The last time anyone looked, Counting Crows was still a plural entity -- a sextet, not a solo act. Yet if you judged by the stories written about the California band, you might assume it was a one-man operation, that man being photogenic and enigmatic singer Adam Duritz.
Such media myopia is nothing new; just refer to the Rolling Stones or, perhaps more egregiously, Van Halen (a band that, one must recall after getting past the nationally televised catfights, doesn't go by the name of Roth or Hagar). But, common as the problem might be, it's still no fun being measured by the disposition of your frontman -- although the non-Duritz members of Counting Crows can shoulder a lot of the blame for their nondescript status. Guided perhaps by shyness, they gladly saddled Duritz with the task of band spokesman, helping him onto the pedestal, which, at times, must feel more like a gallows. And where does Duritz's celebrity leave the others? Actually, a hell of a lot happier at times.
"Touring with [Duritz] and being friends with him, I got to see what fame does; it really put a zap on his head," says Crows lead guitarist Dan Vickrey. "You can't go anywhere. I remember this time when we went to see a movie in a mall in Birmingham [Alabama] -- in the middle of nowhere -- and by the time it was over, there were 30 kids waiting outside."
Duritz, whether he likes it or not (and if you take him at his word, he's not thrilled), is the band's undisputed leader. He's its singer, its co-founder, its chief songwriter, its prime emotional catalyst. And for better or for worse, that makes him its shelter when the crap comes raining down. Initially, though, it appeared that Duritz relished his role. His interviews following the success of August and Everything After were unrestrained free-for-alls in which he'd rail against record company injustices one minute and ponder his hair extensions the next. Talk first, worry later was his pattern, and it was often quite amusing.
Back then, Duritz was probably more innocent than arrogant, and since that initial burst of attention, he's wised up considerably. Lately, he's opted to lie low and let the music -- and the rest of the band -- do the talking. His relative silence is understandable, seeing how he's become the preferred target of abuse when it comes to the Crows's lyrically uneven, if musically fulfilling, sophomore release Recovering the Satellites. Rather than lash back at his critics, Duritz is keeping his mouth shut. And as a result, when I ask for an interview in advance of the Crows's January 23 show at the Music Hall, I'm shuffled off to Dan Vickrey rather than the dreadlocked one.
It's not that the quiet, amiable Vickrey has nothing of his own to offer. After all, he had a hand in five of Satellites's 14 songs, and he was sole collaborator with Duritz on the powerful ballad "Miller's Angels." Still, he's drier than Melba toast on the phone, and he seems more interested in Houston's recent ice storm than in talking shop. "Man," he says when I reach him. "I hope the weather's better when we get there."
Although it recently went platinum and is holding fast in the Billboard Top 40, Recovering the Satellites has fielded a fair share of hard knocks. The prickliest barbs have originated from those who can't see the band's self-conscious folk-pop musings as anything more than a hollow tribute to artists who did that sort of thing better two and three decades ago (as if Jackson Browne and Buffalo Springfield never had their derivative moments). Many of the harshest critics were those who, three years earlier, were unconvinced that August and Everything After contained anything original, much less anything excellent.
Make no mistake, Recovering the Satellites has some pronounced weaknesses, many of which center on Duritz. Even as he's grown into a strong singer, shelving (with the exception of the faux-jazz babbling on "Another Horsedreamer's Blues") the Van Morrison gimmicks, his words continue to flounder in precipitous bouts of self-loathing and, on Satellites, run-of-the-mill reflections on fame's drawbacks.
Still, Satellites is saved by its music, not to mention "Daylight Fading," Counting Crows's finest four minutes on disc to date and the most poignant ode to a rootless existence this side of "Running on Empty." Utilizing discreet orchestration, varied keyboard sounds and an earthier, more up-front mix, producer Gil Norton beefed up and expanded Counting Crows's sonic arsenal, which on August was rather thin. He enhanced the band's resources without overextending them. And all those months the Crows spent honing their act on the road didn't hurt the evolution process, either.
Vickrey, who joined Counting Crows following the release of August and Everything After, had his first studio experience with the band during the recording of Satellites -- assuming, that is, you can actually call it a "studio" experience. As they did for August, the Crows sequestered themselves in a drafty mansion in the Hollywood Hills to put Satellites together. Vickrey seized the opportunity to show off a little, and his leads compete with Charles Gillingham's stunning keyboard work to drive many of the new CD's songs.
"We've always wanted to be recognized as being a band," says Vickrey. "And that's what we set out to do with this record. There's a lot more styles on it than on the last one; it's more complex. The record does grow on you."
It was definitely the band, not just Duritz, that impressed me back in 1994, when I got my first dose of Counting Crows at a ratty nightclub in Washington, D.C. While the band wasn't facing a particularly hostile audience that night, nearly everyone had come to see not them, but the headliner, Cracker. "Mr. Jones" had yet to make a dent on the airwaves.
As the opening act, Counting Crows could have merely gone through the motions; instead, they rocked a hole in the ozone 20 times the size of the stifling room in which they played, and the crowd took notice. For a lineup that had bonded as a unit only a short time before, the group was running on remarkably communal adrenaline. Yes, Duritz was the center of attention, weaving an awkward, yet fluid, line in his black T-shirt, worn Levi's and fringed jacket. But Vickrey, Gillingham, rhythm guitarist David Bryson, bassist Matt Malley and then-drummer Steve Bowman more than held their own behind him, grounding his coffeehouse-hippie shtick in much needed technical substance.
Vickrey joined the Crows just before their tour with Cracker, a six-month run in which the band began as unknowns and finished as stars. The group had started four years earlier in San Francisco, when Duritz, a transplant from Baltimore, and Bryson borrowed a name from an old English divination rhyme and began performing together as an acoustic duo.
By 1991, Counting Crows had morphed into the band that, the following year, would score a gig at the BMI New Music Showcase that helped seal a deal with Nirvana's label, DGC. September 1993 saw the release of August and Everything After and the start of the hype. A January 1994 appearance on Saturday Night Live confirmed the group's launch into popularity, even as "Mr. Jones" began to take off like a rocket on radio.
By late that summer, the Crows were too big for small venues, and they moved on to join the Rolling Stones's Voodoo Lounge tour. Bowman was this period's one casualty; the drummer was quickly replaced by Ben Mize. By then, August was already in the first stages of an astounding 93-week run on the charts.
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"We were just a band on the road having a great time," recalls Vickrey, speaking of the innocent, pre-Stones era as if it were decades ago. "We were playing dives, and we were having a blast."
Barring a slide into obscurity, Counting Crows is unlikely to ever hit those dives again. Even so, Vickrey thinks the band is capable of conveying a cozy nightclub feel in the setting of a larger theater.
"When push comes to shove, we're a band with very personal songs," he says. "We still want that intimate effect -- it's our job to make people feel connected."
Counting Crows performs at 8 p.m. Thursday, January 23, at the Music Hall, 810 Bagby. Tickets are $23.50. Fiona Apple opens. For info, call 629-3700.