Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mister Sandman

Sitting in the front seat of the Peter Pan bus I took to New York City this weekend didn't seem like such a bad idea at first. In fact, it was pretty cool, giving me a view of the highway I hadn't seen since my logistics days. But, the city part of the trip turned out to be a little nerve-racking. Let's just say I was a little stressed out by how non-defensive our driver was.

Particularly stressful was witnessing the cavalcade of buses and taxis driving down Lexington Avenue with no regard for the concept of staying in a lane. At one point, as we sat at a light, I counted that 16 of the 18 cars between us and the traffic signal were cabs. Then, I watched as our bus turned right onto 42nd Street, a cab doing the same from the lane just to our right, all the while a bicyclist driving against traffic somehow maneuvered between the two vehicles.

As I took this all in, I wondered to myself how often it happens that Bostonians as pedestrians get hit by cars when visiting Manhattan.

Lee and I arrived at Saturday's game early, promised a short tour of the Yankee stadium control room by an old friend of his who works there. It was quite the impressive operation, of course, and the idea that we'd join Lee's pal for a post-game beer in that same room was on the table. However, the lateness of the game, family obligations, and our desire to make the night less eventful than the last time I visited, pretty much nixed that idea.

The game was a good one, basically a pitchers duel until Billy Wagner's relief appearance. But, I'll discuss him a little later. CC Sabathia briefly flirted with baseball immortality, throwing 3 2/3 perfect innings before walking Victor Martinez in the 4th. Mike Lowell then broke up the no-hitter with a single to lead off the 5th, but Sabathia pitched tremendously, allowing only one more walk, while striking out eight, over seven scoreless innings.

The Yankees had more opportunities against Daisuke Matsuzaka—including a bases-loaded, none out situation that they squandered in the 5th—but didn't get on the board until Robinson Cano's line drive opposite field solo homer in the 6th.

Billy Wagner brought back memories of some of his past shaky performances against the Yankees, allowing two runs in the 8th inning. Somehow these runs were considered unearned because of what I would consider to be a flaw in the official scoring system, but the fact of the matter is he gave up a hit, two walks, and a hit by pitch in two-thirds of an inning.

Wagner's appearance inspired my idea that the stadium play America's "Sandman" as his entrance music, the thought being that it's a much less intimidating song than Metallica's "Enter Sandman." It was written by a guy named Dewey Bunnell, after all. In case you're not aware, there was a short-lived controversy when Wagner came to the Mets, caused by the fact that he also used Mariano Rivera's signature "Enter Sandman" as his entrance song.

It was probably only a few Yankees fans who were really bothered by this, but I thought it would be fun, now that he's with the Red Sox, to stir it up again. Other candidates would be Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" and the 50s hit "Mr. Sandman," although the latter might be taking the idea a little too far.

There were many fewer Red Sox fans in attendance than at Yanks-Sox matchups in the past. As a result, there was a lot less intensity among fans. I didn't witness anything even resembling a disagreement for the entire game. Lee gave me a hard time, though, for a friendly interaction with a Sox fan, as we compared the service between Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium while waiting for more than a half inning, on what otherwise seemed like a reasonable line, for garlic fries.

Sabathia, Phil Hughes and Rivera, combined for 12 strikeouts, and allowed just two hits, two walks and two HBP—both Kevin Youkilis, of course—in a 3-0 Yankees victory. With the Yankees' three-game sweep of the Red Sox this weekend, they clinched first place in the AL East, as well as the best record in the league.

Most people in the know seem to believe that the Red Sox are better equipped than any other team for the post-season. It is true that, with the recent success of Clay Buchholz, Matsuzaka's strong return from the disabled list, and the addition of Wagner to the bullpen, things are falling into place for Boston. But, the Yankees seem to have something special going on as well. So, I'll guess we'll just have to wait and see what October has in store for these long-standing rivals.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Quest for Oktoberfest

Before the advent of refrigeration, brewing beer during the summer was nearly impossible. In fact, a 16th century Bavarian ordinance declared brewing illegal from late April until late September. As a result, German brewers would store their Märzenbiers underground or in caves from March until September, when they would be unearthed for their Oktoberfest celebrations. The Märzen style became what today we more commonly refer to as an Oktoberfest.

