Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Like a Good Neighbor

My apartment building used to have so much promise. I remember when the realtor cheerfully pointed out the hardwood floors and the large windows before spending an inordinate amount of time on the stainless steel kitchen fixtures, as if I'd previously lived in a place without working faucets. Her hard sell on the running water worked, though. I signed a contract and for a while everything was as delightful as it looked in the brochure.

Then other people started living here.

After two years, the turnover rate is higher than at even the most dismal fast food establishments and I'd bet that Sonic's Senior Frito Crusher has been making Chili Cheese Wraps longer than anyone has been on my floor. Most of the original owners have long since U-Hauled out of here, renting their units to other people who have, in turn, rented them out to someone else, with each generation getting crankier, dirtier and more willing to somehow triple-park their Tinkerbell-stickered Mini Coopers.

Or even to own a Tinkerbell-stickered Mini Cooper.

The current property managers are the second in a series of increasingly unconcerned, unhelpful companies who only materialize on the premises if there are free gelato samples in the coffee shop downstairs. A pair of Saturdays ago, someone spent the early morning hours prying my gas cap off and helping themselves to all the Exxon in my tank. The property dudes shrugged it off, telling me it was "probably just my friends pulling a prank", which is the crappiest explanation ever since 1) I don't even have friends and 2) if I did, they wouldn't be the kind who'd autograph the side of my car with a series of deep scratches.

And then there are the elevator rides, which are more terrifying than anything this side of a carnival in a strip mall parking lot. You haven't experienced misery until you've descended top to bottom with either the fiftysomething woman whose face is frozen in a permascowl and always smells like Band-Aids or the elderly medical experiment who will corner you to tell you all about his latest exploratory surgery. Yesterday, I awkwardly balanced two bags of groceries while he breathlessly explained the benefits of no longer having a functioning asshole.

After unpacking my Fruit Rollups and Bagel Bites and debating whether to soak my short-term memory with bleach, it was time to drag Pigpen around the block. As I held his leash and mashed the DOWN button, I braced myself for whatever reeking, recently-stitched creature could be on the other side.

Instead, it was...a guy. He was fortysomething with an expensive haircut and the kind of sharply chiseled features you see either advertising cologne or tempting a very married Judith Light in a number of Lifetime movies. I dragged The Pig onto the elevator and pressed the already-illuminated LOBBY circle because I'm increasingly nervous around attractive men. Or any men, really.

"R.E.M., huh?", he asked, jerking his chin--covered with carefully-cultivated stubble, natch--toward the image of Michael Stipe wrapped around my ribcage.

"Yeah, R.E.M." I said, because I'm good with words.

"Are they still alive?"

"Yes, all four of them are still kicking. Although original drummer Bill Berry left in 1997 and has been replaced by Bill Rieflin." A pause. "He used to play for Ministry."

"Right, only Bills can drum for them, got it."

"Well, they did have Barrett Martin for a minute and then Joey Waronker but yeah, it's mainly Bills."

The doors graciously opened before I could bury myself beneath a deeper pile of Dork. "Hey, do you live beside the stairwell?" he asked, thumbing one of the toggles on his overcoat.

I nodded.

"Can I tell you something? I apologize if it sounds a bit forward."

I nodded again--ever the master of social interaction--hoping it would be complimentary. That from a distance, I didn't look like a complete disaster. That my new clearance-rack shower gel did, indeed, make me smell like pears. That I would make an excellent first wife.

"Well, it's just that you, um..."

I waited, holding Pigpen's leash with one hand and adjusting my Bruins hat with the other, hoping that my ears protruded in the sexiest possible way.

"You...uh...you really play some shitty music."

And with that he walked out into the parking garage, a cold blast of air coming in to take his place. I stood at the window watching him, my breath fogging the glass as I waited to see which car he climbed into. You know, just in case someone would need to park uncomfortably close to his driver's side door.
__________

P.S. It's totally unrelated to my unfortunate mailing address, but my review of Nick Lowe's all-acoustic, all-amazing concert has been posted at BitchBuzz. It's an article I'm reasonably pleased with, especially since it prompted a discussion with my mother about Lady Gaga's genitals.

