According to Bill Flanagan's liner notes to Across a Wire: Live in New York, "Counting Crows have always been primarily a live band," a label he applies like a badge of honor. Well, maybe. In concert, Counting Crows draw almost all of their personality from lead singer Adam Duritz, who can come across as energetic and explosive one night, somber and self-indulgent the next, as the mood strikes him. In the studio, the group has struck a finer balance, with Duritz's five essentially faceless bandmates offering intricate musical interplay, a refined sense of pop, rock, and folk history, and discreet but poignant support to their leader's soul-searching introspection.
Across a Wire is as schizophrenic as Duritz's stage presence. Its two discs were recorded on two different nights, at an Unplugged-style show for VH1 Storytellers and an electric concert for MTV Live From the 10 Spot. Not suprisingly, it's the first set that works best on disc. Like Eric Clapton's legendary Unplugged appearance, the Storytellers setting allows Duritz and company to reinvent their songs, rather than just re-creating their original performances. The album kicks off with a heartfelt rendition of "Round Here," Duritz, accompanied by David Bryson's acoustic guitar, stripping the song bare of any pretense. "Have You Seen Me Lately?", which follows, is the set's most radical rearrangement and the album's most moving performance, the delicate acoustic guitar and piano arrangement accentuating Duritz's haunted lyric about losing his identity in the crush of superstardom. Two other standout cuts on disc one both feature Charles Gillingham's understated accordian: A spooky "Mr. Jones," with a lead-in from the Byrds' "So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star," finds Duritz again reassessing the price of fame, and a countrified "Angels of the Silences" sounds like a missing late-period Eagles song by Don Henley. For hardcore fans, though, the real highlight comes at the very end of the disc, hidden after several minutes of silence: an new untitled studio recording of a yearning love song with haunting trumpet breaks that recalls August and Everything After's "Sullivan Street."
After the adventurous and musically subtle performance on disc one, disc two will be a disappointment to some listeners, a relief to others. Spirited and hard-rocking as Counting Crows get, the 10 Spot set features Duritz at his most exuberant, leading his band through propulsive but familiar takes of arena-ready favorites like "Recovering the Satellites," "Angels of the Silences," and "Rain King." Granted, it's hard to deny the primal power of the electric "Have You Seen Me Lately?", but it's also hard to follow just what the singer is saying, a sharp contrast to the version on disc one. I have no doubt this was a great concert, but listening to the album is like listening to tapes of a party you weren't invited to; you really had to be there. The slower songs, meanwhile, can't measure up to their original versions: Yes, "Round Here" and "A Long December" are still about as gorgeous as modern pop-rock gets, but Duritz mastered them in the studio, and here he comes up just a little bit short. On a long road trip, this would still make a great soundtrack, and itÝs always worthwhile to hear good music in a new context. As a treat for fans designed to hold them over until the band's next album of new material, Counting Crows could have done a lot worse. — Jeff Schwager
A Wall of Sound review by Jeff Schwager.
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