Oktoberfest is a seasonal beer style that, to me, has a lot of potential. I always get pretty excited about these brews, but quite often end up a little disappointed. I don't really seem to take to the traditional German varieties, which all too often have a hint of that European lager taste that just puts me off. It's generally the American microbrewed styles that do it for me, but only when done just right.

To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what it is that constitutes "just right" in my book, but I'm on a quest to find out. As fall has officially arrived, and this particular beer style seems to be popping up on draft at various establishments, I've decided that I'm going to be committed this season to sampling as many different Oktoberfest offerings as possible. In doing so, I'm going to keep track, of course, of those that I really enjoy and the reasons why, and then I'll profile them here once my mission is complete. I'll also try to identify exactly what it is that really floats my boat about beers in this category.

I need your help, though. Obviously, I'm aware that I need to check out all the standard German Oktoberfests—Paulaner, Spaten, Hacker Pschorr, etc.—and I promise to keep my mind open to the possibility that one or more of these will erase my prejudice against them. But, I'd also like to know what some of you like.

I'm also opening this up to other fall styles, particularly pumpkin ales and harvest ales. Regarding the former, I first tried a pumpkin-spiced beer in the mid-90s at Brown & Moran Brewing Company in Troy, New York. I loved it, but I haven't tasted a pumpkin beer that I've liked since, including Brown & Moran's subsequent batches. I've heard good things about Dogfish's entry into this market, so I'm sure I'll have to check that one out. But, of course, I'm also open to suggestions.

So, I guess what I'm asking is what are your favorite Fall beers? I'd love a few recommendations to help me get started.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Harvey's Wallbangers

[This post was inspired by an MLB Network hour-and-a-half special, celebrating my all-time favorite non-Yankees team, which I happened to catch this past weekend.]

In the 1981 World Series, after the Yankees had taken a two-games-to-none lead over the Dodgers, I commented to a fellow eighth grader that the team's success was beginning to get a little boring. Of course, they had won the 1977 and 1978 World Series, and were poised to win their third in five years. But, they didn't. The Dodgers returned the favor for 1978, winning four straight games after trailing 2-0.

Still, this began a brief period where my interest in baseball in general, and the Yankees in particular, waned a little. Of course, the Yankees lack of success in the 80s may have had something to do with it, but it seems I already had the feeling that the team's win-or-else mentality took much of the fun out of being a fan.

In 1982, though, another team captured my attention, led by American League MVP Robin Yount and a utility man-turned-star named Paul Molitor. In his four big league seasons prior, Molitor played 304 games at second base, 53 at shortstop, and 46 in the outfield. Then, for the 1982 season, he was switched to third base, a position at which he had previously appeared in only two major league games.

Long before my current fascination with players like Marco Scutaro and Casey Blake, I had always been an admirer of versatile players. Quite possibly it's because of my own experience. In my three years of little league, I had spent full seasons as a left fielder, first baseman and center fielder, and then became primarily a second baseman at the senior league level.

The 1982 Milwaukee Brewers featured three future Hall of Famers—Yount, Molitor, and Rollie Fingers—in key roles, and a fourth—Don Sutton—acquired for the stretch run and the playoffs, as well as a borderline Hall of Famer in catcher Ted Simmons. They were also powered by 30 HR, 100 RBI seasons from Ben Oglivie, Gorman Thomas and recently fired Astros manager Cecil Cooper.

On the mound, they were led by the starting efforts of Yankee killer Mike Caldwell and 18-game winner Pete Vuckovich, while Fingers anchored the bullpen. However, it was their offensive prowess, as evidenced by 216 home runs as a team, that earned them the nickname Harvey's Wallbangers.

Harvey, of course, was manager Harvey Kuenn, who took over the reins of the club after their 23-24 start got Buck Rodgers fired. Kuenn, a .303 lifetime hitter who accumulated over 2,000 hits in his playing career, led the Brewers to a 72-43 record and a first place finish in the AL East. He also previously played for another team—the 1956 Detroit Tigers—that I have a certain fondness for. But, that's a story for a different day.

