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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Counting Crows: A Work in Progress

March 17, 1994|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

S mells like Dylan/Morrison/Springsteen spirit.

Counting Crows, that is.

At a time when the alienation and rage of a gifted new generation of bands, led by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, dominate rock commercially and creatively, the Counting Crows have become the year's most surprising--though far from unexplainable--success story.

There was the feel of something happening here again on the Sunset Strip on Tuesday as the Bay Area band--whose debut Geffen album has soared into the national Top 10--opened a four-night stand: two shows at the Whisky, then two more at the Roxy. All sold out instantly.

The reason for the excitement: The music of Adam Duritz and his sidekicks offers something largely missing from the diet of the key '90s bands--the poetic, introspective singer-songwriter values of the '60s and '70s.

Indeed, " 'Round Here," which was performed early in Tuesday's set, offers the ricochet imagery and youthful wonder of Springsteen's early work, while "Mr. Jones" not only takes its title from a character in Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man," but also mentions rock's most influential writer in the lyrics.

"I want to be Bob Dylan," Duritz sings in "Mr. Jones," a wonderfully appealing summation of a young musician's rock-star dreams.

Aside from that playfulness, the Crows' music focuses on the lonely search for something or someone to believe in amid the confusions and contradictions of life--and the band sometimes captures that search with captivating warmth.

While most young '90s bands--including Nirvana, whose "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is the anthem of the angry new sound--explore similar themes, their music is often so abrasive and so relentlessly youth-oriented that it seems alien to a large segment of the rock audience, including most people over 25.

For an audience starved for the more traditional and accessible approach (and that surely includes some under 25), the Crows are in some ways the only game in town--and that fact has helped the band's rise.

What the fans found at the Whisky was an artist who is still struggling to find his own voice. The Crows' material is wildly uneven, but that is to be expected of most new bands. The question now is whether all this sudden acclaim and sales will help or hurt Duritz's development as a writer.

One encouraging sign Tuesday was that the dreadlocked singer seemed aware of the challenge ahead. Despite the sudden attention, Duritz was refreshingly down to earth on stage. Dressed in a T-shirt and sweat pants, he opened the evening on a nice note by personally introducing the opening act--New York singer-songwriter Peter Stewart.

When Duritz, who is in his late 20s, returned later with the Crows, he still seemed like someone trying to establish a rapport with the audience rather than assuming he already has their allegiance.

Instead of coasting on the material from the album, he previewed several new songs, which are in the mode of the album's music. The band supported his vocals ably with a personalized punctuation that recalls some of the roots-accented soulfulness of the band. Still, the evening seemed very much a work in progress.

The Crows' next album should go a long way toward telling us whether their 1994 success was simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time, or whether they are indeed capable of extending the legacy that they celebrate.

* Counting Crows at the Roxy, 9009 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 276-2222. Sold out. 8 p.m., tonight and Friday.

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