Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dead Again - Buffalo 4/21/09

When The Dead announced they were putting together a limited tour run, I was both intrigued and frightened at the prospect. Intrigued, of course, because the once epic sound and atmosphere of what is left of the Grateful Dead was coming to Buffalo. Frightened because, well, it is 2009, these guys are in the mid-sixties (mid-sixties takes on a different tone when it is an age, not an era), and one Jerome John Garcia would not be stage left. I have seen the many different incarnations of group and individual bands over the years – Ratdog, Phil & Friends, Other Ones, The Dead, and even Mickey’s band – and quite honestly they spanned the spectrum for me of ok to very good, rarely if ever hitting great/unbelievable on the meter. There have been moments, but nothing really consistently driving.
In addition, the apparent sell out to high ticket prices and using a ticket system that was blatantly looking to maximize their dime, made me sick. Long story short, I was online for the pre-sale, their lousy technology made it a 75 minute ordeal, they finally showed decent/mediocre seats after three rounds of lousy seats, so I took them. They then opened up far better seats in the days and weeks to come – give the rabid fan getting seats the first minute (or 75) mediocre seats so the casual fan is more likely to plop down a C-note on a good seat. Sham. Shameful. Plus the overall political shenanigans (whether you are right, left, or center), having Tipper Gore on stage with them in DC, to appearing on the View all make me a bit sick – especially after the GD was so blatantly apolitical all of their careers. Once again, chalk it up to “it is, what it is…”

In addition, one major issue I have personally had with all these post-Garcia bands is that they play too much Garcia material and almost lean on it. In a way, I think that diminishes Weir’s, and somewhat Phil’s, writing and performing of many mainstays of the GD catalog. Unlike some Heads out there who discredit and don’t like Bobby, I have always liked him – rock & roll star and all.

Let’s touch on the departed Garcia for a moment, even though it is all very well documented. Jerry was obviously the leader of the band, and supposedly a reluctant leader. He was a talented guitar player whose sound really defined the band. However, he lent much more - he truly provided a legitimacy to the music because he was a true music encyclopedia who infused all the different styles of music to the band’s repertoire – folk, bluegrass, pychedelia, rock & roll, and let’s not forget the beautiful ballad that I have trouble slotting into a genre. He embodied the music and gave it the sincerity, respect, drive, and ultimately the je ne sais quoi that I, and many, have been embodied with.

On to the show and this particular band. I came to the conclusion that the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The four – Bob, Phil, Billy, and Mickey – are much better together than the sum of their individual bands because they have more of the GD sound than any of their individual bands. In addition to the original four, they added keyboard player Jeff Chimenti, who is outstanding. He probably could have taken the bench at anytime as the Grateful Dead and fit in perfectly fine. He seemed to be a fine blend of 65% Brent and 35% Keith, adding both texture and melodic highlights.

Warren Haynes had the most difficult job of the night and of the tour, but I can’t think of a better person to fill the role. He did not attempt to simply mimic Garcia’s style or licks, nor did he try to change it up too much to make it all his own. Haynes is a consummate professional, who really did it justice by playing a style reminiscent of Garcia at times, but putting his own mark at the same time. He walked that line particularly well, in my opinion, and he is a great guitarist. His vocals also added a great deal to the show. Honestly, I don’t know how the guy does it and how he keeps all the music straight – he must play 250++ dates per year between Gov. Mule, Allmans, Dead/Phil, and other miscellaneous projects. Another music junkie!

The band has been pulling out old nugget after old nugget out in the first six shows before landing in Buffalo. The likes of St. Stephen, The Eleven, Cream Puff War, Alligator, Born Cross-eyed, New Potato Caboose, and more, have been unearthed. Unbelievable – one side of me thinks how great it is, another side of me thinks they are trying too hard! Stuff that never saw the light of day past 1969.