The Brewers seemed to be a team of destiny in 1982. After falling behind the California Angels two-games-to-none in a best-of-five series, they won three consecutive elimination games to advance to play the St. Louis Cardinals in the first World Series in team history. But, after rallying from a 5-1 deficit to win game four and tie the series, then taking a 3-2 series lead to St. Louis for the final two, their luck ran out.

Not helping matters was the absence of Fingers, who missed the entire postseason due to injury. So, while fellow future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter was saving game seven for the Cards, Milwaukee's bullpen was being touched up for seven earned runs in 6 1/3 innings in the final two games of the series.

My 1982 Brewers capHarvey's Wallbangers fell short of a World Series victory in 1982, and the Brewers didn't return to the postseason until last year, when C.C. Sabathia carried them there on his overburdened shoulders. But, this particular edition of the team was a truly remarkable group, not to mention that they wore one of the greatest caps in baseball history. I'm a little embarrassed to admit, however, that until about five years ago, I never realized the baseball glove that was their emblem consisted of an M and a B.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Blogging About Blogs #1

My new idea of late has been to seek out other blogs that cover the subject matter I'm interested in, and that I write about. Part of my motivation for doing this, I'll admit, is for networking purposes, with the idea being that I'd link to these blogs, maybe send some traffic their way, and this might eventually bring some folks back here as well. But also, I've really enjoyed doing this, and I've begun to discover some blogs that I want to share with my readers.

So, what I plan on doing is finding a few that I really like and, from time to time, profiling these blogs here. In other words, I'll be blogging about blogs. I figure I'll probably focus on one particular subject area at a time, with my three major topics of interest being baseball, music and beer, of course.

Recently, I've been checking out beer-related blogs. Here are a few that have really piqued my interest of late.

A Blog About Beer

The first entry I read on this blog written by a native of Maine—the state that puts all others in New England to shame when it comes to good beer—was titled "Michelob releases new Fall Sampler Pack, but who gives a shit?" I instantly knew I had stumbled onto a site produced by a kindred spirit. It turns out the guy's only 25, but he knows more about craft beer that anyone I know who's that age.

This blog also features a nice little six-part series titled, "How to Drink Better Beer," and has an entire page that's a continuous work in progress on New England's "beer nirvana," Portland, Maine. I agree that the blogger's home city is the best beer city in New England, but I'm sorry BAB, the other Portland is this country's beer mecca.

I also have to thank BAB for turning me on to the blog I'll discuss next, a truly remarkable and ambitious project that anyone can contribute to.

The Beer Mapping Project

The Beer Mapping Project describes itself as "... a project by someone who likes knowing exactly where he is and how far he needs to go for good beer." It utilizes Google's mapping API, a service that adds code to a web page to render locational data, and is free to anyone who is not making a profit or charging users to utilize the maps. Basically, you can use the site to view an area map of brew pubs, breweries, beer bars, beer stores and home brew stores for any location in the United States, as well as 12 other countries. The only caveat is, as you can probably imagine, some of the maps take an excessive amount of time to load.

If you're a fellow beer lover, you can register on the site—for free, of course—and submit locations as well as contribute reviews. Thanks to the blog's registered users, it now includes over 8,000 approved locations throughout the world.

A really great feature of the site is its Beer Trip Planner. While I'm pretty confident in my ability to plan such a trip myself, this takes it to an entirely different level. You search by location name, city or zip code, then build a trip by selecting the places you wish to visit. From there, the planner maps out the locations and provides directions.

While technically a blog, this site doesn't really read like one, but it's such a great idea that I just had to share. Don't leave home without consulting this excellent site first.