Monday, October 19, 2009

It'll Be A Pop Publication, Tougher Than Tough

So that just happened.1 After a decade-plus of marveling at his songwriting, blasting Jesus of Cool loud enough to alienate my neighbors at six different addresses and wearing a Labour of Lust t-shirt that has--so far--outlasted all of my relationships, I finally FINALLY had the chance to see Nick Lowe in concert.2

He and his Gibson J-45 captivated the sold-out crowd packed into the tiny Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia and it was the best seventy-five minutes I've ever spent without removing any clothing. He played twenty-one songs, each one featuring a lyric or a sentiment that will linger in your head--or your heart--long after he's moved on to the next. I'll do a full review for BitchBuzz, dumping at least a thousand words onto the internet and, even then, it'll feel like I've left something out.

For both those of you who dig this kind of thing, the set list was:

People Change
Ragin' Eyes
What's Shakin' On The Hill?
Long-Limbed Girl
Lately I've Let Things Slide
Has She Got a Friend?
All Men Are Liars
Heart
When I Write the Book
I Read A Lot3
Cruel to Be Kind4
The Kind of Man I've Become
I Live On a Battlefield
I Trained Her to Love Me
Rome Wasn't Built in a Day
Without Love
I Knew The Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)
(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding

Encore:
Soulful Wind
Seven Nights to Rock
The Beast in Me

With the exception of three tracks, Nick's entire set can be found on Quiet Please, his recently-released two-disc greatest hits bonanza. I could go on about how it's an excellent way to hear the evolution of his sound, from spiky new-waver to soul-soaked crooner, but I'll just assume that you'll check it out for yourself. Then we can talk about it over appetizers at The Cheesecake Factory.

Anyway, I'm not sure I moved until the house lights came up after the encore and--for someone who can barely finish a package of Saltines without getting distracted--that speaks to the power of Mister Lowe and his acoustic guitar. Seriously, I've had sexual experiences that didn't keep my attention that long. Just ask my neighbors.

1 Yes, that is a poorly-cropped shot of my Stiff Records "So It Goes"/"Heart of the City" 45 that Mr. Lowe was kind enough to drag a Sharpie across after the concert. I may or may not still be clutching it.

2 This year, I've been lucky enough to see all three of my favorite Englishmen, with Nick neatly inked into that lineup along with Robyn Hitchcock and Elvis Costello. Now that I've crossed this concert off my To-Do list, I fully expect to die in my sleep.

3 This song is as-yet unrecorded and he introduced it by saying "When you hear the statement 'I'd like to play a new song for you', does your heart sink?" When he's the one asking the question, no way. My tiny heart floats like a fourth grader's neglected goldfish.

Some of his best songs have a timeless quality, like you could've dropped a needle and played them pretty much any time between 1955 and yesterday. "I Read A Lot" is one of those, a song channeling the late Arthur Alexander with its simple arrangement that gives the words the chance to hit you right in the chest and none of you are still reading this, are you?

4 If you've heard of Nick Lowe before I gushed all over the internet about him, it's because of this song. It's been spun by mainstream radio and soundtracking your meals at chain restaurants since the late seventies...and I'm not being critical. It's a great song. When I told a friend of mine I was coming to this show, she asked what he sang and I namedropped this one. "Holy shit!" she said, "10 Things I Hate About You!"

I thought she was going to start cataloging my flaws, before realizing she meant the soundtrack to that flick, when Letters to Cleo covered it. There's just no reason that Nick Lowe should have to be explained using Julia Stiles movies. There's no reason anything should be described that way, even other Julia Stiles movies.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Carded

My face was bloated and misshapen, like the slowly melting head of a late-March snowman. My smile--crooked and off-center even on my most presentable days--was punctuated by soda-stained teeth dropping haphazardly out of my gums.

And my eyes.

My eyes. One of them had burrowed into my face, the other bulged in a way that made me look like a puppy mill Pug.

Basically, I looked like ass. And I would continue to do so for the next eight years.

"That'll be thirty-two dollars," he said, dropping my new driver's license through a slot in the plexiglass. "Make the check out to the North Carolina 'Partment of Motor Vehicles."

I resisted the urge to ask how to spell 'partment'. Sometimes, I make decent decisions, quietly adding the "D" and "e" he'd apparently packed away with his collagen and summer clothes.