However, Buffalo would be a more traditional show without any big bombs, and truthfully, that was fine by me. Yes, it would have been great to hear one of the old-time great tunes, but at this point I was looking for some live Grateful Dead music, because it is all good.
Ø They opened up with a very nice and upbeat Promised Land. Nice, traditional start as far as I was concerned, and a Bobby tune (cover of course…) to boot.
Ø Next they did a very nice They Love Each Other, with a nice hint of reggae groove. Warren took the vocals, some nice extended jams, and took a nice little ditty of a typical Garcia love song to an 11 minute groove.
Ø When the first bars of Mama Tried emanated, I was ear to ear – a cowboy tune!! Bobby seemingly doesn’t like the cowboy tunes much anymore, and it drives me crazy because that is what I want to hear! Nice hippie take on Merle Haggard, as always.
Ø Another heavy duty Garcia tune followed – Loser. Well played and sung mostly by Weir, they did a nice job with the song – again clocking in at 11minutes.
Ø Next, a nice surprise with Smokestack Lightning. I was loving life with another “Bobby” tune, but oddly Warren took the lead vocals. Haynes has a very soulful voice that plays very well with the blues, and he sounded great. Just a great blues tune.
Ø Stella Blue was unexpected and one of those Garcia ballads I would rather leave alone, however as soon as I think that, I find myself enjoying the rendition. They do a very good job with these tunes, no matter if I think they ‘should’ be playing them or not. 12 minutes, and very emotionally charged, “Dust off those rusty strings, just one more time…Gonna make ‘em shine” line, but I am sure it lost some people.
Ø More Bob coming up with All Over Now – one of the great old time cover tunes around...heck, it was the Stones first number one single in the UK!
Ø I headed for the men’s room toward the end because they have been playing 7 song first sets, but hey hey…another cowboy song – Big River!! I danced in the aisle-way for this one, and what a great song. Two cowboy songs in the first set – I was happy!
Ø First set was 65 minutes, well played, traditional 8 song first set – nice!
Ø The second set started after a 40 a minute set break. The tingling of Playin’ In The Band was being thrown around, and a 1973-ish, 17 minute version was being born. They played this song, always one of my favorites, very well with a long and expansive jam.
Ø Next was the closest thing we got to a nugget – Me & Bobby McGee. Wow, was this a good one - why didn’t they keep the tune in the repertoire through the 80’s and 90’s. Well performed and great to hear.
Ø Next were two crowd pleasers and Garcia tunes back to back – Loose Lucy and Ramble On Rose. Lucy was fun and light, as it should be, with some good sing-along. I believe they rotated the vocals around on this one.
Ø Ramble On Rose is just a great song and fun to hear and dance to. Again, like in Stella, it was tough to hear the ‘Take you to the leader of the band’ line without pining for the Fat Man. Are they going to play a 5 song pre-drums or how do they go into Drums from here? It was a bit disjointed, but they simply ended the tune, and Drumz ensued. Drumz began with Chimenti staying on electic organ to create a funky groove with the drummers. Some of it was interesting while parts were techno-sound annoying. Drumz finally took hold when Chimenti took a rest, and boy was it fun to see. Good stuff – truly a highlight, although a bit short with only the drummers working their magic. Space was far out and probably dragged a bit for some, and lost others, but I appreciate it – especially when you only see it 3 times in 15 years!
Ø Coming out of Drums, they noodled in different directions, but then oddly and rather awkwardly fell into a Maggies Farm. It was ok, but did not seem to fit well in that slot. Still a great tune, and any time a Dylan tune is played, it has to be taken seriously.
Ø While I am not usually in favor of Garcia tunes without The Man actually playing on them, next was one of my top GD tunes – Eyes of the World. I just love the song – the melody, timing, crescendos, the hippy-dippy optimism. Everything. Lead vocals were traded between Bob, Phil, and Warren. They did a nice job, although it is a tough Garcia tune to really shoot a bulls-eye because, to me, the song wreaks of him. I liked it a lot, and it took me to another place, as all good music should.
Ø They noodled more and hinted back into Playin’ several times. They couldn’t just go back into a Playin’ before they do one more song – could they? Yes, they did. I love the Playin’ Reprise to close the show, and while I like the fact that Warren Haynes did not try to copy Garcia verbatim on most of his licks, this is one place where I wish he had. That ending to Playin’ (or in the Reprise as the case may be) is one of my all time favorite Garcia riffs – I can still envision myself standing in Soldier Field, or other venues, with that ripping riff growling out at me and loving the fact it was slaying me. Not tonight, but a nice ending to the set, albeit a song short for my personal liking!
Ø I wanted a Box of Rain so badly I can’t tell you (they played it last night in Wilkes Barre). I wanted a Phil tune, on top of the fact that Phil did not take the vocals much at all the entire night, which was odd. Instead we got an all too cliché Truckin’ as the encore. Yes, it was well played. Yes, it is a consummate Bobby tune. Yes, it is a great song. However, too predictable for me.

Overall, it was a very good show and well worth going to. Don’t think it warrants traveling for, nor do I think it is worth making the effort to see multiple shows, but if you have a chance for a local show, I recommend seeing it. However, one aspect does indeed lend itself to seeing multiple shows is the fact they are playing a ton of different material and you never know what you will get.