I don't necessarily agree with all of this blogger's opinions. For instance, he claims that the best brewers in the world work for Budweiser, and that they could brew really great beer if they chose to. Well, I don't doubt that their brewers are capable of producing much better beer than Bud and Bud Light—apparently, according to Beervana, Budweiser American Ale is a good example of that—but I think it's a huge leap of faith to assume they can do something they never have. It's kind of like all the people who claim Ichiro Suzuki could hit for power if he tried to. I'm sorry, but you're going to have to prove it to me first. Personally, I think, in reality Budweiser's competitive advantage is in its quality control of the brewing process, but creatively crafting great beer is a completely different story.

The author of this blog used to write a beer column for Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon's alternative newsweekly (akin to New York's Village Voice and the Boston Phoenix). Despite the previous disagreement, I've got to give him credit for being willing to make a claim that most beer snobs—myself included—wouldn't have the nerve to. Also, I really like the subject matter he writes about, the unobtrusive simplicity of his site, and I thought I'd offset my inclusion of a blog that refers to Portland, Maine as beer nirvana with one that bestows the same honor to Portland, Oregon. You already know how I feel about the latter, so another reason I like this blog is its emphasis on that city.

Apparently, I discovered his blog while we was on vacation, but the older posts he brought back during this time frame are the ones that sucked me in. These included one about the secret shame of cheater pints, which reveals the fact that, shaker pints—the most common beer glass used in pubs—do not hold a full 16 ounces. In fact, they don't even come close. I highly suggest, if you didn't already know this, you check out the article.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

3000 Hits for One Team

A lot has been made of the fact that Derek Jeter recently broke the Yankees' all-time career hits record with less than 3,000 total hits. Many folks seem astounded that the mark is so low, especially considering we're talking about the most successful franchise in baseball history.

Should we be surprised that no player in the history of the Yankees has reached 3,000 hits? Well, first let's clarify something. When we're talking about a franchise record, we're speaking in terms of statistics accumulated while playing with that team only. So, while there are 27 players in the history of the game with 3,000 or more hits, just 13 of these have that many during their time spent with one team. These 13 players represent 12 different clubs, with only one team able to boast two players who have reached the milestone. Jeter will most likely become the 14th on this list sometime during the 2011 season.

There are eight franchises (Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York/San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals) older than the Yankees. Additionally, the Yanks are one of eight franchises whose history begins in the year 1901, with the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins (originally the Washington Senators) and Philadelphia/Kansas City/Oakland Athletics being the others. So, with 15 teams who've been around at least as long as the Bronx Bombers, is it that big a surprise that, in the near future, they'll be the 13th team to have a player reach the milestone? A little surprising, maybe, but not as shocking as some would lead you to believe.

Since I've done the research, I'm going to throw it out there as a trivia question. Can you name the 13 players and the teams with whom they racked up 3,000 hits? One more clarification is in order, though. These aren't necessarily players who played for just one team for their entire careers. A few of them played for more than one, but still managed to accumulate 3,000 with one particular club.

Also, since we know this is the type of question that can be answered with some pretty simple internet research—although it would probably take a while to come up with all 13 names—let’s do this as a group effort. Think about it for a few minutes, throw out a few names that come to mind, and I'll let you know which ones are right. Then, let someone else rattle off a few answers of their own. I'm confident that, between my three or four regular readers, you can come up with them all.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Locust Grove

In the summer of 1987, I worked a third shift job as a security guard at the Young/Morse Historic Site, otherwise known as Locust Grove, in Poughkeepsie, New York. For about a quarter of the 19th century, the grounds were the home of the family of Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph and Morse code.

Last weekend, KJ and I visited Locust Grove and toured the home and its lovely grounds, while also learning a couple things that even I didn't know about Morse. First of all, I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I wasn't aware he was a painter long before he became famous as an inventor. Most importantly, though, his motivation to create the telegraph was that his wife died while he was traveling far from home, and by the time he received word by horse messenger and returned, she had already been buried.

Young/Morse home
After Morse's death, his family remained for a few years, but eventually sold the estate to the wealthy and politically connected Poughkeepsie couple, William and Martha Young. The Young family was dedicated to the historical significance of Locust Grove and its preservation as it existed during Morse's lifetime. When their daughter Annette died in 1975, her will established a trust to maintain the estate for the "education, visitation and enlightenment of the public."

