Live at Heineken Musical Hall February 6, 2003 Label: Geffen
A person could be forgiven for wondering exactly why the world needs another live album from the Counting Crows. The band did, after all, release a sprawling, overstuffed, two-disc live set only two albums into its career; since those were, it could convincingly be argued, the most important albums the Crows have released (or will release), the decision to revisit the live-album well – on the heels of a greatest-hits package, no less – is doubly questionable.
A person could also be forgiven for questioning the appeal of a Counting Crows live album, period. The band’s studio albums, though slickly and impeccably produced in their own way, boast a more or less uniformly organic sound – the songs aren’t begging for the stripped-down release of the live setting, and the change in presentation doesn’t bring many new ingredients to the table. As a band, the Crows are so relentlessly (even a little horrifyingly) competent that, though they can offer convincing reproductions of their studio recordings, they aren’t going to do much more.
Yes, a person could be forgiven for thinking these things, but that person would still be wrong, because this album – though curiously dead in spots, and certainly far from perfect – makes a compelling case for the band in its second decade. In fact, in flashes, it’s even sort of marvelous.
A live album’s success rests largely on how well it manages to distill the strengths of the band in question; strengths that, in this case, have a lot to do with the enormous size and scope of Adam Duritz’ existential gloom. Top 40 radio did a lot to rob his quavering, pained howl of its casual appeal, but the fact remains, Duritz is one of the best and most underrated mope-rock vocalists of the last decade.
New Amsterdam puts its best foot forward right off the bat, with a stunning, drawn-out version of “Rain King” that reminds you why these guys sold so many copies of their debut. Duritz is a sad bastard, to be sure, but he can be a magnificent sad bastard on occasion, and he brings such convincing pathos to this performance – and the band provides such a perfect foil – that you may find yourself not only revisiting the ache of every crappy relationship you ever had, but wishing you were back there again. That’s how good these guys can make heartbreak sound.
It isn’t all rain clouds and sorrow, of course; ironically, this is where the band can run into trouble. It isn’t that songs like the nostalgic “Hard Candy” or hard-charging “Catapult” are bad – in fact, “Catapult” in particular boasts one of Duritz’ most convincing rock & roll performances – but they aren’t extraordinary, and in a career-spanning set like this, they feel too much like padding.
All things considered, this is a minor quibble; by the time Duritz hushes the cheering crowd four-fifths of the way through “Holiday in Spain,” you’ll have come to the conclusion that even if the Counting Crows haven’t managed to record an album better than their debut, well, neither have they released anything that’s fallen too far short of that lofty mark. If you’d forgotten about the band – or have wondered why they’re still kicking around – Amsterdam may provide a few compelling answers.