Scott McCaughey says he still likes playing in “bad rock clubs.” So what’s not to love about plugging in a cheap PA system, hammering out chords on the concourse of a Spring Training ballpark in the late March desert sunshine alongside seasoned big-league musicians, and belting out lyrics to songs about baseball?
“I can’t wait,” says McCaughey, a touring member of R.E.M. and co-founder of the supergroup inspired by the Grand Old Game known as The Baseball Project.
“I don’t know how it’s all going to work, but one thing I do know is that I’ll get to see some games.”
McCaughey, who also plays with the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5, conjured this off-shoot of a band with Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate, steve Wynn and the Miracle 3) in 2007 and drafted legendary R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Linda Pitmon (Golden Smog) to fill out the roster.
And after their Yep Roc Records debut, Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, came out to critical acclaim in 2008 and did its part in chronicling the stories of Curt Flood, Satchel Paige, Ted Williams, Jack McDowell, Fernando Valenzuela, Ed Delahanty, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson, Mark McGwire and Willie Mays, McCaughey and co-writer Wynn kept going.
The result, Volume 2: High and Inside, dropped March 1 and listens and reads, lyrically, like a timeless piece of baseball lore — another exploration into the annals of the game’s sublime, sad and spontaneous.
“Don’t Call Them Twinkies,” for example, is a rollicking history of the Minnesota Twins with lead vocals and lyrics provided by none other than indie rock darling and Twins fanatic Craig Finn of the Hold Steady.
Frontman Ben Gibbard of the Seattle-area band Death Cab For Cutie contributed to the surf-rock paean to his Mariners hero entitled “Ichiro Goes To The Moon.”
And the band’s resident Giants fan, Bay Area native McCaughey, couldn’t resist by including “Panda and the Freak,” a San Francisco tune about Pablo Sandoval and Tim Lincecum that predated the club’s magical World Series run last fall.
“Who would have known that they’d end up winning the title?” McCaughey said. “I was really thrilled with that, and then I started thinking that if we had waited a bit longer, we could have thrown Aubrey Huff and Brian Wilson in there, too, because they were so memorable.
“But the great thing about baseball is that the stories never end.”
This album’s stories also include “1976,” a Wynn-penned song about the late Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, a song about the man whose error in the 1986 World Series helped seal Boston’s fate against the Mets called “Buckner’s Bolero,” and tunes about Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson Carl Mays, Tony Conigliaro, fair-weather fans, pitchers throwing at batters and more.
With the album in stores and Buck and McCaughey free to roam with R.E.M. off the road, the band is gearing up for a week near their hardball heroes. Yes, it might be the end of Spring Training as they know it, but they feel fine.
“We set up regular nighttime gigs, but when we got the idea of playing at the stadiums, we had a promoter get in touch with the teams and they were into it,” McCaughey says. “I think they envisioned us doing it acoustically, but we thought nobody would be able to hear us.
“So now we’ll be out there on concourses or wherever they put us, setting up in the morning for an afternoon game, and we’ll see how it goes. We don’t really know what to expect, but I’m sure we’ll have fun.”
Fans can expect to hear, well, “old” Baseball Project songs as well as the soon-to-be-base-hits off the new record.
They’ll undoubtedly catch “Harvey Haddix,” from the first album, which laments the former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher’s infamous lost perfect game while masterfully managing to crowbar the names of every pitcher who has thrown a perfecto in Major League history into the song. And yes, that has now been updated to include Mark Buehrle, Dallas Braden and Roy Halladay, all of whom turned the trick after the song was initially recorded.
And while Armando Galarraga didn’t historically make the cut and might not have, even if Jim Joyce made the right call last year (“His name would have been tough,” McCaughey says. “So many syllables.”), McCaughey says proudly that there will be a Volume 3 and the ultimately heartwarming tale of Galarraga and Joyce will probably be represented in song.
“Having a Volume 1 and a Volume 2 most definitely means there will be a 3 and 4 and who knows how many more?” McCaughey says with a laugh.
