Counting Crows at BMO Harris Pavilion
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If the “Outlaw Roadshow” moniker for Wednesday night’s Counting Crows show was dreamt up in order to attract a rabble, it didn’t work out in Milwaukee; by the time the headliners took the stage of the BMO Harris Pavilion, security invited everyone down to the expensive blue seats, which were then still only half full. The 100-degree heat plus the threat of thunderstorms probably cut into attendance, but it was still a pretty scant showing. Crows frontman Adam Duritz didn’t seem to notice, though—his instantly likeable persona was either genuine or immaculately practiced, and it would’ve charmed a crowd of 20 or 20,000. In a sense, he’s like an understudy of Bono or Eddie Vedder: either you believe in him or you don’t—but if you do, you’re sold. Unlike those two icons, though, Duritz is his band, and the rest of Counting Crows are merely his Heartbreakers. (As in Tom Petty, not Johnny Thunder.)
The dilemma: save “Mr. Jones” until the end to make sure everyone sticks around, or play it early and show ’em that you’re not one of those bands that has to save the big hit for the end? The solution: don’t even play it. As the set rolled on, it became increasingly difficult to imagine how that song could fit in. Duritz makes use of gimmicks, but not generally for an entire song, and most traces of his old Van Morrison shtick are gone. Instead, he has inhabited the aw-shucks hippie-next-door persona that always seemed at odds with his alt-rock star status. His band isn’t selling out amphitheaters any more, but Duritz still commands an audience, and his evocations of pained youth seem more valid now that he’s got a little worldly experience to filter them through.
The band knows when to swell and when to ease back and let its dreadlocked leader ramble, but when it was time to take the spotlight, only guitarist Dan Vickrey ever earned it, and only in a couple of 30-second bursts. Multi-instrumentalist David Immerglück played the Americana archetype, mostly on mandolin and guitar, and with very little imagination. These songs aren’t quite big enough to necessitate a seven-person band, and Immerglück’s contributions likely wouldn’t be missed. Even for a pop-rock band, drummer Jim Bogios was tame. Utilitarian beats sufficed, but even a slight bit of creativity could’ve spiced up slow moments like “Untitled (Love Song)” or “New Frontier.”
Still, the setlist featured a number of unexpected gems, like the opening pair of conceptually connected tunes “When I Dream Of Michelangelo” and “Angels Of The Silences,” and later on, Pure Prairie League’s “Amie,” per request from Field Report’s Damian Strigens. And for the requisite sing-a-longs, Duritz was captivating, meandering through “Round Here” as if he was spontaneously conjuring it up, and inciting the crowd to augment him for much of “Hanging Around.” It was his show to make or break, and for five bucks (a last-minute discount offered to Pabst Theater e-members), the performance was nothing short of a steal.
The opening roster was a predictably folk-rock assemblage, and surprisingly squeaky-clean for a bunch of outlaws. Kasey Anderson And The Honkies held down the Black Crowes end of the spectrum, and We Are Augustines did the raspy Springsteen thing without an awful lot of original spark. After these two sets of straightforward rock, Milwaukee’s Field Report seemed positively mellow at first, and a couple of songs were still finding their feet as full-band performance pieces. But Chris Porterfield’s magnetism and vision as a performer are Jeff Tweedy-caliber, and his words reached out across the pavilion to those who were paying attention. As the band closed its set with the powerful “Fergus Falls,” Field Report seemed to have outgrown small clubs right before the crowd’s eyes.