The sound was very good, however the vocal mix was a bit low in spots. I believe some of the vocal issues come down to the fact that Weir has lost some of the power that his vocals used to feature and demand. The stage set up was traditional and as I remember it. However, the light show seemed to be lacking. We had just ok seats (see ticket issues above) but I thought to myself that it was just as good we were far enough away not to see them up close – the Stones Imax film killed me with all the wrinkles and veins! It has always been bizarre to me that Weir went to the longer grey hair with bushy beard and mustache after Garcia passed – there was not a big screen in the place, and I was fine at a bit of a distance.
The circus was indeed in town! The weather was mediocre at best, although the rain thankfully held off, and there was a smallish Shakedown Street set up. Complete with kind veggie burritos, grilled cheese, beer ($3 now!), big looners, pipes, clothes, and the ubiquitous smell of patchouli in the air.

Make no mistake – this is not the Grateful Dead that we once saw. However, they were very good, and it was a really enjoyable to see them. The depth of material these guys are playing really is remarkable. Only three repeated tunes through the first 6 shows is incredible, and there have been some pretty obscure and daring attempts. Truly great live music allows me to shut down and turn introspective for periods of time, and this one qualified there. One of the omnipotent thoughts I had was that life is nowhere as simple as it once was (not a huge revelation), and nor do I make it that way for myself. Racing off to Chicago, Alpine, or NYC for shows in the late 80’s and early 90’s on a whim were all too good of days that I am certainly glad I had and shared with the closest of friends.
All the years combine, they melt into a dream…

(Set 1)Promised Land, They Love Each Other, Mama Tried, Loser, Smokestack Lightning, Stella Blue, It's All Over Now, Big River
(Set 2)Playing In The Band, Me and Bobby McGee, Loose Lucy, Ramble On Rose, Rhythm Devils, Space, Maggie's Farm, Eyes of the World, Playing In The Band, (Encore)Truckin'

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Isaiah Thomas - FIU Coach

There is no way this turns out badly. After all, Isiah has been successful everywhere he's been...

I'm not sure how the interview went at Florida International for Isiah to actually land this job. Maybe something like this...

FIU: So, Mr. Thompson...
IT: Please, call me Isiah.
FIU: Okay, Isiah. So I've looked at your resume and I find it very interesting. You claim to have been the commissioner of a minor league professional basketball organization called the CBA, but I can't find any record of it's existence. Can you please explain?
IT: Well, it went bankrupt shortly after I left. Of course it was not because of anything I did during my tenure as league commissioner. I actually turned down an offer of $11 million from the NBA to buy the league and essentially be its minor league affiliate. It didn't seem like a fair price.
FIU: I see (scratches head, writes note). So tell me about your experience as a head coach with the Indiana Pacers.
IT: Well, I took my team to the playoffs for three straight years.
FIU: That's right, I remember that. Didn't you go to the conference finals or something like that?
IT: Well, actually Larry Bird took them to the conference finals the year before I got there. We lost in the first round in each of the seasons I was the head coach.
FIU: I see (scribbles note). So, you then became President of Basketball Operations for the Knicks. Tell me about some of your most successful contribution in that position.
IT: Let's see. I was able to parlay two high first round draft picks and get talented young big man Eddy Curry from the Bulls. I hired Larry Brown. I signed Jerome James...
FIU: Okay, I get it. Let's move on. After you fired your hand picked head coach, Larry Brown, after just one year and replaced him with yourself, how would you assess your performance as head coach of the Knicks?
IT: I feel we performed up to the talent level that the GM gave me.
FIU: Um, but weren't you the GM?
IT: Technically, but Mr. Dolan signs the checks.
FIU: Okay. Well, Mr. Thompson, I don't see anything here that would make this look like a good hire. I'm gonna have a hard time selling this to the board of regents. You seem to have failed at every job you've had since your playing career ended. In addition, I seem to remember some sort of a sexual harassment lawsuit against you and the Knicks. Convince me that you are the right coach to usher in a new era of basketball for Florida International.
IT: Well, the Knicks are still paying me. I'll work for free.
FIU: You're hired. I'll set up a press conference...

FIU = Failure Is Unavoidable

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych - RIP

I was in the kitchen last night making pizza, when my wife turned the TV channel to the news. The first thing I heard was Katie Couric talking about Mark Fidrych. Uh oh. Then, the kicker: The Bird was dead at the age of 54. My mind immediately flashed back to the summer of 1976, when I was just ten years old. The Detroit Tigers were not very good that year. As a team, they won just 74 games, but the Michigan summer was electrified by the emergence of a young 21-year-old phenom by the name of Mark Fidrych. He pitched a complete game in his first start (a 2-hitter over the Indians), and believe it or not it got better and better throughout the summer. Not only did Fidrych have a great season statistically, but his quirky game day antics became a national phenomenon. On the mound, he would seemingly talk to the ball. Between innings, he would get down on his hands and knees and manicure the mound by hand until he got it just right. He was a lovable country redneck from rural Massachusetts. He was a breath of fresh air.