“Why not? We love doing it, and baseball history is a gold mine. t’s not like we’re lacking for material.”
Check out The Baseball Project at the following Arizona gigs next week:
Tuesday, March 22: Peoria Sports Complex (prior to White Sox vs. Mariners)
Wednesday, March 23: Camelback Ranch at Glendale (prior to Dodgers vs. White Sox)
Thursday, March 24: Scottsdale Stadium (prior to Indians vs. Giants night game)
Friday, March 25: Surprise Stadium (prior to Giants vs. Royals evening game)
Friday, March 25: Nighttime concert at Martini Ranch in Scottsdale
Sunday, March 27: Goodyear Ballpark (prior to D-backs vs. Reds)
Monday, March 28: Goodyear Ballpark (prior to Cubs vs. Indians)
Here’s The Baseball Project playing Letterman a few years ago:
And here’s the Mormon Tabernacle (“Fletch” reference … sorry. Had to do it.)
… then listen to the music play.
Here’s a list of my nine favorite baseball songs of all time. This could be amended, of course, at any time. The great Steve Poltz, for example, tells me he’s written one about Bill “Spaceman” Lee. I might eventually write one about Brendan Donnelly. Brendan Donnelly might write one about me. Youneverknow. Anyway, here goes:
1. “Catfish” by Bob Dylan: Written in 1975 but released on a bootleg compilation in 1991, this is a perfect tale of a unique baseball man — Jim “Catfish” Hunter — told in typical Dylan style and co-written by Jacques Levy. Highlight lyrics: “Come up where the Yankees are/Dress up in a pinstripe suit/Smoke a custom-made cigar/Wear an alligator boot” and “Catfish, million-dollar-man/Nobody can throw the ball like Catfish can.” Dylan also was prescient, correctly predicting that Hunter would make the Hall of Fame. Here’s a decent cover version of it, since I couldn’t find one of Bobby Zimmerman himself doing it:
2. “Night Game” by Paul Simon: This deep-track gem comes right after Stevie Gadd’s drums fade out on “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” on the 1975 classic album “Still Crazy After All These Years.” It’s a tragic story of the death of a pitcher during a tied game but still has that classic Simon quirkiness and evocative imagery to it. “And they laid his spikes/On the pitcher’s mound/And his uniform was torn/And his number was left on the ground.”
3. “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” by Steve Goodman: The song, written by the late genius who gave Arlo Guthrie “City of New Orleans,” reads just like the title, and it’s a brilliant ode to a fan base alone in its struggle of 100 years without a World Series title. “Build a big fire on home plate out of your Louisville Slugger baseball bats/And toss my coffin in/Let my ashes blow in a beautiful snow/From the prevailing 30 mile an hour southwest wind/When my last remains go flying over the left-field wall/We’ll bid the bleacher bums adieu/And I will come to my final resting place, out on Waveland Avenue.” Sadly, Goodman died of leukemia in 1984 at the age of 36. But at least that means he never knew the name Steve Bartman.
4. “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” by Meat Loaf: A song all about coming of age and the angst that comes with it veers into baseball-as-metaphor territory in classic fashion, with the adolescent meanderings of a boy and a girl set to the soothing tones of a Phil Rizzuto play-by-play. It doesn’t get any better than the Scooter’s, “Holy Cow, I think he’s gonna make it!” immediately followed by vocalist Ellen Foley’s “Stop right there!”
5. “Zanzibar” by Billy Joel: This jazzy cut off the underrated “52nd Street” album isn’t really about baseball, but it has one line that puts it in this group, yet another metaphor for perseverance that isn’t hard to figure out or relate to: “Me, I’m trying just to get to second base/And I’d steal it if she only gave the sign/She’s gonna give the go-ahead/The inning isn’t over yet for me.”
