Sunday, March 1, 2015

Baseball In February: Who Thinks This Is A Good Idea?

Sitting here at the computer on March 1 and looking out the window at the snow and ice still covering the front yard, it’s no surprise the first two weeks of the 2015 college baseball season have been marred by an epidemic of changed venues and cancelled games.

Even moving games hundreds of miles to the south has not kept the weather from wreaking havoc. With the Notre Dame Invitational in Cary, N.C., cancelled the weekend of Feb. 27-March 1, NC State jumped on a bus and traveled to Savannah, Ga., 322 miles away, to play two games each against Charlotte and UNC Greensboro. It wasn’t far enough. The Wolfpack’s Sunday doubleheader was washed out by heavy rain along the Georgia coast, sending the three teams home early after playing just two games apiece.

Much noise has been made in recent years about moving the start of the college baseball season back to coincide with warmer weather. The carnage Mother Nature has caused the last two weeks has only intensified that talk. Several years ago, West Virginia coach Randy Mazey proposed moving the start of the season to late March or even early April. Under Mazey’s plan, the regular season would end in July, with the NCAA tournament and College World Series stretching into late July or early August. No doubt, many coaches agree with Mazey’s proposal, and the intent of that proposal is good. The proposal itself, however, is wrong. At least by a few weeks.

On each and every campus in this country, the baseball program is part of the department of athletics, which is part of the greater university. And the greater university is there for the student body, first and foremost. No one working on any college campus — especially those working in athletics — should ever lose sight of that. Moving the start of the baseball season back to late March or early April could mean playing up to two-thirds of the regular season after the school year has ended and the students have gone home for the summer. That is not acceptable.

Students lack the financial sway (and the accompanying sense of entitlement) of wealthy boosters, and they don’t attend baseball games in significant numbers the way they attend football and basketball games. Doesn’t matter. They’re still the single most important constituency group in any college team’s fan base, including the baseball team’s. Denying students, no matter how few of them actually show up, the opportunity to see a significant portion of a team’s home schedule is wrong.

So what to do instead? Well, just because we shouldn’t move the start of the season all the way back to April doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move it back at all. And there are several other changes to the calendar we can and should make while dealing with the start of the season.

Instead of late March or April, let’s move opening day to the second full weekend of March, meaning no sooner than March 8 and no later than March 14. This would enable most schools to play the bulk of the regular season before exams and the end of the spring semester. Yes, there still would be a number of games played after students have gone home, but not nearly as many as if the season started in April and only a handful more than we’re currently playing.

Coaches from cold-weather schools will complain that a mid-March start to the season does nothing to help them, and that’s true. Unfortunately, there’s no reasonable solution to that problem. Anyone who’s ever been to a series at Boston College —  even a series in mid-May — knows that the only way schools in that part of the world can play in warm weather is to move the start of the season to mid-June. That definitely will never happen. You can’t change geography. Northern schools have a big advantage in ice hockey. Southern schools have a big advantage in baseball. Nothing can change that. So deal with it.

Moving the start of the season back to mid-March gives us the opportunity to expand preseason practice to a full month, starting the second weekend in February. Fall and winter sports get at least four weeks of full-squad practices before their seasons begin. College football players report to campus the first week of August and practice for a month before the season kicks off. College basketball begins practice on Oct. 15, with the regular season cranking up about a week before Thanksgiving.

College baseball teams report to campus after Christmas break and go through about a week of conditioning, followed by two weeks of “skill work,” which is drills in groups of four or fewer players for up to eight hours per week and not more than two hours per day. That’s not practice. Full-squad practices begin about two weeks prior to the first game of the season, which is not enough time to prepare a team for anything, especially when the weather conditions those two weeks are often miserable. So move the college baseball season back a month and let teams have a full month to get ready for opening day. Just like every other sport on campus.

With the regular season moved back a month and four full weeks of preseason practices allowed, the next move should be to cut the length of the regular season to 50 games and 11 weeks. Most coaches will scream bloody murder at this one. Get over it, already. We’re talking about six games, not six weeks of games. Thanks to the weather, most of you will play closer to 50 than 56 games this season anyway, and many of you will be damned lucky to play 50. The postseason is what really matters, and shortening the regular season dovetails with a corresponding idea to improve the NCAA Tournament.

