Chris Stapleton
Chris Stapleton by Michael Bialas

9 Reasons to Yearn for Extra Innings Every Spring

At the inaugural Extra Innings Festival, spring swung into gear with baseball bats and an eclectic lineup of musicians. These players led our hit parade.

Two of my favorite pastimes are baseball and music, not necessarily in that order. After covering both, first as a sports journalist and then as a music writer/photographer, the joy of seeing athletes play ball and musicians rock our world is always a thrill, even if it’s for pure pleasure that doesn’t pay a red cent. 

So, after seeing that the inaugural Extra Innings Festival would be held this month and tacked on as an extra weekend of activities to the six-year Innings Festival at Tempe Beach Park in Arizona, it piqued my interest. Luckily, my wife Carmen felt the same way, mostly as the fun-loving, adventurous, free spirit that she is. 

Little did it matter to me that professional players in both occupations often speak the same language, using cliche-filled expressions either at concerts, during games (who still calls a routine pop fly a “can of corn” anyway?) and in interviews on the phone, backstage or in locker rooms. If the hard-working performers put in the extra effort, they usually excel, and the fans in the stands will know when that’s lacking. 

So, after spending about ten hours each day during the 1-2 March festival at Tempe Beach Park, where 21 musical acts played on two stages with staggered starting times, here’s our winning lineup (with the typical batting order of nine top-notch players). Not every performer was scouted for various reasons, but at least 12 artists (eight for the first time, including Dave Matthews Band) and three former major-league baseball players (on the Left Field stage) were seen. Here’s the best of the fest in no particular order, with names, starting times, days listed, and scouting notes using familiar baseball jargon. 

Batter up!

Top of the order 

1. Kaitlin Butts (1:35 pm, Friday)
2. Jade Bird (1:20 pm, Saturday)

Kaitlin Butts
Kaitlin Butts by Michael Bialas

The music they play is as different as night and day, and their homelands are separated geographically by the Atlantic Ocean, but Kaitlin Butts and Jade Bird did share something in common during this event. With acoustic guitars in hand, the singer-songwriters had the unenviable task of performing on the Home Plate stage about 24 hours apart while feeling the heat of a merciless shining sun focusing on them while the early afternoon crowd barely started trickling in. At least Butts had a backing band to provide musical support as she battled the sounds of jetliners flying overhead. Wearing cowgirl garb from head to toe, the fast-talking native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, performed some boot-scootin’ boogies that may make members of the opposite sex feel wary. Her set included “Roadrunner”, “Other Girls”, and “Hunt You Down” — a “love song with a little threat of murder” that she recently released.

Jade Bird
Jade Bird by Michael Bialas

Meanwhile, Bird, an English folk singer who sometimes delves into Americana/pop, endured the bright natural light by cracking jokes with a self-deprecating sense of humor while playing solo. “I’m so happy to be here. … I brought my coat all the way from England. (laughs) Didn’t need it, funny enough,” Bird shared, later adding to her woes by discovering the jacket had “bloody lining.” She also was open about multiple relationships that ended badly, laughing heartily about a previous fling with her touring guitarist that “didn’t go well”. Eventually, Bird gave in to her stubbornness, turning away from her usual “sad song, sad song, sad song” set list to play the lively “Now Is the Time,” which she said is “all about being out there.” Bird eventually decided to shed the jacket, embracing the warmth of the crowd in the Valley of the Sun instead. 

Hit-o-meter: Sharp singles past the hot corner. 

Talkin’ Baseball

3. Ryan Dempster, “Off the Mound” (Various times, Friday and Saturday)
4. Rollie Fingers (3:50 pm, Friday)

“Off the Mound” is an entertaining talk show hosted by Ryan Dempster, a 17-year MLB veteran pitcher (including nine seasons with the Chicago Cubs). His set on the Left Field stage looked somewhat similar to “The Tonight Show” during its heyday (when Johnny Carson, not Jay Leno, manned the desk). Dempster’s “Off the Mound” has appeared on the Marquee Sports Network and in podcast form, while his previous experience on MLB Network’s “Intentional Talk” and at the Cubs Convention makes him a natural for this hosting gig. 