6. “Talkin’ Softball” by Terry Cashman: Cashman broke into the baseball-song-writing game with the ubiquitous “Talkin’ Baseball,” featuring Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider. However, his self-parody version for the 1992 “Homer at the Bat” episode of “The Simpsons” is more of a classic because of its brilliant mention of every nuclear power plant-related malady that struck the Major League All-Star “ringers” on the company softball team. Best line: “Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness made us smile/While Wade Boggs lay unconscious on the barroom tile.”
7. “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen: Sure, it’s overplayed, and sure, the video for the song shows that The Boss is a lot better at writing songs and singing than throwing a baseball, but it’s got a great opening riff and a message we can all relate to. The “speed ball” line still can make a baseball fan cringe, though. Would it have killed him to write “fastball” or even “heater?”
8. “Centerfield” by John Fogerty: It’s been played at every stadium, maybe every night, since its release on the album of the same name in 1985. He loses a few points for saying, “Put me in, coach.” That might work in Little League, but “Skip” is probably preferred at the big-league level, and we’re not sure how many players would get away with telling their manager to play them. Nevertheless, the man who brought us Creedence Clearwater Revival scores points for the Louisville Slugger bat/guitar he plays this number on when he performs it live. You can see the custom axe in this video, along with session drum monster Kenny Aronoff, formerly of the John Mellencamp band:
9. “Your Love” by the Outfield: This rocking staple of “Best of the Eighties” compilations has nothing to do with baseball other than the fact that the band is called the Outfield and the album the song appeared on is called “Play Deep.” But for some reason, it seems like it is about baseball. Maybe it’s the fact that it gets played at stadiums all the time, or that guys like former big leaguer Eric Byrnes have used it as a walk-up song or Tacoma News-Tribune Mariners beat writer Ryan Divish and possibly other members of the media use it as their ringtone. Also, the London-based band started out with the name, “The Baseball Boys.” That’s impressive in the land of cricket.
If any of you out there ever come across this list, add your suggestions. There are probably hundreds of ‘em out there that a lot of us have never come across.
… is the new album by California’s own Mother Hips and my favorite listen right now. Also, a fun baseball fact: Hips frontman Tim Bluhm, who’s singing lead on “White Falcon Fuzz” in the below video, used to hang out with Chase Utley a bit several years ago.
The new album is in stores and on the web everywhere. Check it out.
Well, OK, maybe he doesn’t.
But the lead singer and amazing mind behind one of the world’s greatest rock bands, Wilco, not to mention a big baseball fan, has ripped off the very title of this blog with the first single off the new album, “Wilco (the album).”
I should have at least gotten a free CD out of it, right? Do they even make CDs anymore?
He likes his chicken fried, his cold beverages on Friday nights, pairs of jeans that fit just right, the radio up, and, oh yeah, baseball, too.
Particularly Atlanta Braves baseball.
Sit down with lead singer and guitarist Zac Brown of the Atlanta-based country music phenomenon known as the Zac Brown Band and you find out that while growing up in Dahlonega, Ga., as one of 12 children, he found time to take in plenty of Braves games on TV.
“My whole life, it’s been the Braves,” Brown said while relaxing backstage at the recent Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn. “I just grew up going to hometown games since Bob Horner was hitting four homers in a game back in the day. It was very cool in the 1990s. Pretty much every night we were watching baseball.”
It’s pretty cool now for the Zac Brown Band, too.
“Chicken Fried,” the radio-friendly, downhome paean to wholesome Southern living, became a radio senstation after being re-released In October 2008. It shot to No. 1 on the country charts the following month and led to the major-label release of the album <i>The Foundation</i>, which also produced the No. 1 hit “Whatever It Is.”
Since then, the Zac Brown Band, which also includes bassist and vocalist John Driskell Hopkins, fiddle player and vocalist Jimmy DeMartini, guitarist and organist Coy Bowles, drummer Chris Fryar and multi-instrumentalist and singer Clay Cook, has gone from opening for larger country acts to headlining their own shows, including a 90-minute set that closed out the opening night of Bonnaroo 2009.
