It’s the bottom of the 11th (September, that is) and tonight’s players are suited up and in batting order. But not for long. Besides the business of baseball, there’s this game of musical chairs taking place as four musicians: glittery, masterstroke New York drummer Linda Pitmon and rocker/former Dream Syndicate frontman and iconic songwriter Steve Wynn of their self-titled group and Seattlemen Scott McCaughey, of Young Fresh Fellows fame, and Peter Buck, R.E.M., both in Minus 5, engage in Marx Brothers’ style baseball banter amidst a crowd of sports fans and locals. As if that’s not enough to take in tonight. Years ago, McCaughey and Wynn discovered they were both baseball fanatics and decided to pen songs to that end culminating in the phenomenon and subsequent album, The Baseball Project.
The convivial party atmosphere is well-evidenced by the fashion statements on stage. McCaughey dons a salt and pepper Russian fur hat that can’t help but mock his own straggly strands. Buck is dressed head to toe in black—except for a vivid floral shirt tucked under an even blacker slick, tapered jacket—matching his Musketeering Puss ’n’ Boots footwear. But, besides all that, it’s West Coast meets East Coast on stage meets Mid-West off-stage. Get the bar maid.
Wynn, a dead-ringer for actor Sean Penn, plays harmonica like early Dylan, has a slinky, Gumby body, and also wears black. Most striking are his pointy leather, well-scrubbed Presley boots. Spurts of energy overtake his torso throughout the night. He’s got the charm of a city councilman – greeting fans while on-stage and before and after the performance. He’s eclectic alright. Wynn’s musical influences span Neil Young, Keith Richards, John Fogerty, Franz Ferdinand and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. According to his website, one of his favorite haunts is “Psycho Suzie’s Motor Lounge”. Or is he just sizing up Suzie for his next album title? “I try to sit and talk with you/ I try to wait a week or two,” sings McCaughey. Soon, the bratty harmonies and Buck’s step-wise, jangly bassline drive home, “Ted Fucking Williams”.
Buck and Pitmon form a cohesive rhythm section as they intently circle around each other—the drum set a freshly killed carcass—careful to assuage each other’s every play. Pitmon pillages the drum kit—viscerally enjoying the brash glam of every thud. McCaughey makes some remarks about visiting him in Seattle. “Come check it out sometime and drop on my doorstep,” he chides. He’s a lovable guy. You can’t blame us if we do show up. The song, “Broken Man”, about Mark McGuire, harkens, “You could say I cheated / Boogie- man defeated.” Pitmon’s booming sticks punctuate the dark lyrics, as McCaughey and Wynn vocalize.
McCaughey’s brilliantly unexpected wah-wah introduces, “Love Me Anyway” from Crossing Dragon Bridge, Wynn’s first solo album in seven years. Wynn employs choppy strumming while singing, “Love is never easy / Love is never free.” Wynn points and shoots at McCaughey, uttering, “Scott ‘Wah Wah’ McCaughey.” In response McCaughey sighs, “You guys would be really sad if I didn’t say anything else the rest of the program. This song features this chord,” he laughs. McCaughey then says, “Recorded right here in Chicago, Illinois” and the band pulls off the exceptionally punky, “Hotel Senator”. Pitmon’s sticks pump so fast—you can see shadowy reverberation after reverberation each time they hit home plate. Wynn steals the base once more singing, “Tony, our hearts beat as one / Tony what has that bastard done?” This song has a Brechtian, “Three Penny Opera” feel and McCaughey, mugging being up-staged, follows it up by teasing, “They asked me to make an announcement tonight. It’s last call.”
“In the Hands of the Living Barrister” is a throw-back to the mop-tops. It’s pop-soaked and Wynn refers to Pitmon and McCaughey as the “SheBeeGees”—a Seattle girl band. McCaughey strums his acoustic guitar—his voice suddenly sounding soothing and angelic. Now, McCaughey fuels power chords, his voice Venn diagrams Dylan and a hung-over Lennon as he plays more from “Killingsworth”—also, a street in Seattle. “I would have given anything just to have you wear my ring,” softens the mood further. Wynn unveils his blues-harp prowess in, “Dark Hand of Contagion”, a sweetly-strummed ballad that vocally chameleonic McCaughey placates further with caustic inflection.
Wynn heard the Minus Five perform his original song, “Waiting for Mary” from the album, The Suitcase Sessions. It’s a tragically tender song including this lyric, “In a dream she found a lover who never knew her before / In a dream she was beautiful / Lying on the floor,” he muses. Wynn continues with this poignant refrain: ”There’s just two reasons for everything – waiting, waiting, waiting.” Hissing the final consonants to a hushed crowd, the venue is now near capacity. The lyrics deserve to be savored, but as in most venues, it’s a little difficult to make out each song’s words against the din.
