Warming up for Woodstock: Counting Crows.
Warming up for Woodstock: Counting Crows.

Counting Crows
Toledo Zoo Amphitheatre
July 16

Last Friday's Counting Crows concert at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheatre was supposed to be a warm-up gig before the big Woodstock '99 show, and one would assume the band's timing would be rusty. Wrong. After being holed up in the Hollywood Hills writing its next album, This Desert Life, due in October, the band played with energy and enthusiasm, as if it had been paroled from its recording prison.

Lead singer Adam Duritz, either loved or hated for his whiny voice and desolate lyrics, has the unique ability to not only paint a picture with a song, but reveal the exact emotions (love, desire, despair, hope). A tricky enterprise, since one false move can leave you looking like a fool. Fortunately for Duritz, his earnestness was never in question.

A riveting "Mr. Jones" and discerning "Walkaways" began and ended the Crows' set, which was very similar to that of their tour two years ago. Of the new material played, "Hangin' Around," the upcoming album's first single, came across with such fervor that the audience acted as if the song was already one of its favorites. Other new tracks ("St. Robinson and His Cadillac," "Four Days") weren't as easily embraced, but they still offered the quintessential Crows sound — heavy organ, electric/acoustic guitar base, and Duritz's decorative lyrics.

It appears that Duritz is still uncomfortable with his celebrity. At times, he would tell the girls up front to step back, and during the heartfelt introduction of "Round Here," when he was explaining how the song came about, he appeared miffed at a girl for giving him flowers instead of listening to his story. This could be interpreted as egotistical, but it seemed the singer is looking to reach the audience the only way he knows how. Not merely a soapbox for Duritz, the band displayed handsome electric and acoustic fretwork on "Daylight Fading" and "Another Horsedreamer's Blues."

Every live act hopes to build to an emotional climax, but it is the rare occasion when they successfully do, as the Crows did with the blistering pre-encore track "A Murder of One." If this show sounds too good to be true, it was. — John Benson

Chicago Klezmer Ensemble
Gartner Auditorium, Cleveland Museum of Art
July 14

Contemporary Klezmer musicians tend to double as scholars. Not a surprising thing considering that, before the resurgence in Klezmer twenty years ago, fewer people played the music than spoke Yiddish; you couldn't just pick up Klezmer from some old clarinetist at the corner bar. And so in concert, members of the Chicago Klezmer Ensemble (joined by a pair of musicians from the formerly scheduled Brave Old World) couldn't resist lecturing before playing. Nevertheless, the concert was anything but stuffy and academic.

Clarinetist Kurt Bjorling pointed out that the group wasn't attempting to play traditional Klezmer, but rather the music "the way we find it interesting for concert listening." It was a nice way of saying that they had taken a dance music — which can sound repetitive and induce light strains of nausea when in the wrong hands — and expanded it, broadened it, and took wonderful liberties with it. Beginning with Hebrew and Eastern European folk themes, the group fashioned the music into rich, orchestral pieces, equally notable for textures and harmonies as well as for form and familiar Klezmer-sounding intervals. And it was a hot concert, too.

The standout voice, Bjorling's clarinet, could be truculent, with a lilting, yelping tone, or plaintive and warm. But the real strength of the group was its lush ensemble sound. At one memorable moment, during a rendition of a Romanian dance melody, Bjorling took up an Eastern European reed flute and sparred with Joshua Huppert's fiddle and Stuart Brotman's bass, locked tightly in unison. Bjorling switched to basset horn (a sort of tenor clarinet) later in the set and performed a long duo with Eve Monzingo on her somewhat cooler-toned clarinet. Most of the night, however, Monzingo switched between the tsimbl—a Euro hammer dulcimer—and the piano. And it was from behind the piano that she belted out chords for her originals, including "Hora Monzingo," a standout from the second set. Michael Alpert spent the majority of time on the second-fiddle support squad, but stepped to the mic several times and made his mark on the evening with his wild Yiddish vocals.

Outside of the gray-topped Jewish set, Klezmer isn't the most popular music. But with musicians like these — fully capable of updating and fleshing out the traditional wedding and folk music — it makes Klezmer well worth checking out. — Aaron Steinberg

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