“It’s great,” Brown says. “We’ve got kind of a grander vision for how we want to set up our headlining tour, and this fall is the first one we’re really heading toward that direction. Being able to play two-hour shows every night, it’s going to be great to really stretch it out and really lay out the different styles that we do. “
The band is as comfortable and capable at performing classic rock, reggae or select cover tunes (they did “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band at Bonnaroo ) as they are at ripping up honky-tonk hits like “Chicken Fried.”
“We’re really excited about the success and excited to really unleash the other styles,” Brown says. “The country [influence] is the only one we’ve really been able to service, so to be able to dig into these other ones and get it out there is really exciting.”
As Bowles explains, the music can’t really be defined by any one genre, which is why an eclectic festival gig like the one at Bonnaroo is a perfect showcase for the band’s surprising repertoire.
“It’s more Southern than it is anything,” Bowles says. “Stylistically, we do so many different things. I never thought about it, really, but this concert might be the first show where we’ve done where the audience that’s listening to us will be able to get the whole grasp of what we’re doing, from the bluegrass stuff to the reggae to the country.
“A lot of times people ask us about being a country band and we say, ‘Well, we’re not really a country band.’ And we’re not knocking country, because we like it, but we don’t want to be limited.”
That’s why the Zac Brown Band has been accepting all kinds of gigs, including a few at baseball stadiums.
The band played at PNC Park in Pittsburgh this season for a Pirates fireworks show and didn’t embarrass themselves while getting through the National Anthem, which they also performed at Comerica Park in Detroit.
While in Pittsburgh, Zac Brown Band fan, Pirates first baseman and former Atlanta Brave Adam LaRoche hung out with them for a little while pregame and Bucs manager John Russell showed the band around the clubhouse.
And while Brown says he misses the days of great Braves like Dale Murphy, he likes the young direction the team’s going in these days.
“They’re still fun to watch,” Brown says. “I’m still going to watch them whenever I can.”
It’s been a busy time since I got back from Bonnaroo 2009, the music festival in Tennessee, but I finally have the time to report on the proceedings.
The ‘Roo always has a baseball influence, from the MLB Road Show batting cages and video games to the big-time fans among the huge, eclectic mix of acts that Bonnaroo attracts every year.
It’s always fun to watch some of the musicians get in the backstage cage and take their hacks. Some of them actually have pretty good swings, and for some of them it’s tough to get that rock-star hair in a batting helmet.
I had a fun and interesting conversation with Ben Bridwell, the lead singer of Band of Horses, one of the great American rock groups of the last 10 years. After seeing BoH a few years ago in Seattle and hearing him publicly wonder on stage why then-manager Mike Hargrove had just up and quit a few days earlier, I knew he was a fan.
At Bonnaroo, Ben was kind enough to meet me in the media area mere minutes before his band played a sterling Sunday sunset set to close out the weekend on the “Which Stage,” which is the second-largest stage on the grounds. I found this decent-quality clip of them playing a sped-up, more countrified version of “Window Blues,” the final track off their last album, “Cease to Begin.”
So Ben told me he’s been a baseball fan since he played Little League and American Legion ball while growing up in South Carolina and that he became a Mariners fan when he moved to Seattle in the late 1990s. He still follows the M’s on MLB.com as much as he can and said he would absolutely love to someday sing the National Anthem at Safeco Field, his favorite ballpark. I told him I’d see if I can pull some strings.
Anyway, watching from the side of the stage as Bridwell and his Horses executed 90 flawless minutes of rock was none other than The Boss, Mr. Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen had headlined the whole festival the previous night, singing his signature baseball-inspired song, “Glory Days,” before closing out a nearly three-hour set with “Dancing In The Dark,” and he and Bridwell exchanged pleasantries, according to this photo, taken from the blog on BoH’s site.