The mood markedly elevates as Wynn blasts, “I’m going down to the medicine show / Got a one way ticket to the 806.” This “Dream Syndicate” favorite, from the band’s second album, with its sharp, acidic bite, has been performed for the last twenty five years. The ZZ Top-like bass line stimulates mob air. Wynn approximates Dylan, and as he wails, “lonesome gypsy sky”, the three guitarists line-up employing a serious play-off, like livery men with incendiary gaskets, rallying up the cavalry and then leading the sentries to a shrieking halt.
“Past Time” recently received national coverage on the Letterman show. Wynn spins, “This is the dinner set, next is the dancing set. We’re a traveling record store featuring live music,” as he beckons toward the CD table where a charming, blonde saleswoman displays the multitude of merch. These hard-working, non-prima donna musicians by any home-stretch, by the way, take turns working the table immediately between and after sets. Wynn dives into the swarthy lines, “You got one chance, baby / You better do it right…you gotta watch out.” McCaughey and Wynn plunge into spectacular, grinding electric guitar solo work as they plummet “Amphetimine”—a song that examines the uber-pace of stoner status quo. Wynn says this song is, “my ode to late-night driving, self-examination and speed in all its many forms.” The film, Bandslaw will pay homage to this Wynn classic—sung by vocalist Aly Michalka.
Not surprisingly, this pinch-hitter closes the first set. The next session begins with McCaughey remarking, “I had six White Russians tonight,” and then singing, “Sometimes it feels like you haven’t got a friend.” “I’m Not Bitter” is a tune from Minus 5’s Down With Wilco which echoes a hollow Coldplay sensibility. The sentimental ballad, “Long Before My Time”—written about Ernie Kovacs—“early retirement rocker” inspires cheers from many of the baseball capped, middle-aged men.
The Zappa-like “Gratitude” gives a nod to Curt Flood, the Cardinals outfielder, whose lawsuit paved the way to free agency for players, then “Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays”, followed highlighting Pitmon’s hyper-kinetic drums and catchy lines, “In 1954 I was born into the street” and “When the wind dies down and the sun comes out.” McCaughey scans the enthused sports fans and muses, “We’re all in it together.” He then cracks a joke, saying, “Ron Santo always sounds like he’s in pain.” He improvises a grating, crackling noise which draws jeers from the crowd.
“Harvey Haddix” is a country tribute which McCaughey embroils with a rhapsodic solo. Haddix, a Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, (try saying that 10 times after a mojito) threw 12 perfect innings only to lose the game in the 13th. ”Haddix”, like the other baseball songs performed tonight are witty and enthusiastically received. Around this time, McCaughey invites an audience member up to the stage. The fan wants to know why the band doesn’t play on the South Side. That’s Chicago White Sox turf. A hush and some grunts and laughter circulate the venue. McCaughey claimed there’s not too many clubs that way and the fans let him off easy. Easy considering this is Chicago
“Baby, Let the Good Times Crawl” features the fierce drumming of Pitmon. It’s written by McCaughey and Buck. Wynn’s uplifting, reflective “Manhattan Fault Line” is best described as a Dylanesque dirge. The clanky “Tell Me When It’s Over” and driving “Trial Separation Blues” follow. And, McCaughey sings, “I try to catch a piece of sky” from “The Days of Wine and Booze”, from the Down With Wilco album. “The Days of Wine and Roses” by Wynn’s former band, the Dream Syndicate is appreciated by the audience and is followed by the self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek, rolling and tumbling, “Aw, Shit Man” by Minus Five.
Though these songs officially finish the set, the crowd demands an encore. Wynn accommodates this with the quiet “Fernando” which he sings entirely in Spanish. “Revolution Blues” follows—from Neil Young’s release, On the Beach where Wynn plays a bittersweet, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps”-like solo. McCaughey responds with the simple ballad “I Still Miss Someone”. And Wynn catches it on the fly with “The Closer” and “Strychnine” which he introduces as, “from rock ’n’ roll’s royal majesty’s the ‘Sonics’”. The truculent lines, “If you can’t stand the heat / You’re gonna have to get out” and “If you want to hate my guts that’s all right with me” ring out in the aftermath of the applause. Accompanied by furious riffs and rhythms thick as pigskin, these are strong, contagiously seductive lines—though—a little out in left field. But, that’s par for the course. And, that’s another game entirely.