The indie supergroup hits the road this week for a national tour, including a stop at BLURT ground zero. Batter up!
BY THE BLURT CRÜE
The Baseball Project was formed in 2007 by Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, The Minus 5, R.E.M.) and Steve Wynn (The Dream Syndicate, Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3). The endeavor began as a way for a couple of fans with a shared musical vision to pay tribute to our national pastime. They had talked in the past about collaboration, and apparently they decided to move forward with the project after they ran into each in New York.
“It finally took flight at the R.E.M. pre-Hall of Fame induction party,” Wynn remembers. “Everyone was happy. The wine was flowing, the food was incredible and spring training had just started. Scott and I talked baseball until most of the party guests had cleared out. And we actually remembered it the next day.”
Since then, The Baseball Project has evolved into a “proper” band that tours and records and features Zuzu’s Petals/Steve Wynn drummer Linda Pitmon and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills, plus (when available) Boston Red Sox organist Josh Kantor.
The group’s first effort was 2008’s Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails (Yep Roc), and if you think a three-bagger sounds kind of kinky and wouldn’t be able to pick Daryl Strawberry out of a lineup, you probably couldn’t have written the lyrics to “Ted Fucking Williams” or “Jackie’s Lament.” But you could still get caught up in the magic of this ‘60s-flaovred tribute to a dying pastime by a group of left-field musical all stars. And you’ll know more about the game before they’re through.
In “Harvey Haddix,” for instance, you’ll learn that on May 26, 1959, in Milwaukee, Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitched a perfect game for 12 straight innings but his teammates couldn’t score, depriving Haddix of his rightful place in the history books as one of 18 men who’ve thrown a perfect game. And then, there’s “Broken Man,” the album’s most infectious song — a touching, sympathetic look at Mark McGwire’s date with infamy, in which McCaughey points out how “no one seemed to care when it brought back the fans.” But before digging deep in the history of everyone from Satchel Paige to Big Ed Delehanty, a wistful tribute to the game called “Past Time” sets the stage, guitars chiming away as McCaughey runs down a laundry list of baseball memories, including Oscar Gamble’s afro, before giving voice to the question no fan wants to ask: “Are you past your prime?”
In a perfect world, this unassuming treasure of an album would bring back the fans the way McGwire’s little homerun derby did – both to the ballpark and the record stores. The musicians’ various projects, of course, kept ‘em busy, but in 2009 they did release the Homerun EP then in 2010 found time to go into the studio to record a full-length followup, Volume 2: High and Inside, featuring a host of guests such as Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and the Decemberists’ Chris Funk.
Baseball and pop music have always been well-suited for each other – both are all about getting hits – and there have been some classic baseball-themed rock tunes, like Earth Opera’s “The Red Sox Are Winning” and Todd Snider’s “America’s Favorite Pastime.” For Volume 2 the band has brought a sustained literary quality – a Boys of Summer-infused glow, by turns celebratory and melancholy with touches of wry humor – to the subject. A few songs are too prosaic or nostalgic, but many are specific, concise, tightly rockin’ tales with a bittersweet dimension, like Wynn’s “1976,” an elegiac remembrance of the late goofball pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych that also serves as a tribute to punk. McCaughey’s tragic and imaginatively rhymed “Buckner’s Bolero,” which has production touches reminiscent of Jan & Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve,” is another diamond-in-the-rough. The aforementioned Hold Steady frontman also guests on a tribute to Minnesota Twins fans called “Don’t Call Them Twinkies.” Baseball Project has another winning record.
Then 2012 saw the release of a timely video, “Why Melky Why.” A tribute to ‘roided up Giants slugger Melky Cabrera titled “Why Melky Why?” we were certain it must be a reworked version of the old country foot-stomper made famous by George Jones and scores more, “Why Baby Why.” It was a McCaughey original, though – not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Then this year came 3rd, the smartly titled third BBP album, which picks up where its predecessors left off, singing the praises of heroes, wannabes, almosts and also-rans with equal enthusiasm, additionally dipping its resin-stained fingers into baseball’s sprawling culture, from fans’ obsession with statistics (the blazing garage-rock anthem opening track is titled, fittingly, “Stats”) to the fading art of collecting and trading baseball cards (the banjo-fueled, countryish “The Baseball Card Song” tells the fanciful story of one young aficionado’s experience, and it’s hard not to imagine it being a long-lost Jim Stafford tune).
Clearly, the topic provides plenty of songwriting fodder for the musicians. For example, fuzztone’d thumper “The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads” details the true story of how surly pitcher Dock Ellis, legendary for his claim that he was on LSD while pitching a no-hitter in 1970, decided to “go mental” on the mound. Meanwhile, “The Babe” pays tribute to you-know-who (“he was a giant among men” affirms the solemn chorus, over a stately piano ballad arrangement); glammy, T.Rex/Stones-styled rocker “They Are the Oakland A’s” similarly celebrates the life and times of the Moneyball men; and “A Boy Named Cy” fetes the legendary pitcher Cy Young and manages to work in a smart nod to the Johnny Cash hit “A Boy Named Sue.”