Then, long after Bridwell and the boys had bid adieu to the Which Stage, Bruce resurfaced during Phish’s festival-closing performance and jammed out another version of “Glory Days.” In the immortal words of Robert Hunter, “Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain’t no place I’d rather be/Baby won’t you carry me … back to Tennessee.”
In 2010, of course.
I flew down to San Diaaago (German for some part of a whale) on Tuesday to hang out with Stephen Strasburg — didn’t happen — and boy are my arms tired! Rim shot! I’ll be here all week! Or maybe every other day …
Anyway, I didn’t get to even see Big Steve or even Big Scott in person, but I did get to hear my buddy Jeff Fletcher of AOL get reprimanded by Boras on the conference call as I overlooked the Pacific in Solana Beach, which, by the way, is the home of one of my favorite live music venues (www.bellyup.com). That made me chuckle (I was on mute). Nice one, Fletch.
So what’s my point? Well, other than the fact that I’m giddy from quick travel (I drove up and down the Southern California coast so I could hit the San Diego Strasburg scene — or lack thereof — and the goings-on in Chavez Ravine at a little place called Dodger Stadium. I also saw the Lemonheads at a place called Spaceland in Silver Lake and walked out after four songs because lead singer Evan Dando could barely stand up and sounded like he was doing really bad, really drunk Lemonheads karaoke.
So again, what’s my point, other than the fact that I’m sleep-deprived and I’ve written over 3,500 words about Stephen Strasburg in the last 24 hours without seeing or talking to him?
No point, I guess, other than to say it was fun. I got to talk to San Diego State coach and baseball legend Tony Gwynn, who was great, and met three of Strasburg’s Aztec teammates, who were very excited for their boy.
I have pictures that I’ll post when I figure out how to shrink them from their present all-consuming size.
And now on to today’s top five.
1. The Grateful Dead channel on Sirius.
2. The recently remembered fact that we’ve only gone through a season and a half of “Arrested Development.”
3. “Spring Provides” by matt pond PA.
4. Zippy’s Giant Burgers in West Seattle.
5. “Every time the snow drifts, every way the sand shifts, even when the night lifts, she’s always there.” –Patty Griffin
More music and possibly baseball information coming soon live from Bonnaroo in beautiful Manchester, Tennessee …
OK. Here goes with a now-serious commitment to blog every day, Will it work? As they (I?) say, youneverknow …
SEATTLE — So I got into a spirited conversation with Mariners lefty Ryan Rowland-Smith the other day, and, as often happens with me, usually with my wife but occasionally with baseball players, I ended up feeling like an idiot and later apologizing.
Ryan’s Australian, not to mention a great guy, and I had been doing some couch-covering of the World Baseball Classic in March and noticed that the coach of the WBC’s Australian team, Jon Deeble, had spouted off some very strong opinions during the course of the press conferences that had caused several reactions: 1. Laughter; 2. Something along the lines of “Who does this guy think he is? and 3. A mixture of 1 and 2.
Ryan didn’t pitch in the Classic because he dedicated himself to staying in Arizona for Spring Training and preparing for a spot in the Mariners rotation. But he was on the Aussies’ Classic team in 2006 and their Olympic Team that won a silver medal in Athens in 2004. He loves Jon Deeble and credits him for helping his baseball career in enormous ways.
So when I asked Ryan if he thought Deeble was out of line with some of his comments … well, let me reveal those comments before I proceed.
Background info: The Aussies were up against what appeared, on paper, to be a very good Mexico team, with a roster packed with current and former Major League stars including Adrian Gonzalez, Jorge Cantu, Oliver Perez, Erubiel Durazo, Scott Hairston, Alfredo Amezaga, Jerry Hairston Jr., Rod Barajas, Joakim Soria, Karim Garcia, Augie Ojeda, Miguel Ojeda, Dennys Reyes, Rodrigo Lopez, Ricardo Rincon, Elmer Dessens and Jorge Campillo.