My old license had expired on my birthday--four solid months ago--but because I'm made entirely of Irresponsible, I didn't realize it until the Door Guy stopped me on my way into a concert downtown. "We're not supposed to take an outdated ID" he said. "But you're here all the time."

It was true. The only reason I ever mash the Cash Back button at the grocery store is so I can deposit it directly into this club's cash register. Also I'm pretty sure the only reason he continues to card me is because he knows it makes my day to think that I'm not too old to wear leggings as pants."I'm not sure I can do this next time though," he said, stamping my hand with a black star.

I thanked him, filing my license in my wallet beside the other worthless pieces of plastic, with my over-maxed Visas--plural--and unpaid car insurance card. Either I was going to have to fork over my passport the next time I ordered an Absolut-soaked bad decision or make a trip to the seventh circle of hell--The DMV--a place outweighed in Awful only by the customer service line at Walmart and my last relationship.

A friend of mine suggested that I ignore the office in my home county in favor of the slowly rusting outpost in the county that rubs suggestively against my own, one better known for its commitment to trucks without mufflers and some of the state's more recent cases of rickets. It took a solid thirty minutes to get there, the cruise control set exactly on the speed limit lest the day take a turn for the O.Henry, getting me busted for speeding and an old license on the way to score a new one.

I reached the last line on my Mapquested directions and pulled into a parking lot with only one other car. This was a good sign. A bell jingled against the metal door as I stepped into the office. It was empty, save for one woman lazily thumbing through a faded copy of a magazine with a turkey on the cover.

"C'mon back," said a man who'd probably been filed under H-for-Hot at sometime during the late seventeenth century. I briefly thought I recognized him from the state seal. He directed me toward a vinyl chair in front of his desk, pausing to adjust his blue-on-blue uniform before taking a seat on the other side.

We were the only people in the back half of the office. He put on a pair of oversized eyeglasses that could double as a welding mask, picked an invisible thread off the M in his DMV patch, and asked for my old license. It had been issued in mid-2002, the picture commemorating my brief flirtation with mock turtlenecks and glitter eyeshadow. I looked like either an over-eager kindergarten teacher or an off-duty hooker, and I cringed every time I passed it through my open window to whichever officer had just tagged me for doing 74 in a 55. Again.

After reading the twelve-letter clump on the eye test, he asked me to look at four different shapes through the viewfinder. "Tell me what each of those are," he said, his accent thick enough to bread, fry, and serve with white gravy.

"A red octagon, a yellow rectangle, yellow circle, and yellow triangle."

"Well, that's a first," he said, tapping his pen against the side of the desk.

"What? Nobody else knows what they are?"

"Nope. Nobody else ever jus' give me the shapes. You're s'posed to tell me what the signs are."

"Oh." I was less embarrassed than I was delighted that I'd done something no one had done before, even if it was stupid. "A stop sign. Um...like, a traffic median, maybe, like the one in the mall parking lot? Or a Children Playing sign like in that one subdivision, the one where all of the houses look like vinyl-sided Monopoly piece--"

"And the next?" he interrupted.

"Uh, that one's a railroad thing where you're supposed to stop. You know, I had a great uncle who was hit by a train."

He blinked, almost audibly. "Continue."

"Well, apparently he got lost on the way home an--"

"With th' signs. Continue with the signs."

"Oh. Maybe a falling rock zone? Or, like, Bridge May Ice Before Road?"

He said nothing, carefully laying the pen beneath the word October on his desk calendar. He took a deep breath, staring at his hands. When he looked up, he focused on the place where my boobs would be--assuming I'd ever grown a set.

"Is that a catfish? A catfish wearing a top hat?"

I glanced down at my shirt. It was, in fact, a catfish wearing a top hat, because it was screenprinted with the cover of Captain Beefheart's 1969 album Trout Mask Replica. Yes, that's exactly how I wanted to be immortalized for the next eight years.

"Yes sir, it is."

"Well, it sure does make your eyes sparkle. And you don't have to call me sir, but I sure do 'preciate it. Now come have a seat for your picture...Bright Eyes."

I never thought that manners--and a fondness for borderline-unlistenable albums--would serve a purpose but apparently they do. Also, an anthropomorphized fish somehow makes me more attractive? This I found disturbing on a number of levels, but made a mental note to turn one of those singing bass from Spencer Gifts into an oversized pendant.