There’s also “Monument Park” (live in-studio performance, below). It was inspired by the career of the New York Yankees’ Bernie Williams, who was overshadowed by the legendary Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio but was still ranked as the third best center fielder in team history.
And don’t miss the outrageous, harmonica-powered “They Played Baseball,” which ticks off some of the sport’s more, ahem, colorful characters—among them, “racist” Cap Anson, “dumbass” John Rocker, “filed with bile” Ty Cobb, Leo “The Lip” Durocher, A-Rod who apparently “thinks he’s a centaur,” plus sundry faces of the steroid/doping era, including Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Ryan Braun—to conclude that no matter their idiosyncrasies, character flaws or transgressions, we still love and idolize ‘em “because they played baseball,” period. Ain’t it the truth.
The album wraps up with a rousing reprise of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” but as it turns out that’s just the warm-up because…
Starting this week the group heads out on tour, bringing their musical base-stealing to sundry clubs and stadiums, including an appearance at the Durham Bulls ballpark Saturday, July 12 as part of the 2014 Triple-A All-Star Game Fan Fest & Block Party. That is followed by a Raleigh show Sunday, July 13, a free concert at the Lincoln Theater for the 40th anniversary celebration of BLURT’s sister business Schoolkids Records. Also on the bill: Drivin ‘N Cryin, Six String Drag, Hank Sinatra and the DeBonzo Brothers.
McCaughey emailed a merry missive to the punters on July 4, writing, “Happy Independence Day, all ye! I hope the barbecue’s are a’blazin’ and your dogs and cats aren’t too freaked out by the reign of noisy terror this holiday provides. Next week we embark on an intrepid five-weeks-in-a-van sojourn across the amber waves of grain, and the fruited plains, and the hills and hollers. Hopefully we’ll be stopping in somewhere near you, to make your (re-)acquaintance. Steve, Linda, Mike, and I will have lots of friends popping up with us, like the Minus 5 (at various times including Mike Giblin, Joe Adragna, Peter Buck, and the Professor and Mary Anne), the Split Squad (with Clem Burke, Keith Streng and Eddie Munoz), and Fenway organist Josh Kantor will play in all the above bands whenever the Red Sox are on the road and he can join us. And for those of you on the west coast, look for us in early September. Yep.”
Rock ‘n’ roll, baseball and beer: was there ever a more fitting alliance? Only in America. The only thing missing is an official Baseball Project mascot. Volunteers?
The photo at the top of the page by Mary Winzig, courtesy the band’s Facebook page. The one immediately below is lovingly lifted from Caught In The Carousel because it’s so perfect. AT CITC you can read a killer interview conducted by Paul Gleason with Steve Wynn in which they talk nothin’ but baseball. Meanwhile, this BLURT story includes review text originally drafted for us by Steven “Satchel” Rosen, Fred “Fireball” Mills and A. “Anabolic” Watt.
Incidentally, check the Baseball Project’s official website for a full tour itinerary. Dates also listed below.
Fri Jul 11 : The Earl, East Atlanta, GA, US
Sat Jul 12 : Durham Bulls Athletic Park, Durham, NC, US
Sun Jul 13: Lincoln Theater, Raleigh NC, US (Schoolkids Records 40th Anniversary)
Thu Jul 17: The Hamilton, Washington, DC, US
Fri Jul 18: Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats, Rehoboth Beach, DE, US
Sat Jul 19: Live at Drew’s, Ringwood, NJ, US
Sun Jul 20: Storm King Art Center, New Windsor, NY, US
Tue Jul 22: Hygienic Art Park, New London, CT, US
Wed Jul 23: Club Helsinki Hudson, Hudson, NY, US
Thu Jul 24: Martin Luther King Jr. Park at Manhattan Square, Rochester, NY, US
Sat Jul 26: Stage on Herr, Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center, Harrisburg, PA, US
Sun Jul 27: Garcia’s at the Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, NY, US
Mon Jul 28: World Café Live, Philadelphia, PA, US
Tue Jul 29: The Press Room, Portsmouth, NH, US
Wed Jul 30: Great Scott, Allston, MA, US
Fri Aug 01: Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown, NY, US
Sat Aug 02: Rough Trade NYC, Brooklyn, NY, US
Sun Aug 03: Asbury Lanes, Asbury Park, NJ, US
Wed Aug 06: Duck Room, Blueberry Hill, St Louis, MO, US
Thu Aug 07: Abbey Pub, Chicago, IL, US
Mon Aug 11: Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis, MN, US