In other words, going up against this team in the first round, in Mexico City, of all places, was a tough assignment for the Aussies and one in which not many “experts” were giving them a chance.
So naturally the Aussies pounded Perez and the Mexicans, 17-7, mercy-ruling them after eight innings and putting up 22 hits. After the game, Deeble had his first say to the assembled media:
Q. Is this the biggest game in Australia baseball history?
JON DEEBLE: Is it? No.
Q. Which would be the biggest?
JON DEEBLE: No, this is not the biggest game. We won a silver medal in Athens, and we beat the Japanese Olympic team twice in Athens. It’s another game. It’s another game today.
Q. A big possibility is that you have to face Mexico again to try to reach the next round. I know everything went OK today, but what did you learn to face Mexico again?
JON DEEBLE: I’ll answer your question in two parts. There’s a possibility we’ll play Mexico. You guys say that all the time. There’s always been a script written that we’re going to play South Africa tomorrow, so let’s not get the horse in front of the cart, OK?
But we respect Mexico. They’ve got a great baseball team, there’s no doubt about it. We respect them, and tonight we got our heads in front. But we do respect their ballclub. They’ve got a good ballclub, there’s no doubt about that. We’ve just got to play the same as we played tonight if we face them again, if we face Cuba, who knows. The fact that you guys keep writing scripts of where we’re going to play astounds me.
My (stupid) point to Ryan based on these comments was that it was a bit silly of Deeble to treat the Aussies as a team that was not a huge underdog in this game when looking at the rosters.
I mean, what was the media supposed to think going into a game like this, in Mexico City, when the Australian contingent of Major League talent included not a single big-league star and a handful of guys with limited experience in The Show and a bit more experience in the Minor Leagues?
But Ryan’s (smart) point was something along the lines of this: “What’s he supposed to say, then? ‘Yeah, you’re right, we’re not as good as they are?’ Who in their right mind would say that? Plus we had already proven what we could do in international baseball and you don’t realize how disrespectful and annoying it is after a while to have the media constantly telling you that you’re supposed to believe you’re not as good as other teams.”
Only after I re-read what Deeble said did I realize how wrong I was to even insinuate that the Aussie coach was doing anything other that motivating his team and answering to what had to have become the unbelievable chafe of a news media bent on patronizing the Australian team like a bunch of Cinderellas.
Then again, Deeble wasn’t done being defiant. And in my conversation with Ryan, neither was I … in being dumb.
That’s because I also mentioned Deeble’s comments after Australia’s next game, a tough 5-4 loss to (you guessed it) heavily favored Cuba. Here they are:
Q. It was a tough loss tonight. What do you think you’ve proved in this tournament already?
JON DEEBLE: We’ve proven that we can match baseball with anybody in the world, and we knew that before coming in tonight. You know, this is a great ballclub. We’ve got — our country has got great baseball players. We don’t get the respect from everybody. It’s about time that changed, and it starts with you people.
Q. I think it was in the top of the second inning that Cuba batted in an order that was certainly not consistent with what we had as a pre-game lineup, and you seemed to be confused by it. Can you explain from your perspective what happened with that batting change?
JON DEEBLE: I’ll tell you honestly, I’m so disappointed in the Cubans and the disrespect that they showed us by giving us a lineup and bringing out another one. I think it’s disgusting, I think it’s disgraceful, and I think something should be done about it because they continue to do it, they continue to get away with it, and I think it’s totally disrespectful. Something needs to be done because they continue to do it, and nobody ever does anything about it. It just blows my mind. From the manager’s point of view, totally disrespectful.
Q. A player from Mexico, he said in the last game, it only coincidence your victory. How do you say about that? He said that you won only by chance, by accident.
JON DEEBLE: We’ll have another accident tomorrow (laughter). You don’t get 22 hits by accident.