The regular-season schedule centers around three-game weekend series, both for non-conference and conference games. Coaches build their pitching staffs accordingly, centered around a three-man starting rotation. Then they get into the NCAA regionals and everything changes. The regionals are four-team, double-elimination tournaments. Go through a regional unbeaten and you’ll only need three starting pitchers. Fall into the losers bracket and you may need five starters in a span of four days. Clearly, the moral of the story is not to fall into the losers bracket at all, but the punishment for losing, especially early in the tournament, does not fit the crime.

The rest of the NCAA Tournament is pretty much like the regular season and fits a three-man rotation. The super regional, in fact, is a best-of-3 weekend series. The College World Series is two brackets of four teams each, double elimination, just like the regionals, but with one huge difference. Because of TV scheduling, teams in the CWS get a day off between games, sometimes two days off between games. Three starting pitchers is more than enough through bracket play, even if you lose early. The two bracket winners then advance to the CWS championship series, which is another best-of-3 series.

So the entire college baseball season is built around a three-man pitching rotation, except for the NCAA regionals, a rather glaring and important exception to the rule. This makes no sense at all. Let’s change the “Road To Omaha” and make it three consecutive weekends of three-game series. The first weekend will be 64 teams and 32 series. The winners of those 32 series will advance the following weekend to the second round, which will be 16 series. Those 16 winners will move on to the next round of eight best-of-3 series, with the final eight series winners advancing to the College World Series. This format was proposed several years ago and went nowhere. It only lasts one week longer than the current postseason format, hence the logic behind cutting the regular season by six games. It makes perfect sense, so of course the NCAA never seriously considered it.

The best thing about making these changes is that in future seasons these early-season blog posts will be about baseball games and not about bad weather. The fact that college baseball will stand to benefit from the changes, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Album Review: 6 String Drag Embraces Its Roots

During a recording life that dates back to 1994 — with a 17-year hiatus right in the middle — 6 String Drag now has produced a four-album body of work that’s as good as it is slim. The latest addition to the 6 String Drag catalogue is the aptly titled Roots Rock ’N’ Roll on the exclusive and prestigious Royal Potato Family label, available in stores in both vinyl and CD formats on Feb. 10, or through the band’s website,

Built around the musical vision and literary songwriting of lead singer Kenny Roby, 6 String Drag burst on the scene as sort of a punk/ outfit in the early 1990s, in Clemson, S.C. The band quickly established a well-deserved reputation for its electrifying live performances, and in 1994 released its first album, the raw but highly energetic and entertaining Six String Drag. Three years later, having relocated to Raleigh, N.C., the Dragsters released a more accomplished and polished, but ultimately frustrating, album, the critically acclaimed High Hat, produced by Steve Earle for his E-Squared label. High Hat features a loose, almost messy sound that rocks and rolls and is lots of fun, but isn’t the sound the band had in mind for its major-label debut. To paraphrase Mark Twain, High Hat is better than it sounds. The problem, though, is that High Hat doesn’t really sound all that much like 6 String Drag.

Roby began to set the record straight in 2014. First, the band reunited for a spellbinding live show Jan. 4 at Raleigh’s Pour House. Over the following weeks, 6 String Drag convened at Fidelitorium in Kernersville, N.C., and recorded a new album, which at the time was scheduled to be released this past fall. With the new album completed and in the can, Roby visited the band’s vaults last summer and released The Jag Sessions, a superb collection of previously unreleased studio work from 1996-98. The Jag Sessions definitely sounds more like 6 String Drag than High Hat and was a big first step in establishing a signature 6 String Drag sound on record.

In the meantime, the new album was pushed back until this month, and it was well worth the wait. Recorded by a much more mature and disciplined group of musicians than any of 6 String Drag’s previous recordings, Roots Rock ’N’ Roll is easily the group’s best record to date. While not intended as a song cycle as such, Roots Rock 'N' Roll does evoke images of rock ’n' roll’s small-town and rural roots, and those roots are far-reaching. There are shades of the early rock ’n' roll of Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Ditto for the Muscle Shoals R&B of Stax and Atlantic Records circa the 1960s. Go west along the Gulf Coast and you’ll find more 6 String Drag roots in the Texas and New Orleans music of Roy Orbison, Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, Fats Domino and Huey Piano Smith. And that’s just a sampling. Roots Rock ’N’ Roll embraces its many influences openly and proudly.

