contrast of white on white, keyboardist Charlie Gillingham must be the most enthusiastic accordion player since “Weird” Al Yankovic, and multi-instrumentalist David Immerglück appears to be auditioning for KISS every time he straps on an electric guitar.
Despite (or perhaps due to) suggesting that tonight’s euphoric London performance may very well be the band’s last ever in the UK, Duritz is in equally good form. He pours his heart into a devastating Colorblind, leads the inevitable singalong on Mr. Jones, pretends to walk a tightrope on top of his monitors, but most of all reveals that he’s first and foremost still a music fan, whether he’s introducing their cover version of Teenage Fanclub’s Start Again or fanboying over support act Alison Krauss.
Krauss, who’s amassed 27 Grammy Awards in a recording career that began just over three decades ago, brings that experience plus her clear-as-a-bell voice and virtuosity on violin to a set of bluegrass, gospel, and classic country tunes. Backed by a five-piece band and joined on vocal harmonies by two members of the legendary Cox Family, Krauss performs originals, reinterprets landmark songs by the likes of Willie Nelson and Sam Phillips, and puts her own spin on traditionals like Down To The River To Pray.
But she saves the best for last. The highlight of her set is the encore, a take on Philip Paul Bliss’ It Is Well With My Soul performed around a single microphone. Krauss, the Cox siblings and bass player Barry Bales harmonise angelically while Ron Block accompanies them on acoustic guitar. Turns out that all it takes to silence The O2 is four voices and six nylon strings.
The White Buffalo, the night’s opening act, takes a far more conventional approach to winning over the audience: solid songs that dip into folk, Americana, outlaw country, and even the blues. Led by the grizzled voice and forceful acoustic guitar playing of Jake Smith, they tell dark, sometimes bleak, stories against a backdrop of rousing choruses. Come Join The Murder, especially, stands out for its imagery of blackbirds, angels, Judas, and even Pericles, paired with ‘60s pop melodies.
Storytelling through song is clearly alive and well.
Review of Counting Crows, Alison Krauss, and The White Buffalo at BluesFest on 28th October 2018 by Nils van der Linden. Photography by Simon Reed.