Why is it the opening notes on "Rain King" from the Counting Crows' New Amsterdam: Live at Heineken Music Hall sound so elegiac, so utterly lost and sad? When this song was first released on August and Everything After, it sounded like an anthem. Here Adam Duritz sounds tired, lost, and perhaps even afraid, and he lets it be known in the grain of his voice that that's exactly what was going on. While the band roars to life on "Richard Manuel Is Dead," Duritz lets out the words "I've been walking in the dark/But now I'm standin' on the lawn" like he's singing from someplace so deep inside himself, it's as if the band (bassist Matt Malley was still a member then) has disappeared behind him. It's the only moment where this happens, but it's so significant because it's obvious that he's out on some ledge hoping and praying for rescue that may be available but he can't see it, and he wants to enter the world so bad you can almost taste the desperation. This live record is official, but it feels warts-and-all like a special kind of bootleg. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. It doesn't feel complacent in any way, but it does feel lost in the melancholic fog, full of tension and an over-the-line subtlety that makes you feel as if you're witnessing a train wreck. Bob Clearmountain's mix is solid because it takes nothing away from the feel of near implosion. They barely hold it together here, though the band's playing is nearly flawless technically. These fellows are holding their singer up. The stories about this are many, but New Amsterdam is the audio evidence.
The content comes from across their catalog, except for "Hazy," composed by Duritz and Gemma Hayes, but it was, according to his blog, completely improvised on the spot. The brokenness in this solo cut is so desperate you almost feel embarrassed to be so close to hearing it as it happens. It's a marker; these 14 songs come across not so much as a final will and testament, but the sound of a band, and a frontman, at some crossroads where everything that counted is gone, and there's something's coming that isn't clear. It's followed by the wah wah fuzzed-out guitar the Counting Crows play like it's all at risk, but as if they've gained and lost plenty. "Perfect Blue Buildings" punches holes in the night sky with Duritz bringing the band out there with him in facing the void. There is a struggle happening. While the chords and melodies are familiar, there is something so anxious here that you may grit your teeth. It's only on "Hangingaround" where he rises above the murk and lets everybody remember he's a rock & roll singer. If you're a fan, this is the kind of inner vision you long for; if you're someone wondering what the fuss has been about since the '90s, this will be appalling evidence. If you are a train spotter seeking dissolution and desperation, Live at Heineken Music Hall will fulfill your vampiric thirst for blood. But Duritz is no Nick Drake -- these songs go to war against the darkness even when being immersed in it. He's always pushing, from inside the song itself, to break out into the world around him and for the band to push him harder! This set, as strange and beguiling as it is, is flawed and fitting testament to the Counting Crows' continued trudge out there on the margins of rock & roll. They've never fit anywhere, and listening to this, it becomes obvious why.