The album jumps starts with the bouncy cruising anthem "Drive Around Town.” The joyous New Orleans gumbo of “OOOEEOOOEEOOO” is up next, and we’re off to the races. From that rousing, double-shot kick in the keister of an intro, Roots Rock 'N' Roll careens merrily through its 11-song course. There’s the subtle (and occasionally not-so-subtle) humor of "The Kingdom Of Gettin' It Wrong" and "Me And My Disease.” At the other end of the emotional spectrum, we have troubled relationships in "Precious Things” and "High Times, Hard Times.” A pair of 6 String Drag holdovers from the 1990s — “Choppin’ Block” and “Sylvia” — provide bluesy swing and sway. The former showcases the underrated and raucous 6 String Horns while the latter provides an excellent vehicle for the tastefully understated slide guitar work of Scotty Miller.

Roots Rock ’N’ Roll was recorded live in the studio direct to analogue tape. The musicians were in close quarters in the crowded studio, and instruments and voices frequently bled from channel to channel in the mix, adding to the old-school vibe. The arrangements often were done on the fly in the studio, and creative ideas were exchanged freely. In other words, the musicians were loose, but the music was tight. The recording techniques reinforce the album’s title/mission statement, and the final result is a vintage rock ’n' roll sound that is all too absent in today’s popular music. Combine the record’s sonic qualities with precision performances and well-crafted material, and you have a genuinely satisfying album that sounds the way rock ’n' roll was intended, the way 6 String Drag intended.

6 String Drag is currently on a mini-tour of the Carolinas and adjacent states to promote the new album, and it’s highly likely they’re recording the shows. After the release of Roots Rock ’N’ Roll, about the only thing missing from the slender 6 String Canon is a live album, maybe something from the current tour and/or that incredible Jan. 4 blast-off from the Pour House. Just in case no live record is forthcoming, however, go see them yourself, and in the meantime, check out Roots Rock ’N’ Roll. In reality, it was 17 years in the making. Few records can live up to that. This one does.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Book Review: The 1974 Wolfpack Gets Some Love

Go to Google sometime and look up “NC State basketball national championship.” You’ll get link after link about the Wolfpack’s magical run to the 1983 NCAA championship, an event that has come to define NC State’s postseason history.

You’ll have to look much deeper than a cursory Google search to find coverage of NC State’s 1974 national championship, and that’s too bad because — and make no mistake about it — the 1974 Wolfpack was easily the best team in NC State history and maybe the best in Atlantic Coast Conference history. The 1974 Wolfpack’s best player, David Thompson, is still regarded as the greatest player in ACC history.

There are reasons the ’83 team gets all the love while the ’74 team falls through the cracks. A lot changed between 1974 and 1983. First of all, media coverage went from local to global. ESPN came into being in 1978, and began televising early-round NCAA Tournament games two years later. Within a few years, thanks in large part to the “Worldwide Leader,” the tournament morphed into “March Madness,” captivating the nation’s attention every spring. NC State’s 1983 championship run was a huge part of that transformation. 

Then there is the use of videotape, which goes hand in hand with the evolution of ubiquitous TV coverage. The ’83 team taped all of its games, many of them directly off the television. Within a few years, the bulk of that videotaped footage had been digitalized and stored on computers for easy access and replay. The ’74 team had to record its games on 16 millimeter film, a much more difficult and cumbersome medium. In the ensuing years, much of that footage has been lost or destroyed, or deteriorated so badly in storage as to be rendered useless, leaving precious little video history of NC State’s 1974 national championship.

Topping it all off is the improbable nature of NC State’s 1983 national championship. America claims to love underdogs — the popularity of the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys notwithstanding — and it got two of the all-time greatest underdog stories in a span of three years with the 1983 Wolfpack and the 1985 Villanova Wildcats. Couple that with the presence of Jim Valvano, arguably the most irrepressible and charismatic coach in the history of the sport, and it’s little wonder the Wolfpack’s 1983 championship became one of the greatest stories in the history of college basketball. No one should be surprised, then, that the 1983 team towers over the rest of NC State’s storied, if distant, basketball tradition.

Jim Pomeranz, who worked for the NC State sports information office and for the Wolfpack Club from 1977-87, has taken a most welcome first step towards bridging the appreciation gap between NC State’s two national championship teams. His new book, 1973-74, Reliving the NC State Wolfpack’s Title Run, captures the 1973-74 basketball season from the eyes of NC State’s student newspaper, the Technician. Pomeranz was sports editor for the Technician in 1974 and covered the ’74 Wolfpack as closely as anyone in the media that year. His book reprints most of the day-to-day coverage of that incredible season directly from the pages of State’s student paper.