Maybe he hasn’t quite achieved the legendary status of talk-meister Carson, but Dempster knew what names to drop in an opening monologue. He mentioned a recent hangout with Dennis Rodman (“who’s on a steady mix of Quaaludes and tequila”), Kid Rock, Cindy Crawford, John McEnroe, and Wayne Gretzky. 

Ryan Dempster by Michael Bialas

Though he didn’t break new ground, Dempster was an adept and earnest interviewer for guests like third baseman and three-time Gold Glove winner Evan Longoria, who had a significant role in leading the Arizona Diamondbacks into the World Series last October. Currently living in the Phoenix area while hoping to sign a free-agent contract with another team, Longoria replied to several questions presented by Dempster.  

On last season’s run to the World Series with the Diamondbacks: “The support that we had from the city was electric, man. It was really fun. I’ve lived here for 15-plus years and to be able to call last year home, you know, play for the home team, and live at home was super-special in its own right. The group [of current players] is really good. Young guys who are hungry. Really kind of like ignited that fire in me again, and special things happen when you get a group like that. So for all the D-backs fans that are out here [at Extra Innings], you guys got a pretty good group that I think is going to be good for a long time.”

On achieving superstar status with the Tampa Rays, an All-Star pick who also won Rookie of the Year in 2008 and helped his team reach the World Series: “For a long time, that felt like home. And we still have a home there. And we consider it kind of part two to our family that, yeah, it was just a lot of special times. We kind of created a culture and a winning vibe there, and they’ve kinda kept that going. And it’s been great to see. So it was hard to leave … but I don’t think I beat around the bush when I talked about … I hated leaving there. But, you know, it’s a business.” 

“Absolutely,” Dempster replied. “A $700 million business for some players. “Shohei Ohtani gets 700 million dollars [to join the Dodgers]! Is that crazy, or what? (To Longoria:) Part of you is like, ‘Man, I’d just give anything to be another 15 years younger.’” 

Rollie Fingers
Rollie Fingers by Michael Bialas

Rollie Fingers, one of several former major leaguers on hand during the festivities, might be thinking the same thing, too. Born in 1946, the Hall of Fame right-handed pitcher who played for the Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, and Milwaukee Brewers was an American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner. He also was the World Series MVP in 1974 with the A’s, finishing the club’s championship three-peat feat with a victory in the opener that season and three saves to close out the Los Angeles Dodgers in five games of the best-of-seven series. 

Fifty years later, he was standing on a makeshift field that served as a Speed Pitch station for Extra Innings festivalgoers. The mission this day for Fingers, who still sports his trademark handlebar mustache that made him the Snidely Whiplash of the major leagues, was to meet and greet fans with a wide smile, chat briefly, then autograph their baseball paraphernalia.  

Back in those championship days with the A’s, Fingers happily agreed to a clause in his contract from team owner Charlie Finley that paid the valuable closer $300 to keep his famous mustache, along with $100 more to have it stylishly waxed. Talk about lip service. 

Speed pitch-o-meter for both: Not quite 100 mph to the plate, but baseball fans will buy what they’re selling, 100 percent.

Home-field Advantage

5. Gin Blossoms (5:45 pm, Saturday)

“Hello, we’re the Gin Blossoms, your favorite band from Tempe, Arizona,” frontman Kim Wilson enthusiastically announced during their opening number, “Follow You Down”. The familiar 1996 tune helped the group achieve mainstream success through a steady stream of hits and gold and platinum records before they broke up in 1997 and then reunited in 2001. 

“We’ve returned to our hometown to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and we are all out of bubblegum,” the tambourine-wielding and engaging lead singer added before finishing the song and toasting the crowd on the first of several occasions.