As for the Cuba thing, Ryan assured me that they pull stunts like this all the time in international baseball, which is ludicrous but now believable. I can’t imagine why that would be allowed, but, hey, I’m just a writer. And after reading Deeble’s comments and hearing from Ryan how great of a baseball guy he is, I take back anything I might have said or thought about what I originally believed to be “popping off” during the WBC press conferences.
Unfortunately, the feel-good story ended after that big win over Mexico After the Cuba loss, Mexico beat Australia, 16-1, in the next game to knock the Aussies out of the tournament. But obviously the team from Down Under proved a lot more than the fact that they belong on the field with the best clubs in international ball. Their manager proved he won’t back down from anyone and will support his players 100 percent all the time.
And for Ryan, who played for Deeble and might play for him again in a similar circumstance, it’s easy to see how national pride can turn into Major League passion. All you have to do is watch one heated World Baseball Classic game to figure that out.
After catching up on all of this, I went back to Ryan and apologized for misconstruing Deeble’s comments and coming to the wrong conclusions about them. He laughed and shrugged it off. “No need to apologize, mate.”
I would imagine our conversations will return to less confrontational topics such as my honeymoon in his amazing country Australia, where I spent three luxurious days on the perfect Hayman Island, saw a koala in the wild near the Great Ocean Road, and somehow unknowingly spent $938 on two tickets to an Eagles concert in Melbourne.
And on to today’s top five:
1. Checking the Bonnaroo schedule for the 78th time, knowing I’ll be there in four days
2. The fantastic melody that makes up for the insipid-yet-heartfelt lyric in “Bound By Love” by Gran Bel Fisher (what happened to him, by the way?)
3. Rowan starting to say the word “Happy”
4. Our new, big house (although we’re not moved in and it needs some work)
5. Johnsonville mild Italian sausages on the grill (which will happen tonight)
More blog shenanigans tomorrow, live from San Diego/Newport Beach/Interstate 5 in between as Youneverknow is a one-man traveling band at Strasburg-a-palooza ’09! Dig it!
Will Johnson has been touring with his indie rock band Centro-matic for a long time — long enough that he has summer tour scheduling pretty much dialed in.
After his booking agent identifies the American cities Centro-matic will be hitting with its unique brand of alt-country tinged lo-fi pop, Johnson gets on the computer.
“I immediately hop over to MLB.com and start looking at the schedules to see who’s in town and what games I can go to,” Johnson says. “On nights off, I’ll definitely try to get to the closest park, and it doesn’t matter if it’s A-ball or ‘The Show.’ I’m just happy to get to a game. Without a doubt, it’s complete therapy for me and a real treat.”
On a solo tour four years ago, Johnson says he went to as many games as he played shows.
“I saw the A-ball team in Jackson, Miss., I saw a game in Pearl, Miss., on the way back, and I also caught the Montgomery Biscuits. I was just roaming through the South and went to a handful of games and it was great. I didn’t exactly come home in the black after all the money I spent on baseball, but I had a lot of fun.”
Johnson is such a seamhead that his personal notes on the band’s Web site, www.centro-matic.com, read like this: “It’s been a while, and that’s because I’ve been roughed up this summer by the heat, the inescapable white pants-ed and moppy presence of the Jonas Brothers, general ceremonies (opening and closing), and by being able to watch both live and archived baseball games on MLB.TV. It’s like they knew exactly what kinda Kryptonite would take me down, and good homeslices, it has.”
Meanwhile, Johnson has a huge list of baseball Supermen that he’s been looking up to since he was a kid.
He grew up in Southeast Missouri and took a liking to the St. Louis Cardinals, who gave him an early thrill by winning the World Series in 1982, the year before he and his family moved to Texas.
“I’m still loyal to my Cardinals roots,” he says. “Back in ’82, the buzz was pretty mighty and I was riding on a baseball high when I moved to Texas. I guess that buzz hasn’t worn off.”
Johnson also looks back to the privileged moments he experienced as a youngster when he got to see the bright lights of Busch Stadium in person.
