Words by Alexandra Johnson | Photos by Joe Papeo
As the lights dimmed and the sounds of a circus filtered into Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey, the Counting Crows, Augustana, and NOTAR took to the stage for what most would consider an unconventional evening. There was no opening act, no traditional headliner, but instead the three groups shared the stage from start to finish – swapping members, sharing songs and forming one act from three separate musical identities. As the three hour set kicked off with Van Morrison’s “Caravan”, the energy that reverberated from the walls of the packed venue foreshadowed the type of evening that lay ahead.
The Crows then flooded the room with “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” and Adam Duritz’s familiar vocals, which spilled out from behind the signature, unpredictable dreads that overtake him. Next, the artists flowed into a beautiful rendition of “Omaha”. The song’s bittersweet melodies became even more strikingly so, live. Duritz’s portrayal of the lyrics he penned came through with such an honesty and sincerity, that you could envision the life of the story he told. The crowd’s response was overwhelmingly powerful, nearly shunning out Duritz’s vocals as they recited the lyrics and imitated the familiar sounds of the hit with their clapping hands.
The show took a sharp turn with the Eminem-esque, rap stylings of NOTAR, backed by Duritz’s beatbox skills, that I never knew he had, and a coterie of talented musicians. Sure, it was nothing like what you would find on This Desert Life, but it was definitely interesting to watch as the artists’ musical visions and inspirations intertwine.
As Augustana brought themselves to the forefront of the stage alongside the Counting Crows you could see the camaraderie in their musicianship. The two bands have toured together before, also dabbling in each other’s music in the presence of a live crowd, making sense the apparent comfort. Before the intermission, the musicians carried through the driving, mellow show by playing a few Augustana originals. Augustana took sole control of the spotlights for their radio rotation hit “Boston”. The soothing melodies of the track overtook every soul in the room, demanding their bodies to sway and their voices to try and harmonize with the haunting lyrics.
At the start of the second set, Duritz reclaimed the stage in, what was now, his third T-shirt of the evening: screen printed with the classic Run DMC logo. The next grouping of songs conceived even more power than what had came before. The bands jammed on dueling guitars, banged wild tambourines against their chests, beat the hell out of the drums and all while Duritz howled echoing vocals that persisted on out-bellowing the rest. Their was no question that they were performing the songs from within and making sure every bone in the room could feel the vibe.
When NOTAR rejoined the rest of the acts, they played off each other much more than they had in the earlier set. Nearly battling between rocking riffs and the bouncing beats of rap, the guys produced a sound that was reminiscent of the style that Linkin Park famed.
After Duritz slipped into a Nirvana tee, his fourth of the night, the show received a finish line jolt with some of the Crows’ most popular tracks. “Mr. Jones” came first and probably received the biggest crowed reaction of the night. As the song that catapulted the band to fame, it was obvious they had played the notes a billion times before. There was a sense of ease and playfulness with the tune’s direction and Duritz welcomed the crowd to sing back the lyrics they already well knew.
Duritz took the piano for “A Long December”, which flooded the room with beautiful subtlety. The song about self-reflection perfectly captured the band’s musical and vocal talents that everyone came out to experience in the small club setting. After the slow down, everyone took to the stage for a reworked version of “Hangin’ Around”. Playing up to everyone’s crafts, this was the only time I had ever heard the jam being rapped over. Different? Definitely. But the noticeable good time being had on stage overflowed into the crowd that had been singing and dancing along for almost three hours. The triad of artists then went into “Rain King”, which bled into The Beatles’ “A Little Help From My Friends”, The Rolling Stone’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, then back into “Rain King”.
After Duritz honestly and whole-heartedly promoted the NJ Conservation Foundation, they closed the night with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is My Land, This Land Is Your Land”.
The trinity of artists that dubbed themselves “The Traveling Circus & Medicine Show” curated a memorable evening of a unique variety. The Starland Ballroom housed a show that melded together the workings of a motley band of musicians, and showcased the true beauty of music medley.
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