Half the seats were empty when Counting Crows singer Adam Duritz snuck out from behind the curtain and sat on the edge of the stage.

It was only 7 p.m. -- no one was expecting any music for another few minutes, at least. But there was Duritz, who greeted the audience, and with the help of a guitarist, eased into an acoustic cover of the Psychedelic Furs song "The Ghost in You."

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"We thought we'd sing a song for you before the show starts," he said.

That was just one of many spontaneous moments at last night's show at Merriweather Post Pavilion. The tour, called the Traveling Circus and Medicine Show, was a novel way to present the rock group Augustana, the hip-hop/reggae/funk act Michael Franti and Spearhead and the Counting Crows: Instead of having two openers and a headliner, the three bands traded songs for nearly four hours.

At times, all three bands -- almost 20 musicians all told -- would play at once. That's how they opened the show, with a rendition of Van Morrison's "Caravan." The stage may have looked crowded but didn't sound it; early on, all three bands settled into an easy groove and rarely left it. ...

If last night's show was a circus, Duritz was both ringleader and lovable clown (just swap the colorful wig for some floppy dreadlocks). Singing lead, background or duet, depending on the song, he rarely left the stage.

After nearly two decades of leading the Counting Crows and more than 20 million albums sold worldwide, the 45-year-old front man could still pass for the good-natured guy next door. His voice is every bit as vulnerable and versatile now as it was when he playfully longed for fame in the Counting Crows' first hit, "Mr. Jones." (Last night's version of that song sounded fresh and buoyant, by the way.)

A quibble: Circus may have been a misleading name for this tour -- it was more of a hootenanny or jamboree than a wild and crazy spectacle. Besides, Britney Spears has the circus concept on lock down this year.

Despite being the final stop on the tour, last night's show sounded fresh and energized. Actress Emmy Rossum joined Duritz for a striking duet of the tune "Going Back To Georgia."

Augustana often slowed down the pace a bit for ambling Americana/rock songs and ballads such as their single "Boston." Lead singer Dan Layus has a great range (and makes some great facial expressions to boot).

Whenever the show seemed to be on the verge of dragging, Franti would emerge and pump things up again. The night's cutest moment came near the end, when, joined by charismatic singer Cherine Anderson, Franti invited a bunch of kids from the audience on stage to help him sing his first Top 40 song, "Say Hey (I Love You)." Anderson was letting the kids sing some of the lyrics. One kid, sporting a Terrell Suggs jersey and jeans and strumming an inflatable guitar, sang "I know one thing / I love you" and raised his right fist in the air. Now that's a rock star in training.

Other high points were the Counting Crows ballad "A Long December," and "Hanginaround" -- the Crows' laid back ode to slacking.

The five-song encore started with a foot-stomping cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Cecilia" and ended with Woodie Guthrie's classic singalong, "This Land is Your Land."

As the show was winding down, Duritz grabbed a mic and reflected on the past several weeks.

"It's three bands, but I think as you've seen tonight, it's one band," he said. "For the first time in a long time, I remember what it's like to deeply love music."

After seeing last night's show, I believe it.

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