Live Review: Minus 5, Baseball Project, Steve Wynn 4, San Francisco, CA, Aug. 30, 2009


Scott McCaughey, Steve Wynn, Peter Buck and Linda Pitmon, the foursome who cut an album in 2008 as the Baseball Project, swung for the fences at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall before a modest-sized crowd whose enthusiasm overcame its lack of numbers. Most of those who showed up seemed to be either longtime McCaughey and Wynn devotees or friends of the musicians. Or both.

It didn’t take white home uniforms or grey road ones for the fans to tell who was who onstage. Wynn and Pitmon looked every inch the sharp, uptown New Yorkers. McCaughey and Buck, neither of whom has visited the barber all season, could’ve been mistaken for former members of Seattle-area grunge-meisters the Screaming Trees. It was like the odd couple times two. But not when it came to the music.

McCaughey and Wynn, both lifelong baseball fans who’d dreamed of writing paeans to their boyhood heroes, made it all come true with Frozen Ropes And Dying Quails (Yep Roc). To fill out the lineup card for live shows, the foursome pumped up the concept by adding songs from Killingsworth (Yep Roc), the current release of McCaughey and Buck’s combo the Minus 5, and Wynn’s most recent solo outing, Crossing Dragon Bridge (Rock Ridge). Of course, they also ladled plenty of caramel over the Cracker Jack in the form of vintage Wynn-penned, nuevo-psych classics by the Dream Syndicate and a few reckless, last-chance power-drives from McCaughey’s Young Fresh Fellows. Sprinkle on a few peanuts in the form of Wynn’s collaboration with Gutterball, and nobody walked away hungry. Some could barely walk at all by night’s end.

“Past Time,” the Baseball Project tune that got national exposure on Letterman recently, was a fitting introduction to the baseball concept. As its lyrics state: “One thing you can say about the game is it’s not getting any faster,” which brings up the hardball question: “Pastime, are you past your prime?” A guarded “no” is probably the correct answer here.

“Here’s a song about the man who helped A-Rod make $30 million a year,” smirked McCaughey, introducing “Gratitude (For Curt Flood),” about the Cardinals outfielder whose lawsuit brought about free agency for baseball players—a move that came too late for Flood, himself. Afterward, McCaughey asked Wynn if he remembered that mean-spirited, live bootleg album that captured only the off-key vocals of Linda McCartney on a Paul McCartney & Wings tour. “My career could be in ruins if somebody’s recording us tonight,” moaned McCaughey, even though his angelic tenor sounded just fine.

McCaughey dedicated the poignant “Sometimes I Dream Of Willie Mays” to his dad, the man who ferried the youngster 50 miles up the peninsula from their Saratoga, Calif., home to windblown Candlestick Park. The most interesting of the baseball songs was “Harvey Haddix,” the sad tale of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who threw 12 perfect innings—36 batters faced, 36 outs—only to lose the game and his no-hitter in the unlucky 13th inning.

The first 10 minutes of each of the two sets tonight felt like the early innings of some baseball games: more like a tentative game of catch between the pitcher and the catcher. Not a lot of action. Things really got heated when Wynn brought his flamethrowing Dream Syndicate tunes out of the bullpen. “That’s What You Always Say,” “Tell Me When It’s Over” and “The Days Of Wine And Roses” sounded almost as tree-defoliating as the original Syndicate lineup of Wynn, guitarist Karl Precoda, bassist Kendra Smith and drummer Dennis Duck. Wynn and McCaughey took turns playing Precoda’s squirrelly leads and sometimes went toe to toe, a la Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. But Wynn missed a golden opportunity to bring up a famed remark by venerated Giants announcer Russ Hodges, who once referred to the Phillies infield of the ’60s as “the days of (Bobby) Wine and (Cookie) Rojas.” The unflappable Buck and the power-flapping Pitmon, who stuck exclusively to bass and drums, respectively, were a monstrous rhythm section all night long.

McCaughey’s country-ish “Dark Hand Of Contagion,” with Wynn and Pitmon taking the background vocals originally cut by Portland girl group the SheBeeGees, sounded a little like American Beauty-era Grateful Dead, even without the pedal-steel guitar. Wynn’s signature Dream Syndicate song, “The Medicine Show,” may seem like it has tent-show roots, but it really has more in common with Appalachian murder ballads and the Carter Family than snake oil and bottles of nerve tonic.

You knew they were getting ready to outline the bodies with chalk and seal off the area with crime-scene tape when the quartet dug into “Revolution Blues,” Neil Young’s fairly obscure rocker from On The Beach. Even Young, himself, might’ve followed up that mayhem-inducer with McCaughey’s bellowing “Shit Man.” (If he knew the tune.) And how better to end this blissfully long night than with a ripsnorting version of Great Pacific Northwest eardrum-shredder “Strychnine” from what may have been the best rock ‘n’ roll band of all time, the Sonics.

As a good-night salute, the ever sharp McCaughey said, “Rock ‘n’ roll music appreciates your dedication to rock ‘n’ roll music.” It was enough to finish off what equilibrium remained after a dizzying evening of, you guessed it, rock ‘n’ roll music.

—Jud Cost

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