Gin Blossoms by Michael Bialas

The AOR sounds continued as the local connection — “My favorite thing about coming home to Tempe is the smell of weed,” said Wilson, cracking up the audience — served them well. While not getting overly excited by some of the sleepier numbers (“As Long as It Matters”, anybody?), the throng was an impressive draw to the Right Field stage. Despite its more bucolic setting and wide-open spaces, the set-up at the opposite end of the park was somewhat relegated to second-class status compared to the flood of fans showing up at Home Plate for acts like Chris Stapleton, Noah Kahan, and the Dave Matthews Band. 

So “Hey Jealousy”, perhaps the Gin Blossoms’ most identifiable number, earned its rightful place in the pantheon of Tempe’s most recognized, if not necessarily respected, rock bands. 

Hit-o-meter: Line drives launched into the gap between center and (where else?) right field.

Designated Hitters 

6. Chris Stapleton (9:30 pm, Friday)
7. Dave Matthews Band (9:00 pm, Saturday)

As free swingers in a lineup of capable, consistent players who know how to score, these Kings of Clout seemingly could do no wrong in front of the masses that turned out for the closing acts each night. Chris Stapleton predictably opened his Friday set with “White Horse”, the stirring lead single from Higher, his most recent album, released last July. 

“Hello, Arizona. I’m not gonna do a whole lot of talkin’ tonight,” Stapleton said in a slow country drawl, finally addressing the audience about 12 minutes and three tunes into a 20-song set. His goal was to play as many as he and his band could in “the allotted time that we have,” which was 90 minutes to beat the 11 p.m. curfew. 

Featuring a mix of originals and covers, he included the SteelDrivers’ “Midnight Train to Memphis”, Kevin Welch’s “Millionaire” (Duh!) and “Tennessee Whiskey”, the David Allan Coe classic (also recorded by George Jones). The track appeared on 2015’s Traveller, Stapleton’s studio album debut, and typically closes most nights on this native Kentuckian’s “All-American Road Show” tour. Of course, even before 10:30, a surprising number of concertgoers were streaming out of the park, perhaps for some much-needed rest before getting ready for another full day and night of festivities. 

Dave Matthews by Michael Bialas

Fast-forward 23 and a half hours after Stapleton’s start to the Dave Matthews Band, who closed out the two-day event. 

The affable Matthews wasted no time in greeting a wild bunch packed around the Home Run stage, along with folks trying to get a better view while standing on a nearby bridge. Finally, exceeding the capacity level, festival staff prevented others from joining them, citing safety issues. Perhaps the star of the show was also unaware that several spectators near the front of the stage were removed by swarthy security guards just minutes before he reached his mic. (No other information was available.) “Hello. Hope you’re having a lovely day,” the South Africa-born Matthews politely pronounced about seven minutes after opening with the jazzy “#41”. “Thank you for sticking around. I hope that you continue to have a lovely day. Thank you very much. I hope that we have fun together.” 

That they did, as Matthews & Co. immediately turned to an incredibly exuberant version of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” that rocked for nearly six and a half minutes, requiring no additional encouragement to get people on their feet. Mainstays such as “Crash Into Me” and “Too Much” kept the momentum going, along with covers of Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round in Circles” and ZZ Top’s “Cheap Sunglasses”.  

While mixing it up by playing other performers’ songs is a treat, selections from Matthews’ catalog — past, present, and future — will forever be a part of DMB followers’ universal jam. 

Hit-o-meter: Stapleton — Intentional walks limited his number of big swings for the fences; Dave Matthews Band — Since every song was a hit, they batted 1.000. 

Delivering in the Clutch

8. Christone “Kingfish” Ingram (3:05 pm, Friday)
9. Larkin Poe (3:35 pm Saturday)

Full disclosure: I interviewed both performers (and Grammy winners) before the festival began, so already knew what they were capable of accomplishing. While it was my first time seeing “Kingfish” on stage, he exceeded my expectations. In Larkin Poe’s case, their double-barreled blast of action only added to my fondness for the sister act that revamped the folky Lovell Sisters trio into a rock ’n’ roll duo in 2014, when their debut album was released. 