Bright Eyes or not, my picture made me look like the Elephant Man. It would be another five minutes before I knew that though, five minutes while I waited in the lobby with the woman who was still wrapped up in her turkey magazine. I was about to take a seat when I noticed one rogue strand of someone's hair weave coiled menacingly on the plastic chair beside me. I decided to stand.

"That'll be thirty-two dollars," the man said, knocking on the plexiglass to get my attention. And that's where we came into the story.

On the way home, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up dinner, another sodium-drenched single-serving reminder that I live alone. The end of the aisle advertised a sale on Mike's Hard Lemonade, which I like because it combines my love of both sour beverages and breath that could melt plastic.

The cashier slowly dragged everything over the scanner, stopping briefly with the six pack.

"I'm gonna need to see some ID," she said, grabbing the Mike's before it could finish riding toward the plastic bags.

"Yes ma'am," I said, smoothing the wrinkles in my Beefheart tee. "I've got my driver's license right here."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Now Boarding at Gate 23

Everything Grizzly Bear lead singer Ed Droste said was followed by a squealed “That’s so awesome!!” from the American Apparel-wrapped girls beside me, making me feel like I was standing in the middle of several thousand smiley emoticons.
“That’s so awesome!”

“OMG! So awesome!"

Colon. Parenthesis. Stab myself.

Grizzly Bear’s harmonies were as gorgeous as anticipated, although sometimes an over-amped bass overpowered their delicate vocals. A shimmering version of “Two Weeks” followed, with Daniel Rossen on keyboards and bassist Chris Taylor cooing into the microphone like Gizmo the Mogwai. “THAT’S SO AWESOME,” American Apparel said, her head on the verge of exploding as she made a note to update her Facebook status when she got home.
--ACL Festival, Day 2 [via BitchBuzz]
“She’s, like, 97,” a kid in a backwards Texas Longhorns hat said when Kate Pierson and her radioactive-looking orange hair took the stage with new-wave pioneers The B-52’s. He was only off by 36 years but Pierson--the oldest of the Georgia foursome--was the most well-preserved especially compared to a paler-than-usual Fred Schneider, who looked like he may have just eaten a bad plate of--ahem--rock lobster.

The somewhat-listless crowd was unmoved by their newer material and didn’t stir until they played back-to-back karaoke favorites “Roam” and “Love Shack”, with Schneider barking out his trademark over-enunciated spoken parts. Twenty years after those songs were released, I’ve started to worry that the Love Shack--what with its rusted tin roof and faded sign--has probably been torn down and replaced with a Starbucks.

--ACL Festival, Day 3 [via BitchBuzz]

__________
I'm not sure how it took me a solid week to catch up from a five day trip, but it did. It also takes me half an hour to cook Minute Rice. ZING! Anyway, I’m back from Austin and--seven days later--no longer have the lingering scent of breakfast burrito or hotel shampoo.

The ACL festival was a totally different experience compared to Bonnaroo, which I covered for Bitchbuzz in June. Not only was Austin slicker and dotted with more corporate sponsors, it had an entirely different demographic, which managed to skew both older and younger. Older, because some mid-afternoon crowds looked like orthodontists on their day off, endless rows of recently-exfoliated fortysomethings raising their Lone Star tallboys and kicking off one Topsider at a time.

The youngest ACL-ers were asleep in the strollers I sidestepped on the way to buy another pair of fish tacos. I'm horrible at estimating the ages of both children and pop stars but at Friday night's Them Crooked Vultures show, a woman held a child who was still in the Plastic Underwear years, which put him somewhere between 3 and Cher. Well played, Responsible Parent. It's never too early to introduce your children to hearing loss.
__________

This time last Monday, I was heading to the airport in my rented white Toyota, the one that I would've described as my RAD-4 if I'd actually spoken with anyone who wasn't checking to see how many $4 KitKats I'd swiped from the minibar. I did briefly exchange pleasantries with the hotel's front desk staff who were no doubt delighted to see me wandering through the lobby on Sunday night both barefoot and wearing a trashbag as pants.

After having to discard my ruined flat shoes on Saturday, I went to Walmart and scored a pair of $7 sneakers from the kids department. Did they fit? No. Did I care? Absolutely not, since I was pretty sure that we were only going to spend seven or eight hours together. The festival grounds on Sunday were so epically disgusting that my new Starter kicks were abandoned beneath the RAD-4's rear tires in the ACL parking lot. After that, I scurried behind a dumpster to swap my mud-caked denim for the finest in Hefty Cinchsak couture.

