I used to collect baseball cards as a kid, tearing into countless Topps wax packs and shoving the broken shards of flavorless bubblegum into my mouth before shuffling through all seventeen cardboard players. I always hoped to unwrap a Wade Boggs or a Bo Jackson but always got, like, a Billy Jo Robidoux instead. Nothing teaches you to manage your expectations like the Milwaukee Brewers.
The cards--way before they came emblazoned with holograms or with strips of the players' skin embedded on the back and HEY KID! GET OFF MY LAWN!--had baseball trivia listed below the stat columns, tidbits about how Dave Henderson was a high school All-American or that Roger Clemens would eventually become an overfed Yankee douchecake. I tried to memorize all of those throwaway facts, from who hit the first major league triple (Levi Meyerle) to Ty Cobb's lifetime batting average (.367) to the number of guys who've ever wanted to make out with me after hearing this (0.00).
My commitment to anything with 108 double stitches explains why I immediately fell for the songs of The Baseball Project. This supergroup-ish side project--composed of Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate), Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Scott McCaughey (The Minus 5, Young Fresh Fellows) and Linda Pitmon--is like the Traveling Wilburys if they could've explained the infield fly rule.
Wynn and McCaughey have written some incredible songs about The Artist Formerly Known As America's Favorite Pastime, without the cloying scent of Cracker Jack or the first hint of camp. Their ’08 release Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails features thirteen engaging tracks about players both famous (Mark McGuire, Fernando Valenzuela) and forgotten (Harvey Haddix, Ed Delahanty), with lyrical turns of phrase that'll buckle your knees like a well-thrown changeup.
I had the chance to catch 'em on Saturday night at the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, an excellent venue for fans of both rock music and alliteration. After braving the Seattle-style weather--which was a thousand percent more authentic than the Seattle-style coffee they sling at the airport--I swapped my freshly ATM-ed cash for a ticket and made it into the club just before they kicked into "Ted Fucking Williams".
"We'd like to start with the opening band," McCaughey quipped. "The first band is the same as the last." The night was sold as the Steve Wynn IV, the Minus 5, and the Baseball Project, an overlapping triple bill that may as well have been called the Turducken of Awesome.1
The turducken's first sixteen-song set was well-worth my eighty mile drive, with Wynn and McCaughey trading lead vocals depending on whose back catalog they were blasting through. "Here's a fantastic song," McCaughey said, launching into a new track from the Young Fresh Fellows, his other other band "Just like all the rest of 'em we're playing, they've all been fantastic." 2 Particularly high on the Fantastic Scale was the Minus 5's "Out There On The Maroon", which drops the greatest opening line of all time--”I had six White Russians tonight/And two of them were people”--over a Roy Orbison-style guitar riff.
They closed the set with a driving version of Wynn's "Amphetamine,” powered by Linda Pitmon's asskicking percussion. After watching her for three hours, I no longer want to grow up to be Tina Fey, unless Tina Fey is also a raging rock drummer. I was blown away well before her Keith Moon-style bombast put the exclamation point at the end of an incredible set.
“We’re gonna get liquored up, sell some CDs, and chat with our friends” McCaughey said before the intermission. "Because that's the way we roll."
Due to my long drive, I rolled by throwing back Diet Cokes like a champ but eventually made my way toward the merch table to say hello. Of course, by ‘say hello’ I mean ‘spew entire paragraphs about where and when I purchased each of their individual albums.’ It’s hard to balance between enthusiastic and unhinged, as best illustrated by the dude outside my building who excitedly points out that my iPod is going to give me "head cancer.”
The second set featured some new Baseball Project songs, including a pair about the polar opposites of the post-season, Reggie Jackson and Bill Buckner. “The Straw That Stirs The Drink” was sung from Jackson's typically, ahem, self-assured point of view ("There were stars/And then there's what I am") with a call-and-response chorus. Meanwhile "Buckner's Bolero" was a brilliantly detailed seven minute examination of baseball's most famous fielding error. It sympathetically examined the other factors behind Boston's '86 World Series collapse ("If one play killed the Sox/Could you please tell me which?") and noted the otherwise overlooked aspects of Buckner's double decade career.
"It's sort of Homeric, isn't it?" McCaughey asked. Yeah, it is. It's also the kind of thing I needed to hear as a traumatized seven year old Sawx fan who'd just watched the fuckin' thing on TV.
This writeup could end here if not for for the encore. Holy shit, the encore. Standing in the small but attentive Saturday night audience was Peter Holsapple, a hell of a guitar player who's perhaps best known for his work with jangle masters The dB's.3 He was pulled onstage for a trio of covers--including a rollicking version of "The Ballad of John & Yoko"--as I tried to peel my jaw off the PBR-coated floor. 4
It was quite possibly the best concert I've seen all year, a bold statement considering how many OVER 21 stamps I’ve scrubbed off my skin. It was so good, in fact, that I'm going back for a second helping tonight in Austin, Texas.5
Maybe I’ll even bring a package of baseball cards.
1 Trying to explain their current, previous, and interwoven musical connections--from R.E.M. to Robyn Hitchcock's Venus 3--is harder than untangling an Appalachian family's DNA, but that doesn't mean that I won't try. I'm super fun at parties.
2 With the addition of the 'Fellows track and Wynn's "Trial Separation Blues", recorded by his former band Gutterball, everyone's musical past had been represented, save for R.E.M...despite the dude behind who repeatedly requested “Talk About The Passion”, like Rain Man with a Michael Stipe fetish. “Murmur, yeah. Definitely Murmur." Also: Insert your own "I'm an excellent Driver 8" joke here.
3 Holsapple also records with Chris Stamey--another former dB--and I can't recommend their recent release Here and Now enough. Go, check it out. G'wan now. Git!
4 In addition to the Beatles, they did the Flamin' Groovies "Teenage Head" and "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White" by the Standells, a band whose "Dirty Water" has become an unofficial anthem for the Boston Red Sox. See, it all comes back to baseball.
5 That's right, starting tomorrow I'm covering the Austin City Limits festival for London's BitchBuzz.com. That means tonight I'll be in town and shouting along during their show at the Continental Club. No, that's not creepy at all, thanks for asking.