Counting Crows play deep cuts and songs from their “This Desert Life” album during an intimate, inspired performance originally filmed in 1999 for the Dutch program “2 Meter Sessies.”
By 1999, popular music was dominated by nu-metal and teen pop acts. Meanwhile, many of the alt-rock groups that were in vogue in the early part of the decade had either imploded or faded from mainstream view. Counting Crows — who moved a staggering 7 million units of their 1993 debut, “August and Everything After” — belong in the latter camp. The group’s sensitive-guy folk-rock was diametrically opposed to the likes of “Nookie” and “…Baby One More Time.” And yet the Los Angeles band carried on with its third record, “This Desert Life,” and toured the world for audiences still invested in their gentle post-grunge sound.
Like many legacy acts who carry on long after their zeitgeist moment passes, Counting Crows have persevered by evolving into a crack live act capable of taking their songs to a different place sonically on stage. This performance from the “This Desert Life” tour cycle shows how the band had relaxed into a subtle and nuanced unit by the end of ‘90s, tempering the melodrama of singer-songwriter Adam Duritz’s lyrics and vocals with consistently tasteful playing.
Recorded during a European tour for the Dutch TV program “2 Meter Sessies,” the performance exudes living-room intimacy. It’s more like “hangin’ around” with the band than watching a show. Unlike the group’s previous tour in support of its excellent and underrated 1996 release, “Recovering the Satellites,” which found it frequently re-arranging songs in radical ways, the collective mostly sticks to faithful interpretations of cuts from “This Desert Life.” Perhaps that’s because the album, as Duritz explains to a Dutch interviewer, was an attempt to make a “weirder” Counting Crows record, with sprawling songs that were permitted to sound rawer than the typically radio-friendly band allowed itself to be.
If you go deep with Counting Crows, this performance is a rare opportunity to hear some of the band’s lost gems live.
This is not to say that there are no hits here; Counting Crows perform the crowd-pleasing opener from “This Desert Life,” “Hangin’ Around,” with twangy self-assurance. But the deep cuts hit hardest: the shaggy-dog story song “St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream,” the slow-building neo-psych-rock ballad “High Time” and the despairing “Speedway.” If you go deep with Counting Crows, this performance is a rare opportunity to hear some of the band’s lost gems live. More casual fans might feel a little lost. This is a band that continues to be defined in the popular consciousness by its blockbuster debut, and none of the big hits from that album are featured — no “Mr. Jones,” no “Round Here,” no “Rain King.”
Even if the material might not be familiar to some viewers, it’s easy to appreciate Counting Crows’ musicianship and chemistry. The band tends to be portrayed as merely a vehicle for Duritz’s songs, but the singer himself debunks that. Counting Crows, he says, isn’t “Adam and the Heartbreakers.” The live performance shows how this new lineup — featuring multi-instrumentalist David Immerglück of Camper Van Beethoven, who became a permanent member on this tour — seamlessly transforms Duritz’s personal laments into enduring rock songs.
Steven Hyden is the author of “This Isn’t Happening,” “Twilight of the Gods,” “Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me,” and (with Steve Gorman) “Hard to Handle.” His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, Billboard, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Grantland, The A.V. Club, Slate and Salon. He is currently the cultural critic at UPROXX. He lives in Minnesota with his wife and two children.