Keep in mind that I grew up in The American South. Shoeless, naked beneath a trash bag... if somebody queued up the dance mix of "Cotton-Eyed Joe", it would've been every Homecoming dance I ever attended.

Anyway, my plastic bottoms and bare feet were an attempt to preserve the integrity of the RAD-4, even though the passenger side was already littered with a beat-up baseball cap, three empty Whataburger bags, and countless crushed soda cans. It probably looked a lot like Michael Moore’s living room.
__________

My flights back were chock with delays, all weather-related. When I finally boarded the plane to Atlanta, I was wedged between a woman who turned Delta #1672 into her personal slumber party and a flight attendant who spent an inordinate amount of time rearranging his fuschia pocket square.

Despite being one of Delta's Li'l Platinum Milers (or whatever), I'd never had a seat beside the airline staff before. I was disturbed to learn that on their seats, they get an over-the-shoulder harness that straps them in like they're about to jump Snake River Canyon. Meanwhile, all that keeps me from certain death is an adjustable strip of nylon and a non-functional ashtray.

Anyway, Miss Window Seat to my left immediately unpacked her oversized carry-on tote to remove a smaller bag decorated with cartoon characters, something that would’ve been cute if she’d been seven, with a missing front tooth and a light dusting of freckles across her nose. Since she was damn near fifty with a hairstyle last seen on the late Jerry Garcia, it made her look either creepy or mentally deficient. Or both.

She wedged both bags under the seat in front of her--earning a head nod from Delta’s own Evel Knievel strapped in beside me--wrapped a velveteen neck pillow around her head, popped in some ear plugs, and wriggled into a garish fleece pullover that looked like it was made from dead Fraggles. Next, she kicked off her Keds and changed into a pair of rainbow striped socks with non-skid bottoms, just in case we'd be asked to stop the plane with Flintstone-style foot brakes.

Finally, she pulled a sleep mask over her eyes, turned at a 45 degree angle to the window and STRETCHED HER LEGS OUT UNDER MY SEAT, her goddamn nonskid socks napping on my own carry-on bag, the one with my iPod, this month's MOJO magazine, and all the other distractions that keep me from making a list of the ways I can die during air travel.

We were halfway across the country before I stopped hating her and probably somewhere above Alabama when I decided to kick her.

She didn't move.

I kicked again.

She snorted.

And three times a lady.

She pulled one corner of her mask up and glared at me. I shrugged.

She deposited her feet under her own chair, curled herself into a ball like a recently-salted slug.

I was finally--FINALLY--able to grab my iPod as the flight attendant adjusted his harness and pretended not to notice.
__________

I had a four hour layover in Atlanta, which turned into five thanks to another delay which turned into me eating a giant bag of animal crackers and purchasing a paperback book I never intend to read.

At the gate, the endless loop of CNN kept shuffling out the same story about an elderly woman being mauled by raccoons and--after thirty minutes and three reruns of the story--I wondered if I could summon any kind of bloodthirsty woodland creatures to Terminal B.

To my right was a sixtysomething woman with a waxy complexion and a t-shirt that said “My Period Is More Like An Exclamation Point”.

No.

Her Period Is a Question Mark. Three, actually: 1) Where does one acquire such a Klassy Garment" (says the girl who wore a garbage bag not twelve hours earlier) ; 2) Even if you do own that 50 cotton/50 poly gem, why would you wear it in public? And 3) Why does she still have a period? It seems like her Baby Factory should’ve bricked its windows and boarded its doors by now.

No, that's not the first time I've thought about a stranger's uterus. Thank you for asking.

She was eating an oversized cinnamon bun--as if there are any other kinds--loudly sucking the glaze off of each of her swollen fingers before wiping her hand on one leg of her nylon pants and returning to the Laci Peterson paperback she was reading. Chomp. Suck. Wipe. Chomp. Suck. Wipe.

I don't have many marketable skills, but one of them has to be the ability to actively hate someone without exchanging more than a sidelong glance. I'll be adding that to my resume, sandwiching it between "Doesn't Bite Unless Provoked" and "Proficient in Microsoft Office".

