Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz talks us through his gig memories, including one star-studded night at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame
Main image by Mark Seliger
In a scene of wallflowers (including literal Wallflowers) and everyman songwriters, nobody stood out quite like Adam Duritz. With his dreadlocks, fluctuating voice, deeply personal lyrics and entranced performances, the Counting Crows frontman was a natural focal point. His lyrics felt designed to be scrawled on the covers of teenagers’ journals, he looked like the coolest English professor on campus and was every inch the sensitive Bohemian poet. It’s no wonder the band’s debut was such a phenomenon.
Despite changing trends and departing their major label home, Counting Crows have persevered and continued to deliver kinetic, magnetic records. The last was 2019’s Butter Miracle Suite One, a four-track EP of rambling 70s-inspired folk rock songs that blended together and felt like a west coast successor to Springsteen’s Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ. It was said to be the first of two parts, later to be sewn together as the band’s eighth full-length. As of September 2022, we’re still waiting for part two. So what gives?
“I kind of had it written,” Duritz tells us over Zoom, “I was on my friend’s farm in England last year, and I wrote Suite Two. But then while I was over there, I also sang on my friend’s record. They’re an Australian band, Gang Of Youths, but they live in England. He sent me the record, Angel In Real Time, before it came out and I listened to it and I thought, ‘Man, this is so good.’ It reminded me of the kind of feelings that I wanted to have. So I ditched Suite Two.”
When pressed about where he’s currently at with Butter Miracle Suite Two, Duritz laughs: “I’m just giving interviews about how I ditched it.” With or without it, Counting Crows are headed this way in October for a string of dates around the UK and Ireland. Ahead of the shows, we caught up with Adam about his favourite gig memories from the band’s long and storied career.
I don’t remember the first Counting Crows gig because there were so many different iterations of the band. I can remember some early gigs, but we weren’t really Counting Crows yet. I can remember my first kind of gig as an adult. I was in my band Model Society and we were playing a street fair in Berkeley. I woke up the morning of the gig – and this happened the first three or four gigs we had – with complete and total laryngitis. I literally couldn’t make a sound. Just like complete psychosomatic laryngitis.
Someone suggested ginger tea and I just decided to chew on the ginger root. I would shave it with a knife, cut a chunk off and chew on it, which burns your throat and brought my voice back. But it only worked for like a few minutes at a time, so I had to keep this big piece of ginger onstage on a stool next to me with a very sharp knife and I would shave the skin off it, cut a chunk and chew it like gum. I don’t know why it happened and then it just stopped. I never had stage fright, I felt fine except that I had no voice. Like, I have some mental illness problems, and I’m a little crazy, but that was real crazy.
Well, we were near the end of making August And Everything After and I had gone home for a weekend. We’d taken a break and I’d been home for like a day and a half and I got a call on the Sunday from our A&R guy saying, “Hey, Van Morrison is supposed to play Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and he’s not going to go. Do you want to play the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?” They were going to just pick a band, I think Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but Robbie Robertson was the music director at that point, and he said, “You know what, I know this band that’s making their record in the hills right now. They’d be great for this.” I said, “Can I think about it?” He says, “Sure.” And I hang up the phone.
The phone rings one second later, “No, you can’t think about it.” “Yeah, sorry. Of course, we’ll do it.”. At this point, it’s Sunday, five o’clock in the afternoon and I’m up in Berkeley. Rehearsals are tomorrow in Studio City. He says, “Yeah, you got to get down here tonight. Because whatever you’re gonna do, you got to have it by tomorrow to play it and show it to the guys.
So my dad gave us a ride to the airport. Me and Immer (David Immerglück, the band’s guitarist) and Dave Bryson (also guitar) were the only ones around at the time. And we stopped at Tower Records on the way to the airport and picked up a bunch of Van Morrison stuff so we could think about what to play and then learn something. I think we decided on the plane on the way down to do ‘Caravan’. And so we got to this apartment at Oakwood and we rehearsed it that night, just me singing, Dave Bryson on acoustic guitar and Immer on mandolin. And we came up with a really cool version of it, just the three of us.
So, the next day we drove out to the valley to this rehearsal studio, and we pull up and as we’re walking in, I can hear music coming through the door. It sounds just like The Doors playing ‘Roadhouse Blues’. I opened the door and it is The Doors with Eddie Vedder singing. I look around the room and leaning against the wall across the room is Eric Clapton and Jack Cassidy. The house band, who are just standing around with their instruments, is Jim Keltner on drums, Don Was on bass, Benmont Tench from the Heartbreakers on keyboards, Bruce Springsteen and Robbie on guitar, and then John Fogarty is there too. I’m pretty stunned.
I’ve met Robbie before, so Robbie introduces us to everybody. I went out and played basketball for a while with Eddie. Cream was supposed to play, but Ginger Baker, in classic Cream fashion, hasn’t showed up yet. Eventually they call us back in and Robbie’s like, “Do you want the band to play with you?” The band being Don Was, Jim Keltner, Benmont, Robbie and Bruce. And I said, “No, it’s no problem. We got it.”
What I meant was just like, “We figured it out already with just the three of us.” I didn’t want to be a hassle for anybody. I was just trying to be easy, but it came off all wrong. There’s total silence. And then the whole room just f**king starts laughing at me. You know, it’s this complete unknown guy saying to the most famous musicians in the world, “No, thank you.” And Robbie’s like, “Okay, why don’t you play it for us? And then we’ll see.” And I think he’s totally regretting having picked us at that moment. So we play it, and it’s good. I can tell they’re all kind of impressed, you know?