The Delta blues musician known as “Kingfish” was simply superb, a breath of fresh air who brought a jolt of energy to the proceedings along with his powerful backing band — bassist Paul Rogers, drummer Christopher Black, and keyboardist Deshawn Alexander. 

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram by Michael Bialas

This Mississippi Kingfish is a master of the Telecaster who might deserve recent comparisons to blues greats like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Jimi Hendrix (his soulful singing on the closing “Hey Joe” cover was a nice touch, too). If anyone who hasn’t seen him perform live dares to question his prowess, check out the Grammy-nominated Live in London (Expanded Edition), which includes most (if not all) the numbers he played on the Home Plate stage. A 2022 Grammy winner (Best Contemporary Blues Album), his seemingly effortless shredding on different hues of blues like “She Calls Me Kingfish”, “Empty Promises”, “Fresh Out”, and “Long Distance Woman” are powerful enough to make a grown man cry. 

Make no mistake — Kingfish Krushed it. 

Then there were Megan and Rebecca Lovell, the self-proclaimed Georgia peaches more commonly known these days as the duo Larkin Poe. The minute they hit the Right Field stage in Tempe, they struck solid gold – a piece of which should go on their mantelpiece alongside the Grammy gramophones they picked up in February for Blood Harmony, released in November 2022, also winning Best Contemporary Blues Album. 

Static electricity personified, the sisters began their set by turning it up to 11 on Rebecca’s guitar and Megan’s lap steel for a piece of cherry pie on “Summertime Sunset”. Kicking out the jams while belting the blues, Rebecca’s fiery vocals on the blazing Blood Harmony track probably shook the living daylights out of anyone there who wasn’t familiar with Larkin Poe. After racing through the Allman Brothers’ instrumental “Jessica”, the onslaught continued with kid sister/lead vocalist Rebecca’s inspiring intro to the crowd, which she just gripped tightly into the palm of her hand: “Ladies and gentlemen, how are we doing this afternoon? It is our distinct pleasure today up here making some music for you. Our very first festival of the year!”

Larkin Poe by Michael Bialas

There was no letting up throughout the hourlong set, which included support from touring band members Tarka Layman (bass) and Ben Satterlee (drums). More songs from Blood Harmony (“Kick the Blues”, highlighting the work of big sis/“slide princess” Megan; “Georgia Off My Mind”, “Might as Well Be Me”) were featured, along with smart choices off other studio albums such as Self Made Man (“She’s a Self Made Man”) Venom & Faith (“Bleach Blonde Bottle Blues”) and Peach (“Wanted Woman”). 

They saved one of their best from Blood Harmony for one of their last, though. “I hope this is a rock ’n’ roll response to Mr. ‘Screamin’ Jay’ Hawkins”, Rebecca howled, in reference to the Cleveland R&B artist whose “I Put a Spell on You” was released in 1956. 

Asked in our interview what tune Larkin Poe might perform to win over an audience by, using baseball parlance, knocking it out of the park, Rebecca remarked, I’d vote for our song ‘Bad Spell’. … It’s a pretty strong representation of what we love to do: big bluesy guitar riffs, rock ‘n’ roll attitude, and lots of imagery in the lyrics.” 

You better believe it, baby. They don’t mince words:

“Boy, you cast a bad spell / A bad spell over me / You better beware, you better take good care / I’m a get ya, it’s a guarantee.”

Larkin Poe lyrics from “Bad Spell”

That six-minute performance was a home run in any major-league stadium. Welcome to the Show, Larkin Poe. 

Hit-o-meter: Ingram — If anyone has the power to smash a 500-foot round-tripper with a Telecaster Deluxe, it’s this Clarksdale Slugger; Larkin Poe — Paraphrasing the immortal words of Harry Caray: “It might be … it could be … it is! Holy cow! A game-winning grand slam! These sisters really are some kind of players.”