A confession up front here. Prior to publication, I proofread and critiqued 1973-74 for Jim, offering a.) encouragement, but also b.) constructive criticism and suggestions that I thought might help make the book tighter and more cohesive. Some of my suggestions he accepted, and others he rejected. Fair enough. It’s his book, after all. Former Technician sports editor Ken Lloyd and Technician staffers Bill Moss, Steve Baker, Ray Deltz, Jim Brewer, Steve Wheeler, Howard Barnett, Louise Coleman and Jeff Watkins all made contributions, but Jim was the sports editor and did the bulk of the coverage himself. I made at best a modest contribution to this book, very modest. One hundred percent of the credit should go to Jim Pomeranz. The book was his idea, his own labor of love, and he alone brought it to fruition.

The entire text of this book came from a student newspaper, so be prepared. Jim was 22 in 1974. He and his fellow Technician staff members were inexperienced writers at the time. That’s why they were working for a student newspaper, after all, to learn. If you’re expecting Frank DeFord or Grantland Rice, they’re not here. With that said, however, as student newspaper writing goes — and this comes from someone who’s read a lot of student newspapers — the 1973-74 Technician staff was pretty good. Jim Pomeranz was very good. And the story they were chasing was off-the-charts good.

By 1974, NC State basketball was wrapping up a two-year run that went unrivaled in ACC annals until Duke’s back-to-back national championships in 1991-92. The 1972-73 and 1973-74 Wolfpack teams — led by the core nucleus of David Thompson, Tom Burleson, Monte Towe and Tim Stoddard — went an astonishing 57-1, won two ACC championships and a national championship. The ’73 team, on probation and ineligible for postseason play, was a perfect 27-0 and finished the year ranked No. 2 in the nation behind perennial national champion UCLA.

With the nucleus of that team back in 1973-74, anticipation built, especially when a neutral-site game between the Bruins and Wolfpack for early December was a late addition to the schedule. UCLA won that game in a blowout, 84-66, but the loss fueled NC State’s resolve. Led by the incomparable Thompson on the wing, Towe at point guard and Burleson in the paint, the Wolfpack did not lose again, despite a grueling schedule and many close calls.

Following that loss to the Bruins, NC State played 11 games against nationally ranked opponents, nine of them against teams in the top 10, eight of them against teams ranked in the top 5, and won them all. Over the course of the 1973 and ’74 seasons, NC State was 17-1 against ranked opponents: 14-1 against the top 10, 10-1 against the top 5, and 5-1 against teams ranked Nos. 1, 2 or 3.

The 1973-74 campaign was the next-to-last season when only conference champions went to the NCAA Tournament. The ACC boasted three legitimate national championship contenders in 1974. Only one of them would have a chance to play for the national championship, which is unthinkable today but a reality that only added to the pressure in 1974. You could make a strong argument that Maryland’s 1974 team was the greatest in that school’s history, while 1974’s North Carolina squad has to go down as one of Dean Smith’s best and most underrated teams. Maryland and UNC spent most of the 1974 season ranked in the national top 5. NC State beat them both three times in some of the greatest college basketball games ever played.

Most importantly, though, in 1974 NC State ended UCLA’s national championship dynasty, the greatest domination of any sport in the history of college athletics. The Bruins won the national championship in 1964 and ’65, then won seven national championships in a row from 1967-73 before falling in double-overtime to NC State in the 1974 national semifinals. ACC teams challenged UCLA several times during the dynasty and failed every time, until the Wolfpack finally broke the spell. The Bruins won one last national championship in 1975 — their 10th in 12 years — but the dynasty was broken the year before.

As 1973-74, Reliving the NC State Wolfpack’s Title Run shows, Pomeranz and his Technician staff covered the 1974 basketball season in depth, writing detailed game advance stories and recaps, player profiles, features and notes columns, capturing not just the nuts and bolts of the Pack’s national championship, but also setting the scene and providing context, both on and off the court.

As time rolls by and the 1983 team grows in stature and legend, the 1974 teams seems to shrink further and further from the public view, and that’s a terrible shame. No disrespect intended here for the 1983 team, which deserves all the attention to come its way. The 1974 squad was the best in school history, the best by a wide margin, and deserves its day in the sun. 1973-74, Reliving the NC State Wolfpack’s Title Run may not balance the scales, but it’s a great first step, and highly recommended.

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.