Fame may be eternal, but popularity is fleeting. The Counting Crows became famous and popular in the early 1990s, not long after releasing their first album, “August and Everything After.”
They sold more than 7 million copies of that album, headlined amphitheaters and made it into some tabloid/gossip headlines (lead singer Adam Duritz dated Jennifer Aniston and then Courteney Cox of “Friends”).
Things are different these days. Tuesday night, the Crows headlined a show at Starlight Theatre, drawing a crowd that couldn’t have been more than 2,500 people — small enough to fit in one of our theaters or Crossroads KC.
The Crows are touring off their most recent album, “Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did on Our Summer Vacation),” a collection of covers both well-known and obscure released in April, which means they haven’t released an album of original material since “Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings” back in March 2008. An album of covers isn’t exactly a sign you’re about to throw in the towel, but it is an indicator that the wells of inspiration may not be as deep as they used to be.
They performed several of those covers, starting with “Untitled (Love Song)” by the Romany Rye and including “Four White Stallions” by Tender Mercies, a side project for two members of the Crows (Dan Vickrey and Jim Bogios). The covers were dispersed among some of the Crows’ own material, songs like the show’s opener, “Sullivan Street,” “Anna,” “Round Here” and “A Long December.”
If there was any dismay among the crowd during the set, which lasted about 15 minutes short of two hours, it was probably over the absence of “Mr. Jones,” the band’s biggest hit.
The show could have used the jolt that song would have provided (or “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby”). The crowd seemed ready to ignite a few times, but that spirit was defused by a set list stocked with too many songs cast in the same tempo and mood. The insertion of a few of those covers didn’t help either. Even their version of Teenage Fanclub’s “Start Again” fell short — well short of the celestial, original version.
So it became primarily a sit-down show. Most fans sat and watched the band and sang along to the songs they recognized. There was some energy expended during the uptempo numbers like “Come Around,” the funked-up rendition of “Rain King” and two countrified covers: Gram Parsons’ “Return of the Grievous Angel” and Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”
Over the course of almost 20 years, the Crows have undergone only three personnel changes, so they remain a tight, polished band, albeit one that at times looks like it’s going through some motions. And Duritz’s voice hasn’t lost much of its character, which has always approached a distant facsimile of Van Morrison’s. So the band sounds much like it did back in 1993, when it fused its blend of folk and rock into a sound built for the adult-contemporary and -alternative charts.
The mood picked up toward the end, starting with the melancholic “A Long December” and through “Rain King.” During that one, Duritz dropped in a few bars of “Washington Square,” then lamented it later because that song was next on the set list. They ended with “Hangin’ Around,” a song about being bored and weighted down and “bummin’ around” in one place too long.
It doesn’t exactly describe the Crows’ place in the music world these days, but it’s getting close. The line between popularity and nostalgia can get pretty thin, and right now they seem to be approaching the border.