In honor of me turning 30, I made mix CDs of my favorite songs from each of my 30 favorite musical artists/groups. Read the introductory post for more background information on my 30 at 30 project. Reminder: there is no scientific rationale for this list. They’re simply my personal favorites. Coming in at number 1 is Counting Crows.
Counting Crows had a profound influence on me as an adolescent and young adult. Although I first heard Counting Crows on the radio in the early 90s when I was a preteen, I rediscovered the band and their music during my senior year of high school.
The number one reason I connected with Counting Crows was the lyrics of lead singer Adam Duritz. Despite being 20 years my elder, Duritz’s lyrical poetry resonated with me on a deep, spiritual level. The combination of his artfully crafted words and his passionate, vulnerable vocal performances made me relate to Duritz as a soul brother.
Counting Crows released their fourth studio album, Hard Candy, on July 8, 2002, midway through the summer before my senior year of high school. I probably listened to that album 100 times that summer while also immersing myself in the previous Counting Crows releases. I attempted to compile a “Best of” Counting Crows CD and ended up making a three-disc set that nearly included every song from their catalog. Every time I listened through an album it seemed like a different line from a different song caught my attention and fit my mood.
By the time the spring of 2003 rolled around, I was an unabashed Counting Crows fanatic. I joined the band’s official fan club at the time, Cloudkookooland. As the letter reads, the name “comes from Aristophanes’ play, ‘The Birds’, and was the name for the city, built by birds, suspended halfway between heaven and earth where the impossible was possible.” I also spent evenings reading and posting on Counting Crows message boards, which is how I discovered the burgeoning subculture of online bootleg music trading. Although the Internet connection speed of the early 2000s made it difficult, I slowly built a sizable collection of Counting Crows concert bootleg recordings, which the band did not discourage so long as they were not being sold by anyone for profit. Unfortunately, I lost most of those recordings in an apartment fire in 2009. However, the time I spent listening to recorded versions of live Counting Crows performances opened my ears to a whole new world of Counting Crows music that I never had experienced before. Two things stuck out from the live shows: Adam’s innate ability as a storyteller on stage and first-rate musicianship of the individual band members, especially Charlie (Gillingham), Dave (Bryson), Dan (Vickrey), and Immy (David Immerglück).
What I didn’t know was that listening to all of those live recordings was priming me for one of my the most meaningful experiences of my life. As fate would have it, Counting Crows’ spring tour brought them to the Warner Theatre in Erie, Pennsylvania, on April 23, 2003. It was my favorite band in my hometown less than two months before graduating from high school. Oh yeah, and it was also the first concert I ever attended. My buddy Ryan Colvin and I had great seats up front on the left side near the stage, and we were treated to an unforgettable performance. Fortunately for me, the show was recorded and I was able to obtain a copy through the online Counting Crows community that I was a part of. That live recording remains a treasured piece of my collection to this day, and that concert cemented Counting Crows’ legacy in my own mind as my all-time favorite band.
After coming home from the concert I was insatiable. No amount of Counting Crows seemed to be enough. Impulsively, I decided then and there to redecorate my bedroom wall, which had previously been adorned exclusively with sports posters. I cleared the area of the wall above my bed. Centered above the bed was a poster of the band I had purchased at the concert. Meticulously, I surrounded the poster with printed copies of the lyrics from every song as well as the album artwork from each of the band’s four studio albums on coordinated colored paper. Obsessed? Perhaps. Dedicated? Undoubtably. I was no longer just a member of the fan club Cloudkookooland, I was living in it.
In all, I have seen Counting Crows live in concert on seven occasions. I’ve seen them in five different states. I’ve seen them perform at inside at concert halls and outside in a baseball stadium. I’ve seen them perform in spring, summer, and winter. To me, asking me to compare shows is like comparing children. They are all special and unique, and I wouldn’t trade away the experience of attending any of them.
Having said that, my most recent Counting Crows live experience understandably stands out freshest in my mind. It was the first time seeing the band live since I got married in 2011 and the first time Jessie and I had seen them together since all the way back in 2006, so I knew it was going to be a memorable event. The icing on the cake was that we had front row seats! Plus, the band had just released its latest album Somewhere Under Wonderland in September, five days before my 30th birthday. Hearing many tracks from that album live for the first time that night was among the many highlights, including a rocking rendition of “Miami” and the seasonally appropriate “A Long December“.
“Mr. Jones”—the one Counting Crows song that everyone has heard—was first released as a single in December of 1993. Twenty-one years later, the band didn’t even play it at the Warren, Ohio, show, and it didn’t lessen my appreciation of the performance. If anything, I enjoyed it more because that meant I got to hear something rarer, a non-canon track like “Richard Manuel is Dead” or “Washington Square.”
I wholeheartedly disagree with one of the regular criticisms of Counting Crows concerts. If your goal for a concert is for the band to play a carbon copy of the album you listened to on the way to the concert, Counting Crows is probably not the band for you. Adam is bound to change the words, wander in and out of songs with storytelling snippets, slightly alter a melody here or there, or add in an alternate verse to your favorite song. They might play that fast song you like slow or turn that acoustic ballad you love into an electric rocker. Sure, singing along at a Counting Crows concert often becomes difficult because Adam zigs when you expect him to zag, but while Duritz may pump fake the audience better than Michael Jordan with his lyrical alterations, the rest of the band remains in sync with their lead singer, and there is never a question of whether the band is feeling it or not. These guys were born to rock. With Adam as the eccentric, sometimes brooding leader, the band puts on a show night after night, year after year. It’s clear that they’re having the time of their lives, improvising riffs and solos, playing off one another, and creating something special in the moment for that particular audience on that specific night. I’ve been privileged to be part of that audience seven times, and hopefully number eight isn’t too far off in the future.