I have been a Tiger fan since my early childhood - as far back as my memory can take me. I remember going to Tiger stadium when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old with my dad. I remember seeing lots of different Tiger players in my formative years: Gates Brown, Joe Coleman, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich, John Hiller, Ron LeFlore, Dick McCauliffe, Aurelio Rodriguez, Bill Freehan, Al Kaline, Mickey Stanley. But no one really captured my childhood imagination until Mark Fidrych. He was one of a kind. He had the kind of season that young pitchers dream of when they get drafted out of high school. He won 19 games versus 9 losses that season. He had 24 complete games out of 29 starts (for context, the major league leader in complete games this past season was CC Sabathia - he had ten). He had four shutouts. He started the All-Star Game for the AL. Reportedly, teams begged the Tigers to change their rotation to allow him to pitch certain games in their stadiums. Attendance at Tiger Stadium soared when Fidrych was pitching.

Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury early in the 1977 season and was never the same again. He was on a similar pace with 7 complete games in 11 starts prior to his injury. After coming back from the knee problem, arm problems followed. He was out of the majors for good after the 1980 season.

After his baseball career was over, he owned a trucking company and just became a "regular guy." He seemingly never had any regrets about his shortened career, and he never expressed any bitterness. he was happy to have had the time he had. As Neil Young might say, "It's better to burn out than to fade away." Fidrych burned brighter than anyone in the summer of '76, and his flame was extinguished just as quickly.

"The Tale of Mark Fidrych" is probably one significant reason that teams are now so careful with pitchers. They monitor pitch counts. They monitor innings. They try to avoid extreme increases in innings pitched from year to year. If such care would have been taken with Fidrych, perhaps he would have had a more productive overall career. But it may have also robbed us of that one magical season, when a colorful character called "The Bird" let us fly with him.

"That ball has a hit in it, so I want to get back in the ball bag and goof around with the other balls in there. Maybe it'll learn some sense and come out as a pop-up next time." - Mark Fidrych (1976)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Masters Lookalikes, Volume 2

Well, it's that time of year again. April is an outstanding month for sports: MLB opening day, Final Four, NFL Draft, NCAA spring practice, and of course The Masters. I did this lookalike thing last year, and I enjoyed it, so let's have another go at it, shall we? I will not repeat any from last time, so if think of a good lookalike, check on the previous post and see if it was covered already:

Miguel Angel Jimenez - The Most Interesting Man In The World (Dos Equis TV commercials)

I think this one's more for his smoky voice and accent than it is for his actual looks. They both smoke cigars and travel the world. Stay thirsty, my friends...

Luke Donald - Soren Kjeldsen - actor Neil Patrick Harris
Could there be two golfers who look like Doogie Howser/Barney Stinson? Apparently there are at least two entered in The Masters this week. Each has a forehead that won't quit - more like a "five-head." Hey-o....

Larry Mize - UNC head coach Roy Williams
A former Masters champion, and a current NCAA champion...

Craig Stadler - a walrus

The main difference between these two - one has whiskers and a 6" thick layer of blubber to keep himself warm during the inactive winter months, and the other is a flippered marine mammal.

Soren Hansen - actor Paul Lieberstein (Toby Flenderson from "The Office")

Kevin Sutherland - actor Jack McBrayer (Kenneth from "30 Rock")
They both have an "aw shucks" quality.
"Gee Mr. Donaghy, I think you're the best boss ever."
"Gee Mr. Woods, you sure can putt real good?"

Carl Petterson - actor Larry Joe Campbell from "According to Jim"

Alvaro Quiros - actor Sacha Baron Cohen from "Borat"

Add your suggestions in the comments and I'll try to add as the day progresses.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Michigan Coaching Change

Ann Arbor, MI -- In an unprecedented move, the University of Michigan Athletic Department has announced that they have terminated the contract of head football coach Rich Rodriguez after just one season on the job. Athletic Director Bill Martin stated that "the team was not progressing at a satisfactory pace," and that coach Rod's methods were not "Michigan-like" enough. Martin also cited the high rate of transfers out of the program since coach Rod took over, including presumed starters Sam McGuffie, Ryan Mallett, Steven Threet, Justin Boren, and Toney Clemens. He also noted that he had been contacted earlier this week by coach Bo Schembechler himself, who told him that he needed to find a new coach who didn't run some sort of newfangled fancy offense, and preferably one who is more surly with the media. Martin further explained that the coaching search will begin immediately. Martin is awaiting further instructions from Bo as to the potential candidates, but speculation is running rampant that candidates will include Lloyd Carr, Mike DeBord, Stan Parrish, Gary Moeller, Jerry Hanlon, Les Miles, Corwin Brown, Jim Harbaugh, Mike Trgovac, Jamie Morris, Mark Messner, and Todd Bowles. Bo is expected to re-appear in Martin's dreams in the next few days.

Updates will be reported on this site as news develops.