Color me more than relieved when she boarded the next flight to arrive, heading toward Omaha and--with any luck--a pack of Cinnabon-craving raccoons.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Hand Stamps and Wristbands

Another Austin morning and another day of live music is coming as soon as I extract myself from this embroidered hotel robe and make my way back to Zilker Park. The first two days of the Austin City Limits festival have been excellent. My eardrums remain intact, although I broiled both shoulders in the sun on Friday and last night I held a memorial service for a pair of rain-soaked, mud-caked flat shoes, whose reeking faux-suede bodies were interred in the trash can beside the minibar.

It rained for a solid nine hours yesterday and after dropping $5 on an ineffective poncho, I spent my afternoon wrapped in a thin layer of plastic, much like my grandmother's sofa. That didn't stop me from digging sets from The Decemberists, Grizzly Bear, Flogging Molly and a fragile-looking Levon Helm, the former drummer for The Band, the least Google-able musical group of all time. My full Saturday recap will be posted shortly at BitchBuzz (as soon as I, um, start writing it) but you can clicky here to read all about Day One.

I've been concert-ing pretty much nonstop since my Chucks hit the terminal at Austin-Bergstrom International. On Thursday night, I had a cow skull stamped on my hand at the Continental Club where I caught The Baseball Project/Steve Wynn IV/Minus 5 for the second time in six days (Clicky: Full recap of their Cat's Cradle gig). The place was packed and they absolutely rocked for both sets and an encore that featured an appearance by Bill Rieflin on a pair of songs (More on him in a paragraph or two).

I stood behind a hulking dude in a t-shirt who shouted along with every lyric and yelled "DREAM FUCKING SYNDICATE"--a reference to Wynn's former band--after several of their songs. During the intermission, he wandered over, sweat streaming from his shaved head, and said "You know the words too!"

"Yeah, I dig these guys," I said, because I really do talk like that.

"FUCKIN' A!" he shouted. "HEAD BUTT ME! DO IT! LET'S HEAD BUTT!"

Since I barely have enough brain function to remember to wear pants if I leave the house, we high fived instead. And, of course, I thought "I CAN TOTALLY WRITE ABOUT THIS" as he headed toward the bar.
__________
During "Medicine Show", I looked to my left and realized I was standing beside Bill Rieflin, the former drummer for Ministry and current kit-master for R.E.M. and Robyn Hitchcock. And then I looked at him again. And again, in rapid succession until he noticed. Because I make terrible decisions, I grabbed his arm and said "YOU MAY BE MY FAVORITE DRUMMER EVER!" I wasn't shouting because of the music--it was actually a break between songs--I was shouting because I'm insane.

He looked, um, surprised and said thanks. I was telling him how many miles I'd run while listening to Ministry when a woman tapped his shoulder and asked if he'd care to watch her purse while she went to the bathroom.

To his credit, he did.

When she came back, drying her hands with the front of her skirt, he disappeared, probably terrified that one of us would've licked his face (Me) or asked him to feed her dogs (Her). Five minutes later, he popped up onstage beside asskicking drummer Linda Pitmon during a cover of The Sonics' "Strychnine".
__________

I hit my word count on my BitchBuzz ACL review before I could mention seeing Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3 (Rieflin, Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck) on Friday night. Anyone who's read this site or exchanged more than three sentences with me knows how much I dig his music--and his delightfully skewed worldview. I also more-than-appreciate the fact that he graciously agreed to an interview this summer, which was pretty much the highlight of my...ever.

Anyway, despite some early technical issues, he gave a good show and was extra-animated, dropping between-song monologues about tofu burgers and tsunamis. Believe it or not, he actually played a track I hadn't heard live--"Brenda's Iron Sledge"--in any of the FOUR OTHER CONCERTS I've attended this year.
__________
Time to un-robe and shower, even though the lighting in this bathroom makes me consider having my clothing permanently stapled on.

More updates to come... today's concert calendar includes White Lies, Dirty Projectors, Arctic Monkeys and several other adjective/noun combinations.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Mantle This! Mantle That! It Makes Me Sick!

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.”

Steve Wynn, Peter Buck, and Scott McCaughey (wearing his hat, Mister Fuzzy)

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

Mister Buck & Mister Holsapple

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.