Counting Crows teamed up with American Express and VH1 Friday to do an electrifying small club show at the House of Blues. During the show, American Express presented the Chicago public school system with a check for $150,000 to help fund music education programs.

The show was part of a weekend of American Express-sponsored Blue Jam Sessions at the House of Blues July 15 to 17, as part of the company's continued Blue for Music effort to raise money and awareness for music education programs in America's public schools. Net proceeds from the concert series will benefit participating Chicago-area public schools. Three fans also won concert tickets and guitars signed by Counting Crows and Sting.

While the charitable aspect was uplifting, the music was what the fans paid to see, and Counting Crows delivered. It's been a long time since the Crows performed in such an intimate Chicago venue, and lead singer Adam Duritz took full advantage, covering the stage with motion and leaping on top of monitors to accent the growing litany of Crows hits, from "Mr. Jones" and "A Long December" to the more recent "Hard Candy" and "Accidentally in Love" (from Shrek 2).

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Counting Crows were not the only big name in town last weekend. Cowboy Junkies took over the Skyline Stage at Navy Pier Sunday night to promote their new album, One Soul Now, reviewed below.

Cowboy Junkies took an introspective foray through their almost two-decades-long career. The band served as its own opening act, starting the show as a quartet to play a laid-back, 40-minute acoustic set, a perfect complement to a perfect summer night by the lake. After a short break, the band returned as a sextet to play for another 90 minutes, this time with drums and electric guitar punching up its trademark hazy, melancholy songs.

While they didn't play the cover song that put them on the map (Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane"), the band did sprinkle the set with both songs from their new album and covers of songs by George Harrison, the Grateful Dead, Robert Johnson and Neil Young.

 

Cowboy Junkies - One Soul NowCowboy Junkies
One Soul Now
(Zoe/Latent)
   


If music was a drug, Canada's Cowboy Junkies would have a corner on the melancholy market.

For the past 18 years, the band, led by singer Margo Timmins and her brother Michael (guitar), as well as Peter Timmins (drums) and Alan Anton (bass), have crafted literate, beautiful excursions into dark twangy pop music.

Starting with its breakthrough album, The Trinity Session (1986), and the attendant single, a cover of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane," the band has released a new collection of songs almost every year since, each one building on the sultry tones of Margo's voice and Michael's lazy addictive guitar leads.

One Soul Now offers 10 new Junkies songs that run the gamut of the band's range, leading from the cool introspection of the title track to the pensive extended jams of "Why This One," and "From Hunting Ground to City," and the dirge-like hum of "Notes Falling Slow" to the upbeat, organ-accented anthems of "My Wild Child" and pure pop strums of "The Stars of Our Stars" and "No Long Journey Home."

"No Long Journey Home" tells a sad story about an aging man. It has deceptively upbeat rhythms as it looks at life as a three-act play.

The band always has had strong roots in folk music, and in "Simon Keeper," it spins a traditional-sounding folk ballad, about a man whose sins come back to haunt him.

These are stories of relationships, told with sensitivity and quiet poetry. It's not an album to dance to, but you'll find your soul drawn by the easy lure of Margo's sensual whispers and croons and Michael's cushion of guitar.

One Soul Now is the late-night, lay-your-head-back-and-stare-at-the-stars album of the summer. More information is at the band's Web site at www.cowboyjunkies.com.