“I remember seeing the Astros and Dodgers and the Giants in the Jack Clark days,” he says. “I had a Polaroid camera and I couldn’t stop taking photos. We had real good seats down low on the third-base line. We saw Ken Oberkfell and Ozzie (Smith) pretty close.
“For an 11 or 12-year-old kid, who basically ate, slept and breathed baseball, it was a real treat. I got to see the Forsch brothers, Tommy Herr and Bruce Sutter. It was great team to be so close to your heroes.”
Johnson’s current heroes thrilled him again in 2006, when he watched the underdog Cardinals pull off one of the most unlikely World Series championships in years by beating the Detroit Tigers
“It was truly amazing,” he says. “I was on Cloud Nine and I didn’t see it coming the way they seemingly backed into the playoffs. I had my doubting moments, which goes to show how little about baseball I really know.
“But I bought the DVD set for those gray days of winter, and it’s fun to sit back and watch it all over again because it was a good story. I was very, very proud of those guys. And that’s the beauty of the game. Stories like that keep me coming back.”
But those aren’t the only baseball stories that intrigue Johnson.
In addition to singing, writing songs and playing guitar for Centro-matic, which features Matt Pence (drums and percussion), Scott Danbom (piano, violin, backing vocals, bass) and Mark Hedman (bass, guitar), and fronting a side band called South San Gabriel (both of which are featured on the recent album called Dual Hawks), Johnson is a folk artist who paints his favorite baseball players.
His collection includes works depicting Negro League legends Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell, plus Bill Buckner, Alta Weiss, John McGraw, Branch Rickey and Roberto Clemente.
The colorful paintings also include written descriptions of the personalities from Johnson’s point of view as a fan and amateur historian.
“I like to paint some of the under-the-radar folks,” he says. “I think people should know more about their stories. Like Bill Buckner, for example. My painting champions his contributions to the game, which I think are long forgotten. Most people just remember him for one thing.”
Recently, Johnson opened his first art show at the Record Ranch Gallery inside Cactus Music in Houston.
Most of all, Johnson always remembers baseball and what it’s given him throughout his life.
He played shortstop until he “stopped growing” at the age of 14 and says he still has a heap of baseball cards in his parents’ attic. He also keeps scorecards (“I score every game,” he says) and has countless jerseys and a “ridiculous baseball cap collection that’s taking over my closet.”
And leave it to a songwriter to describe why he loves the game so much.
“I think it’s always just been the perfect pace of the game,” he says. “It’s such a conversational sport and one in which you can’t really can’t get too high or low day to day. In that way, it reminds me of how we live our lives as an independent rock band.
“We leave some cities feeling good and full of ourselves after a sold-out show, and the next night might be a thin crowd in a place we’ve never been. But the pastoral and poetic nature of the game makes it perfect.
“It’s the perfect game often played by imperfect people, that’s the thing that keeps me coming back to it.”
Here’s Will painting his sonic soundscapes with Centro (some artwork samples coming as soon as I figure out where they are in my email box):
Today is a very meaningful day for Youneverknow. Twenty years ago on this very day, I saw the Grateful Dead for the first time at Irvine Meadows, not far from Angel Stadium, then called Anaheim Stadium, where Kirk McCaskill was busy one-hitting the Blue Jays in a 9-0 Angels win.
I had lit out from Tucson with my dorm buddies Keith and Bill and finally all those bad-quality TDK tapes came to life in front of my wide-open eyes. Things were never quite the same.
Here’s the set list:
Irvine Meadows Amphitheater, Irvine, CA: Friday, April 28, 1989
Cold Rain and Snow
Little Red Rooster
Queen Jane Approximately
Just a Little Light
Ramble on Rose
Playin’ in the Band
Uncle John’s Band
I Need a Miracle
Standing on the Moon
Touch of Grey
E: Quinn the Eskimo
And because I can’t find any footage from my first show, here’s a particularly rollicking “Cold Rain and Snow” from Halloween 1980 at Radio City Music Hall: