Monday, January 19, 2015

Great Expectations? For NC State Baseball, Thanks But No Thanks

Forget about pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. College baseball season begins in less than a month. For NC State, the 2015 season means that the Wolfpack’s Gold Dust Era is finally in the rear-view mirror. Good riddance.

With apologies to Charles Dickens, the last three years were the best of times and the worst of times for NC State baseball. With future first-round draft picks Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner constantly in the headlines, the Wolfpack found itself front and center in the national spotlight for the first time, with very mixed results. For three years, NC State experienced euphoric highs and disappointing lows. Now, the lights are off and everyone seems to be breathing a sigh of relief.

The Gold Dust Era began well enough. The Pack caught a lot of people by surprise when Rodon and Turner were freshmen in 2012, winning 43 games and advancing to the NCAA Super Regional before falling on the road to top-ranked Florida. Expectations ratcheted up significantly a year later, and NC State rode a razor’s edge of excruciating, low-scoring thrillers all the way to Omaha and the 2013 College World Series, ending a 45-year CWS drought. Rodon and Turner returned to headline a heralded junior class a year ago, and for a number of reasons the expectations became completely unrealistic. NC State found itself ranked No. 6 in the nation in the preseason, then barely limped into the play-in round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament before failing to earn an NCAA regional bid for the first since 2009.

The glare of the spotlight brings unavoidable and unwanted distractions. With Rodon and Turner eligible for the 2014 draft, weekends at Doak Field became a side show. On many a Friday night at the Doak, fans rubbed elbows with national media members; major league scouts, cross checkers and scouting directors; MLB general managers and team presidents; and high-profile player agents along with their sycophants and entourages.

Those types of distractions are tough enough for good teams to overcome. For a struggling, overmatched and pitching-challenged team like the 2014 Wolfpack, those distractions added a surreal, almost science-fiction-like quality to what already was a nightmare of a season. A three-year era, one that began with such promise and included so many thrills, ended with a thud and a 32-23 record.

Although he’d never say so for public consumption, it’s a safe bet that no one was happier to see 2014 end than NC State coach Elliott Avent. Heading into the season, Avent had to know the preseason expectations for his team were absurd. While then-sophomores Rodon, Turner, Brett Austin, Jake Fincher, Logan Ratledge and Logan Jernigan got all the attention on that 2013 CWS team, Avent knew better than anyone that it was his senior class, not his sophomores, who were most responsible for the trip to Omaha.

It was seniors Tarran Senay, Brett Williams, Grant Clyde and Bryan Adametz who provided the grit, toughness and leadership — along with much of the production — in the everyday lineup. It was seniors Grant Sasser, Chris Overman, Josh Easley and Ethan Ogburn who pitched the bulk of the innings out of what was probably the best bullpen in the country, a bullpen that saved an underwhelming starting rotation over and over again.

With those seniors gone, Avent knew that 2014 was fraught with peril. Leadership proved to be an issue all season. The everyday lineup was top-heavy with Austin, Turner and freshman wunderkind Andrew Knizner doing almost all of the heavy lifting. The senior-laden bullpen of 2013 gave way to a patchwork of transfers, bandits, unproven underclassmen and true freshmen who threw hard but couldn’t throw strikes. It was a disaster waiting to happen. At times Avent did his best to downplay the expectations, but at other times he yielded to his inner child and boasted of possible parades in downtown Raleigh come July. That didn’t help, to understate the obvious.

And so the Wolfpack and its beleaguered head coach enter 2015 with a sense of relief and anticipation. Those who expected fall practices to be a train wreck had to have been pleasantly surprised. The 2015 Wolfpack will not feature the front-line talents of a Rodon or a Turner (although as Knizner’s transition to catcher continues, he could be a huge attraction a year from now). Instead, the Pack will be young, hungry and coachable, and will play with an energy and passion that fans should quickly recognize and appreciate. A promising but unproven pitching staff could be a work in progress deep into the season as new pitching coach Scott Foxhall sorts out the many talented arms at his disposal. The lineup won’t have an Austin or a Turner at the top, but should be deeper and feature more power, something Avent will welcome with open arms after the speedy but offensively challenged Punch-and-Judy offenses of the last two years. And this Wolfpack team should be one of Avent’s best defensive units.

Expectations, of course, will be the key. A year ago, the world expected nothing less than a return trip to the College World Series. For that team, 32-23 was a realistic but bitter disappointment. This time around, the Wolfpack may not be picked as high as No. 6 in the ACC’s Atlantic Division and definitely won’t be in anyone’s preseason rankings. Given those expectations, 32-23 might look pretty good.

Historically, Avent’s teams have performed best and overachieved when little was expected. That’s not to say this team will be in the NCAA Tournament come June, or even on the bubble when the tournament pairings are announced. There are far too many unanswered questions to make such assumptions at this point. But don’t be too quick to write this team off. After last year’s Fun Bunch, in many ways this team will have an easy act to follow.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Springsteen At The Agora Goes Over The Counter

As someone noted some time ago, the Grateful Dead had it right all along. We’re talking about bootlegs here, and the only surprise is that it took other artists so long to figure it out.

Bootleg recordings, especially jazz and classical bootlegs, have been around forever. Rock bootlegs came onto the scene in the late 1960s with Great White Wonder, a now-legendary Bob Dylan bootleg LP, and soon became a booming (if illegal) industry and remained so until the internet made free bootlegs downloads as easy as a couple of keystrokes.

While most artists cried foul and screamed bloody murder at the mere thought of bootleg recordings, the Grateful Dead quickly recognized that bootlegs weren’t going away and instead got ahead of the curve. The Dead not only encouraged their fans to tape their shows, but the group’s sound engineers often aided fans by showing them the optimal locations for microphone placement and the proper settings to get the best possible sound.

The Dead took matters a step further by releasing an avalanche of concert recordings from their own vaults, starting in the early 1990s with One From The Vault and following that with the highly successful Dick’s Picks series. The Dead’s back catalogue now features several lines of great sounding concert recordings.

It took a while, but other artists finally began to follow the Dead’s lead. Bob Dylan’s outstanding bootleg series is now up to 11 essential volumes with the official release of The Basement Tapes, recorded in 1967 with the group that eventually came to be called The Band. Beginning in 2002, the Allman Brothers Band started releasing several of their classic performances from the early 1970s, then began collaborating with Live Nation to make Instant Live recordings of their concerts available to fans shortly after the completion of each show. Neil Young began emptying his archives for commercial release about 10 years ago. There are many others.

Free online bootleg downloads altered the equation a bit, but the fact remains that bootlegs are still bootlegs. Whether purchased surreptitiously at a hip record store or downloaded for free online, lack of proper engineering means sound quality will always be an issue with a bootleg, even with a soundboard concert recording.

That was the thought that prompted Bruce Springsteen to start his own live download site — A vocal opponent of bootlegs in his younger days, Springsteen apparently mellowed his stance over the years, and when a staff member pointed out to him the number of his live shows available on YouTube alone, Springsteen’s very admirable response was, “Well, we can do it better than that.”

And indeed they have. Springsteen began by selling fully mastered downloads of his 2014 world and U.S. tour shows on his own website, Those links were removed late last summer, but they’re back, now available for purchase on The 2014 tour recordings are, in fact, the backbone of the site’s available downloads, at least for the time being.

In time, we’re told, will feature a wealth of classic Springsteen concert recordings, and there is a bountiful body of work to pick from, judging from the multitude of Springsteen bootlegs long in circulation. The first archived show made available was the March 9, 2012, show from the Apollo Theater in New York City, an excellent show broadcast live on satellite radio, but hardly one of Springsteen’s many essential vintage performances.

The second release, however, Aug. 9, 1978, from the Agora Theater in Cleveland, Ohio, is an all-out classic, a legendary performance from what many believe to have been Springsteen’s best and most musically intense tour, the Darkness On The Edge Of Town tour. The show from the Agora was one of five shows from the ’78 tour broadcast live on a regional network of FM radio stations. Not surprisingly, all five have been heavily bootlegged over the years. The others, for the record, were July 7 from the Roxy in Los Angeles; Sept. 19 from the Capitol Theater in Passaic, N.J.; Sept. 30 from the Fox Theater in Atlanta; and Dec. 15 from the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Look for some or all of those to make it to the live site at some point.

The Agora show originated on Cleveland’s WMMS-FM as part of the station’s 10th anniversary celebration and was simulcast all over the Midwest, as far south as St. Louis, as far west as Chicago and as far north as Minneapolis. Unlike the available bootlegs of this show, this official release is the pre-FM master, taken from seven 15-IPS reel-to-reel half-track tapes, transferred and engineered digitally using the same Plangent mastering process used on the recent The Album Collection box set.

The various Agora bootlegs were among the cleanest-sounding Springsteen boots in circulation. The sound was a bit thin, perhaps, and the organ and piano were mixed more prominently in places than the guitars and saxophone, which sounds a little weird, but the overall sound quality was extraordinary for a bootleg. The newly released version retains and even improves the clean sound from the bootlegs. The tapes were corrected for speed variation to eliminate any wow and flutter. The sound has more heft to it, and the stereo separation is much sharper with a wider soundstage. The keyboards still tend to stand out over the strings and reeds, but that’s the way the show was recorded. Not much can be done to fix that.

While the sound quality of this recording is excellent, the performance is nothing short of stunning. Cleveland, a hard-core blue-collar town, jumped on the Springsteen juggernaut early on, and the Boss played there frequently throughout the early and mid-1970s, developing a huge and devoted following. That following turned out en masse for the Agora show, and the chemistry between artist and audience is obvious.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town ranks with Springsteen’s greatest albums, a lyrical masterpiece by a lyric-driven artist. Yet over the years, Springsteen has expressed regret at the way the album turned out, saying that it wasn’t until two years later with The River that he and the E Street Band actually figured out how to navigate their way around the studio and get the same sound on record that they produced onstage. Springsteen insisted that the songs on Darkness turned out much better live on the ’78 tour than they did on the album itself. The band played six of the 10 songs from Darkness at the Agora show, and all six just sizzled with intensity. E Street drummer Max Weinberg said in later years that in his mind, the Agora concert was the best show the E Street Band ever played. That’s saying a mouthful, but there is no disputing that this was an electrifying performance.

Most bootleg download sites will pull the links to performances that are available commercially, thus avoiding legal hassles over mechanical royalties. Just as well, because the version of the Agora show now available on Springsteen’s live site is a considerable improvement over the bootleg versions in circulation.

All live downloads on are available as standard mp3 (256 kbps for $9.95) and FLAC ($12.95) digital files, high-quality CDR pressings ($23), and state-of-the-art 24-bit/192 KHz high definition audio (24.95).

It’s also worth noting that all of Springsteen’s commercially released albums are available as digital downloads on, including the remastered versions of his first seven albums, which debuted in The Album Collection box set last fall.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Macca And Greensboro: A Complete Mismatch

Paul McCartney played the Greensboro Coliseum on Thursday night, Oct. 30. He outperformed the coliseum in every way imaginable.

The concert itself was predictably extraordinary. After years of touring together, McCartney and band put on a three-hour show that has to be experienced to be believed. Greensboro was no different. No Beatles fan should ever pass up the chance. ’Nuff said.

So McCartney was his typically brilliant self Thursday night. The Greensboro Coliseum, on the other hand, was absolutely horrendous. The people who run the coliseum proved themselves to be thoroughly inept by staging a clusterfuck of epic dimensions. The list of potential grievances from Thursday’s concert is lengthy, including sound that was too loud by a factor of about a thousand, not nearly enough souvenir and concessions outlets, and not nearly enough intelligent people manning the few concessions outlets that were open.

Those complaints pale, however, when stood next to the indefensible decision to open the doors and let people into the coliseum’s entryways an hour before the seating area was ready for occupancy. The doors opened on schedule at 6:30. Those of us on the south side of the coliseum and the special events center were herded into a long, narrow entry hallway about 60 yards long. We were stuck in there until the main doors to the interior of the coliseum opened at 7:05. This corridor was not air-conditioned, and with several thousand people packed into that hallway, it got very hot, very quickly. After 35 minutes, it was downright uncomfortable.

McCartney draws fans of all ages. Many of the people in that hallway were senior citizens and aging Baby Boomers. Some did not fare well in the heat. Several standing near me got woozy, lightheaded and/or sick to their stomach. My wife got so lightheaded from the heat that she nearly fainted. After fighting it and nearly passing out, she had to go sit down on an umbrella rack along the side of the hallway. Several people nearby noticed her discomfort and asked if she was okay. It was that evident. I was genuinely concerned for her health and well-being. She was not the only one suffering from the conditions.

Once we were allowed into the main coliseum building, our problems continued because they still wouldn't let us into the seating area for another 25 minutes, until almost 7:30. So now we had many more thousands of people jammed in the coliseum’s concourses with nowhere to go. Concourses are designed to facilitate the movement of people from one point to another. They’re not intended to be a gathering spot, especially not for that many people. At least the concourse was air conditioned, but it was badly overcrowded. And remember, many of these people had just escaped a 35-minute imprisonment in a hot, overcrowded hallway. Some of them badly needed to get to their seats and get off their feet. Too bad, we were told. The seating area still was not ready. Deal with it.

They finally let us into the seating area at 7:30, a full hour after opening the doors. Whoever was running this circus violated one of the most obvious common-sense rules of staging an event like this — never open the doors and let people into an arena before the seating area is ready for occupancy. It takes a genuine idiot not to be able to figure that out. In my 45 years of concert-going, I’d never once seen that happen, until Oct. 30, 2014, at the Greensboro Coliseum.

Andrew Brown, public relations manager for the Greensboro Coliseum, responding to an email inquiry, said the decision not to open the seating area until 7:30 was because the band’s sound check ran late. If this is true — for the sake of argument we’ll pretend it is — it still doesn’t explain why the outer doors were opened and people were left to stand in an overcrowded and overheated entryway for more than a half-hour.

Once we got into the coliseum, two other problems quickly reared their ugly heads. First, the sound system was way too loud. As a result, the sound wasn’t nearly as clean as it could have been. Second, there weren’t nearly enough souvenir and concessions stands. The few that were open were badly understaffed. Lines were absurdly long. I waited in line 25 minutes just to buy a t-shirt and a concert program at a souvenir stand. That should never happen. The lines at the concessions stands were brutally long as well.

My wife and I don’t get to too many arena concerts, but we do go on occasion, so we have some experience for comparison. We saw McCartney at the Charlotte Coliseum in July 2010, and that was the gold standard for how to run a major concert. In addition to being in our seats no more than 10 minutes after the doors opened, the sound was absolutely perfect — not too loud but loud enough, and clear as a bell — and there were souvenir and concession stands open all over the building. The lines were short and the wait was brief.

We saw both Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty earlier this year at PNC Arena in Raleigh, Springsteen in April and Petty in September. Again, the concert experience for both blew away the Greensboro Coliseum. For both shows, we were in our seats within minutes of entering the building. The sound was terrific. There were ample souvenir and concessions stands. No one had to wait in line for more than a few minutes.

Brown said my complaint about the sound was the only one the coliseum has received, pointing out that it’s more the artist than the venue that sets the sound volume. Fair enough. I’m old and after a lifetime of abusing my ears with loud music, my hearing ain’t what it used to be. But again, the sound at the McCartney show in Charlotte in 2010 was perfect, as was the sound at the Springsteen and Petty shows in Raleigh earlier this year. My hearing didn’t just roll off the pier in the five weeks since Tom Petty played Raleigh.

I worked in college athletics for nearly 20 years. I’ve seen and been around for the planning of major events. It's not easy, but it’s not brain surgery, either. A group of high school students could have run that McCartney concert better than the intellectual lightweights who run the Greensboro Coliseum. The music made up for it, of course, but it shouldn't have to be a tradeoff, should it? Is it too much to ask — especially at more than $100 per ticket for the cheap seats — that the experience at the venue be as pleasing as the music itself?

Charlotte certainly met that standard when McCartney played there four years ago. PNC Arena did the same this year for both the Springsteen and Petty shows. All three of the aforementioned shows went off without a hitch for the concert-goer. Greensboro, meanwhile, came up embarrassingly short for Thursday night’s McCartney show. The music was life-changing. That cannot be overemphasized. The experience with the arena, however, could only lead one to conclude that the people who run the Greensboro Coliseum couldn’t find their own ass with both hands.

(Note: According to the Triad Business Journal, the delay in opening the doors may have been caused by the late arrival at the arena of Gov. Pat McCrory, who reportedly was the special guest of Louis DeJoy, CEO of New Breeds Logistics, which has a private suite near sections 109-111. If this unnecessary delay was so our only governor could arrive late and enter the arena without rubbing shoulders or otherwise mingling with The Great Unwashed, many of whom made the mistake of voting for him, well, no further comment at this time.)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Jeter And Molitor: MLB Rewrites The Prince And The Pauper

Sunday is the last day of Major League Baseball's 2014 regular season, and with both Central divisions likely still up for grabs and four games playing a role in those races, which game is TBS broadcasting?

Twins at Tigers? Pirates at Reds? Royals at White Sox? Cardinals at Diamondbacks? Don’t be stupid. None of the above, of course.

Why would any network broadcast a game relevant to a pennant race when two of 2014’s more irrelevant teams, the Yankees and Red Sox, will be playing a meaningless game at Fenway Park?

Why, indeed.

It’s truly a curse that these two are in the same division. They play one another 18 times a year, giving the networks 18 opportunities to shove them both down our throats. And the networks, all but one based in New York or Bristol, Conn., take full advantage. Yeah, sure, ratings drive much of the networks’ thinking in which games they air, and the Red Sox and Yankees generate ratings, even when they're both really bad, like they both are now.

Then there's the Jeter factor. We get it, TBS. Sunday is Jeter’s last game, and Jeter is Jesus Christ’s kid brother. Still, Yankees-Red Sox is a meaningless game. We could have as many as four games Sunday that might determine division champions, and two more that might determine a wild-card winner. And you're still gonna give us the game's faded plutocrats, the Yankees and Red Sox, in a game that doesn't mean a damned thing? It truly is a new Gilded Age.

Nothing against Derek Jeter. He was a genuinely great player. At the game’s biggest moments and on the game’s biggest stages, he almost always came up huge. He never wet the bed when the game was on the line, and he was responsible for numerous iconic moments. And that all matters. Anyone who’s spent any time around the game understands that too many players get caught up in the magnitude of the moment. Jeter never did and that’s a tribute to him. Saluting a great player, however, does not mean nominating him for sainthood.

Let’s play what-if: What if Derek Jeter had been drafted by the Brewers and played the bulk of his career in Milwaukee and other comparable small-market cities? How would be he perceived today as he retires? The answer is that he’d be Paul Molitor. That’s hardly an insult, but tell that to a Yankees fan and get ready for a fistfight. But it’s true. Take a good look at the career stats for Paul Molitor and Derek Jeter and ask yourself if it’s possible for two players to have careers that were more identical.

The two most obvious differences between them are:

1.) Jeter played his entire career at shortstop, whereas Molitor played multiple positions, with most of his career at second base and third base. Both were average defenders. Both were superstar infielders more because of their bats than their gloves.

2.) Jeter played far more postseason games than Molitor. Of course, that’s not Molitor’s fault, is it? Jeter played his entire career in the division-series era — meaning more postseason games per season — and in the first half of his career Jeter played on Yankees teams that were much greater than any of the teams Molitor played for in Milwaukee and Minnesota. Jeter was a great postseason player — the numbers are eye-popping — but when Molitor did make it to the postseason, he also was great. In fact, the percentage statistics (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, etc.) in Molitor’s limited postseason sample are actually better than those in Jeter’s more substantial ledger. Molitor was a key component on two World Series champions in Toronto, and was World Series MVP in 1993. So both were great in the postseason.

Boil it all down and the fact is that Derek Jeter and Paul Molitor were the same guy. It’s as if Mark Twain’s novel The Prince And The Pauper had been set in Major League Baseball instead of pre-industrial England. One player (Jeter) was born to royalty (the Yankees), the other (Molitor) to poverty (Milwaukee), but they were the exactly same guy. If they'd secretly switched places at any time, no one ever would have noticed.

Again, no disrespect whatsoever to Derek Jeter. If Paul Molitor had gotten the same treatment when he retired as Jeter’s getting now, then this blog post wouldn’t be necessary. But no one even noticed when Molitor hung ’em up. It’s as though he was invisible and in a way he probably was — because of where he played, not because of who he was.

Meanwhile, people are swooning for Jeter’s retirement as if he were Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle all rolled up into one. He was great, but he wasn't that great. That’s not Derek Jeter’s fault, but it says nothing good about how the game is perceived, and especially about the media that shapes those perceptions. TBS's decision to broadcast the Yankees and Red Sox on Sunday instead of a game that actually means something is just the latest such network malfeasance. Unfortunately, it won't be the last.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Album Review — The JAG Sessions, Filling In The Blanks

In 1997, Raleigh’s 6 String Drag released an album, High Hat, that critics raved about and the band’s cult following still believes to this day to be an essential classic.

Kenny Roby, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, never cared much for High Hat. In Roby’s mind, while producer Steve Earle captured the raw energy that marked 6 String Drag’s incendiary live performances, he never quite caught the full essence of the band’s sound and spirit. To Roby’s thinking, this made High Hat a wrong that needed to be corrected.

Seventeen years later, with 6 String Drag reformed, playing live shows again and putting the finishing touches on a new album for early 2015 release, The JAG Sessions - Rare And Unreleased 1996-98 goes a long way towards filling in the blanks that High Hat never addressed. Recorded by local legend Byron McCay during sessions at Raleigh’s JAG Studios in 1996 and 1998, The JAG Sessions showcases many of 6 String Drag’s strengths much more effectively than High Hat.

First of all, Roby is a gifted and creative lead singer with a powerful baritone/tenor voice and great vocal range. That voice never gets fully unleashed on High Hat. Furthermore, Roby and bass player Rob Keller give 6 String Drag a tight and harmonious vocal mix up front, which is evident on High Hat, but often gets lost in the muddled production. Instrumentally, 6 String Drag has a huge, larger-than-life sound, especially when augmented by the Countdown Quartet’s horn section. While High Hat screams bigness, it mostly swings and misses on the tightness of 6 String Drag’s sound. In fact, High Hat has to be one of the loosest-sounding records ever recorded. The Jag Sessions corrects these and other problems with a much cleaner mix and a more band-centered approach to the recording and production. The result is a leaner and more muscular sound that highlights the band’s most appealing attributes instead of burying them.

The JAG Sessions consists of demos 6 String Drag cut for a possible Columbia Records album that never happened, a follow-up EP to High Hat that E-Squared — Earle’s record label — would not release, and other various stray recordings and demos. Four of the songs on The JAG Sessions appeared on High Hat — the contrast is an eye-opener, by the way — and four more later surfaced on subsequent Roby solo albums. Considering the disparate nature of the material, The JAG Sessions holds together as a remarkably cohesive and well-sequenced unit, one that more than holds its own as a companion piece to High Hat in the 6 String Drag canon.

Ultimately, The JAG Sessions complements rather than displaces High Hat as the final statement on 6 String Drag’s heyday. As mentioned above, 6 String Drag was (and still is, all these years later) a powerhouse in concert, and High Hat just crackles with the energy of a live recording. Roby never wanted to make a live-in-the-studio record, however, which explains much of his displeasure. Roby wanted to record a 6 String Drag studio album. The JAG Sessions goes a long way towards fulfilling that long overdue goal.

When all is said and done, High Hat is still a classic, an essential snapshot of time and place for a great and largely overlooked band, for the absolutely joyous and unbridled enthusiasm of its performances. The JAG Sessions, on the other hand, is a more fully realized portrait of the band at work, more nuanced and fully fleshed out, loaded with energy yet not electrifying in the manner of a live performance, which was the point all along. In the end, both are equally satisfying (except maybe to Roby) but for entirely different reasons. Taken in tandem, they give a glimpse of what might have been had it not been for the hazards and general vagaries of the damned music industry.

If you were a 6 String Drag fan back in the day but haven’t seen them since they reformed, or if you just heard about them and are curious, they are every bit as electrifying in concert as they were 17 years ago. They blew the roof off the Pour House back on Jan. 4, and their featured performance Oct. 5 at King’s Barcade during Raleigh’s Hopscotch Festival, while limited to an hour, simply overwhelmed a capacity crowd. They may be older and more settled in their lives, but they still can conjure that inner rocker and light up a concert stage.

Their new album, meanwhile, featuring the original five-man lineup plus horns and due for release in January, is tremendous, just a fantastic listening experience. Recorded mostly live in the manner of records from 60 and 70 years ago — but not intended as a live-in-the-studio record — the new album derives much of its influences from the great roots music of the early rock ‘n’ roll era. After repeated plays, it comes across as kind of a 21st century soundtrack to The Last Picture Show, and that is definitely meant as a compliment.

Considering their history, it would be foolish to miss 6 String Drag the next time they play a venue near you, or not to buy The JAG Sessions now or the new album in January. They broke up in 1998 and nearly went away for good. That's rock 'n' roll. It’s still kind of shocking that they got back together. So don’t take them for granted this time around. You never know when the magic will end. And so far, the reunion has been mostly magic.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Album Reviews - Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Psycho Sisters

Over the course of a near-40-year career, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers have taken a few left turns, the most recent being 2010’s Mojo. A rollicking, bluesy set that served as the perfect vehicle for Mike Campbell to expand his underrated lead guitar work, Mojo was not typical Tom Petty fare. And when TPATH toured that summer, the Mojo tracks went over like an S.B.D. fart at a wedding reception.

Nothing on Mojo really fits the canon of hits and singalong anthems that Petty fans know so well. Likewise, part of the tepid response to Mojo had to be lack of familiarity. So when TPATH played four or five Mojo songs in succession in the middle of a set filled with crowd favorites during the 2010 tour, the Mojo tracks came across like a moment of silence, an awkward pregnant pause before the rousing finish.

Petty’s new album, Hypnotic Eye, shouldn’t suffer such a fate on this summer’s tour. With each ticket bought online, the purchaser received a free download of Hypnotic Eye, leaving no excuse not to know the new material when the band comes to your town.

Beyond that, free download or not, there is no reason for any Tom Petty fan not to love Hypnotic Eye. From the opening fuzz tones of “American Dream Plan B” to the weary and wary set-closing “Shadow People,” Hypnotic Eye rocks and rips and kicks ass from start to finish. At the same time, the record’s mostly brooding undertones are apparent even in some of the song titles — “Fault Lines,” “Power Drunk,” “Forgotten Man,” “Sins Of My Youth,” “Burnt Out Town,” “Shadow People” — and reverberate throughout the album’s lyrics. Song after song, Petty seems to be wondering how the world went so crazy so quickly. Maybe Petty is becoming a more topical songwriter in his sixties. If this is the result, let’s hope for more of the same next time around.

The playing on Hypnotic Eye is pure Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. The sound is tight and lean, the tunes laden with sharp but subtle hooks, and the lyrics carry a wallop. The musicianship is impeccable, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. There may be no “Free Fallin’” or “American Girl” on Hypnotic Eye, but the songs will creep into your consciousness nonetheless. The lasting effect is of a rock-and-roll band at the peak of its game, even after nearly 40 years making music on the beauty way, as Eliza Gilkyson so presciently called it.

The last few years have been a great time for rock and roll’s senior tour, by the way. Paul McCartney’s latest album, New, was utterly delightful, and Macca continues to tour constantly. His nearly three-hour shows should be required for all Beatles fans. The Rolling Stones recently finished their latest reunion world tour to universally rave reviews, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band just wrapped up a world tour that blew the roof off arenas around the globe.

Now, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers come out with their best record in many years, maybe since the early 1980s, with a well-received U.S. tour already underway. Never forget, old guys rock!

* * *

While Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers are an iconic American rock band, the Psycho Sisters are strictly the stuff of cult followings. They deserve a much wider audience. Between them, Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson have produced individual and collective bodies of work that define them as significant artists. Cowsill first hit the American music scene as a pre-teenaged member of her family’s band, the Cowsills, in the 1960s. Peterson was a founding member of the Bangles in 1981.

Cowsill and Peterson joined the legendary New Orleans roots outfit the Continental Drifters in 1991, and began playing together as the Psycho Sisters as a side project shortly thereafter. They’ve worked with one another on and off ever since, but their busy schedules never allowed the time to record an album together. And they have been busy. They’ve both appeared as back-up singers on numerous projects by other artists, and Cowsill launched a solo recording career in 2005 with an obscure masterpiece, Just Believe It. With contributions from Peterson, Adam Duritz and Lucinda Williams among others, Just Believe It is an astonishing record and can and should be downloaded from Cowsill’s website. It’s well worth the cost. In addition, Cowsill and her remaining siblings have reformed the Cowsills and play regularly.

More than two decades after first appearing as the Psycho Sisters, Cowsill and Peterson have finally recorded an album, Up On The Chair, Beatrice, and it was more than worth the wait. Consisting mostly of songs they’ve performed together since the ’90s, songs about love found and love lost and the travails entailed therein, Up On The Chair, Beatrice features strong songwriting, catchy melodies, rootsy arrangements, great lead vocals, and super-tight harmonies. We can only hope that the second album won’t be nearly as long in the making.

The only complaint one can make about Up On The Chair, Beatrice is that it lasts just 33 minutes and 27 seconds from start to finish. Even with the resurgence of vinyl as a listening medium, 33 minutes is not long enough. Not. Even. Close. If they had the time to record the 10 jewels included here, surely they could have stretched the sessions another few days. Based on the seven songs they wrote or cowrote for this record, there’s no question the two of them have the songwriting chops to come up with two or three more great songs. Aside from that, Up On The Chair, Beatrice is simply excellent, highly recommended.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Forget The Revisionist History; Remember The Expos

With the Hall of Fame induction ceremony scheduled for Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y., and a carload of former Atlanta Braves — Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, manager Bobby Cox — scheduled for induction, brace yourselves. We’re about to be inundated in coming days with news articles and TV features about the great Braves Dynasty of the 1990s and 2000s.

And in fairness, those Braves teams were extraordinary, especially their starting pitching. Maddux and Glavine were deserving first-ballot Hall-of-Famers. Maddux, in particular, was absolutely incredible, one of the three greatest pitchers of his generation, along with Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens, and on the short list of the greatest pitchers of all time. Cox was a great manager for those teams, and it’s fitting that he is going into the Hall of Fame along with fellow skippers Tony La Russa and Joe Torre. They helped define their era in the sport.

Let’s not forget that Torre played for and managed the Braves. So the Braves connection this weekend is a strong one. A third member of that great Atlanta rotation, John Smoltz, also deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, and hopefully he’ll join the others in 2015.

With that out of the way, let’s put to rest one bit of revisionist history right here and now.

Fact: The Atlanta Braves did NOT win 14 consecutive division championships. USA Today wrote that in its sports pages on Friday, and we’re going to see and hear that bit of misinformation passed along many times in coming days as those teams are rightly celebrated. The fact is, however, that the Braves won 14 division championships in 15 years. And that’s a huge difference.

The Braves did not win the National League East in 1994. Yes, officially there were no champions that year because of the strike, which wiped out the end of the season and forced the cancellation of the World Series. That doesn’t change the fact that the Braves did not win the division, though, and it doesn’t change the fact that they wouldn’t have won the division had there been no strike. Most likely they wouldn’t have come close.

Lest we all forget, at the time of the strike, with six weeks remaining on the schedule, the Montreal Expos were in first place in the NL East, six games ahead of the Braves, and were pulling away. The Expos had the best record in baseball at the time and were hot as a pistol, having won 20 of their last 23 games at the time play was halted.

The Expos roster featured such stars at Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou, Cliff Floyd, Pedro Martinez, Ken Hill and John Wetteland. When baseball finally resumed a year later, Expos manager Felipe Alou was named manager of the National League team for the 1995 All-Star Game, not the Braves’ Bobby Cox. That doesn’t make Montreal the official winners of anything in 1994, but what does it say about Atlanta? It doesn’t say “division champions,” that’s for sure.

The strike of 1994 cost baseball a World Series, and history will always remember it that way. The strike also cost Montreal a chance at a World Series, with one of history’s great overlooked clubs, a team never heard from again. And that’s truly a shame. That team deserved its chance at history. Instead, the strike intervened and then the economics of baseball, which will always favor the large markets, forced Expos ownership to break up that club starting in ’95.

The strike of 1994 also enabled the revisionists from Atlanta to pretend that the ’94 season never happened and to claim instead that the Braves won 14 division championships in a row. But they didn’t. As great as the Atlanta dynasty was, and as unlikely as it is to ever happen again, the fact remains that the Braves won 14 division championships in 15 years. End of discussion.