The next morning is the soundcheck and because they’re filming it, it’s at like nine in the morning, not rock and roll time. It’s a big run through with all the award presentations and everybody playing. We get there and the only people there are all the most famous musicians in the world. By now it’s all of Creedence Clearwater Revival, George Clinton, who’s presenting Sly and the Family Stone, Ruth Brown and Bonnie Raitt, KD Lang is inducting Etta James, more of the guys in the E Street Band. It’s just like the day before, but even better/worse, depending on how you want to call it.
So now we’re just playing in front of even more of the most famous musicians on Earth. We spent that day hanging out with all those guys and everybody’s really nice. We’re like these young musicians that everybody’s taking under their wing. That night rolls around, and Robbie does the intro. We go on stage to play. I get really gone when I’m playing, I get really lost. I’m not really wildly conscious… God, I’m sorry, this story is so long.
No, no, it’s amazing. Please keep going!
I have this hat. It’s called a mambo sock. It was before I had the dreads, I guess. It’s like a snowboarding hat before snowboarding is popular. We start playing and I’m into it, you know. And the first time we hit that chorus, I sort of throw my head backwards and the hat flies off the back of my head. I catch it and stick it back on, but the wrong way. So the whole song, every time I’m moving, this hat is migrating around my head. And I’m trying to just get it stay in one place while I only have one hand free. It’s ridiculous, but we played the sh*t out of the songs and the place kind of goes crazy.
I’m walking off stage and it’s one of those ballroom-like stages where there are a series of curtains going back for different levels of the stage. And it’s really dark in between, there’s no light in there. I can’t really see what I’m walking towards at all. Just as I’m crossing off the main stage into where the curtain is, I tripped on a cable. My hands are in my pocket, so there’s no way to get them under me. I’m just falling. And I just remember thinking in the split second, “Oh, this is gonna really hurt.”
And then I landed in this vast, soft series of pillows. I reach my hands out and I feel like the arms of a chair and I push up and my head emerges from Etta James’s breasts. She’s sitting in a chair because she’s on next. She’s fairly old at that point and as beautiful as ever, but big. My face literally landed between her breasts. I’m so stunned. And she’s staring at me and I’m staring at her. And KD Lang is standing behind her chair because she’s about to go on stage. And I’m just gobsmacked. Etta says, “Y’alright?” And I said, “Yeah.” She goes, “You sang great.”
And then later, I went back out in the audience to our table and I’m sitting there with Robbie and George Clinton and Immer. And we watch Cream play. I mean, Cream hadn’t played in decades at that point. It was unbelievable. George Clinton asked me for the very first autograph I’d ever been asked for in my life. It was a great night. It was so cool, an incredible experience. One of the best nights ever.
Are you someone who gets intimidated in that kind of environment, where you’re playing in front of these heroes, or do you rise to the situation?
It just seemed like, same baby more candy. I don’t think I was nervous because I’m nervous in a lot of my life, but not there. The one thing I’m comfortable doing is singing, playing music. That’s one thing I can do. Especially back then, I never worried about that stuff. It was just really cool and I was really happy to be there. And I wasn’t jaded about that stuff yet. Now, I couldn’t give a flying f**k about that Rock Roll Hall of Fame. It’s silly, award shows and stuff like that, having people decide who’s great and who’s not. But then, I just felt part of a community.
Is there a weirder one than that?
Not that I can think of off the top of my head.
So, in our first year we were opening for Cracker. We owe a lot of our career to them. I mean, they took us out, had us open for them. They put us back on to do an encore one night in New York, which is how we ended up getting on Saturday Night Live. And they booked us when we were still a very unknown band. We weren’t even in the top 200 when we played that show, and that really made our career.
But yeah, so we’re opening for them in Knoxville. We get up on stage for the show and the monitors are all blown. I can’t hear anything except this squawking at me from blown speakers. And it’s one of these gigs where the dressing room’s at the back of the hall, right? And the stage is in the front right corner. They make a space all the way up the side and across the front to get on the stage.
We were terrible. Just terrible. And when it was over, there was this silence. Like nobody clapped. We just finished the last song and there’s nothing. We had to walk down, cross the front, down the side, across the back to the dressing room and people are just looking at us. And then we had to go back up to get our equipment off the stage. When Cracker went on later that night, Lowery [David, Cracker’s frontman] was so p*ssed off about that, that he took his guitar and smashed it through the monitors.
The One That Made You Want To Play Music
Oh there’s a few of those. I can remember The Blue Nile at the Great American Music Hall, which is this small venue in San Francisco. I still think to this day that it was the most emotional show I ever saw. Just, so beautiful and I got so lost in it. Those songs are so cinematic. It was deeply, deeply moving. It made me feel like I wanted to play shows like that, I wanted to write songs you can get lost in.
Is there any song of yours that you enjoy performing the most?
I always love playing ‘A Long December’. It’s the only song where I’ve never had a night where I didn’t want to play it. There’s not a single other song that I can say that about. There’s something really perfect about that song. I knew it when I wrote it. It almost wrote itself. It just feels like this ageless, timeless song and I love it.