Pets were an important part of the Youngs' existence, and Annette's will also provided for the care of any living pets and their descendents. The summer I worked there, 12 years after her death, I worked with a "guard dog" named Linus. I don't know his entire story, but I was told he was willed to the estate. Since he wasn't old enough to have been alive during Annette's lifetime, I always assumed he was the offspring of her dog.

Linus wasn't really a guard dog per se, but I can tell you that I was a little nervous to get out of my car the first time he introduced himself to me in the way that territorial canines often do. We became fast friends, though, and he turned out to be a welcome companion as I'd make my rounds of the dark estate two or three times per hour. He also served as my personal alarm clock, warning me as the supervisor's car approached, which was important on the nights that I needed a few winks to get me through to 8am.

The only time Linus wasn't there for me was the night that a pack of coyotes had been seen and heard patrolling the grounds. I'm not exactly sure where he ended up hiding that night, but observing how scared he was caused me to spend most of the night inside my car, rather than at my usual post on the veranda of Morse's former home.

Linus' head stoneThe Youngs' reverence for their pets is evident at the estate by the fact that there are three pet cemeteries on the grounds. Well aware of this from my time spent as a guard there, I knew that our recent visit would give me the chance to pay my respects to one of my all-time favorite dogs.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

I Was Serious

For those of you who didn't think I was serious when I said that I would not watch a single pitch of the early August four-game series between the Yankees and the Red Sox, I assure you that I was. I did end up watching a little less than one inning of that entire series—so I didn't keep my word completely—and, coincidentally or not, the Yankees won all four games. This reinforced, at least to some extent, my personal jinx theory.

Making it a much less difficult task than one would think—there is absolutely no way I could go anywhere in Boston without inadvertently catching a glimpse on the television—I was in Portland for three of the four games, so I only had to ignore the Thursday night game before I left.

I also said that if the Yankees "...miraculously win three or four of those games, I will do the same for the next series." Since they won all four, my self-imposed ban was to continue through the Yankees-Red Sox series two weekends later. Well, after they split the first two of that series, with the Yanks losing 14-1 when I wasn't watching, I lifted the ban for the Sunday night game, an 8-4 New York win.

To summarize, for the year the Yankees have been outscored by the Sox 38-15 while I've watched, and have outscored Boston 63-40 when I've not. The latter score would be much more lopsided in the Yanks' favor if not for the aforementioned 14-1 Red Sox win.

All that being said, and especially considering the Yankees' fairly comfortable lead atop the AL East, I will be in attendance for the September 26 matchup in New York with my pal Lee Mazzola. Lee and I have quite the storied history with Yankees-Red Sox games, with outcomes favoring both sides of the rivalry, but it's been a few years since we've gone to one of these games together. So, I'm very much looking forward to a renewal of sorts.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Dutch

Dutchess County was settled and founded by the Dutch, of course, in the late 17th century. Over 300 years later, the Erie Sailors—then the Texas Rangers' short season Single-A affiliate—left their home in northwest Pennsylvania and moved east to the Hudson Valley. Their new home, Dutchess Stadium, is affectionately known to local residents as "The Dutch."

The Hudson Valley Renegades celebrated the close of their 16th season in the region by setting their all-time single season attendance record of 165,601, an average of 4,600 per home date. They established this mark despite an ill-fated, and tackily named, promotion they called Ball-Less Baseball on July 7.

The idea behind Ball-Less Baseball night was that only women would attend the first five innings of the game, at which point the men would enter the stadium and join the ladies. On the night in question, they ended up drawing just 2,577 fans—more than 2,000 below their season average—for their matchup with the otherwise popular Staten Island Yankees. They rationalized that it was only a Tuesday, but they drew an average of 4,415 for all Tuesday night home games not including July 7.

My father, a Renegades season-ticket holder since 1995, was not thrilled with the idea, and was one of the men who chose to defy the team's request and enter the park at game time. He then proceeded to give Hudson Valley's management a piece of his mind when interviewed by a local television reporter.

Now, I don't necessarily always agree with my dad, but he was absolutely in the right with this particular stance. His reasoning was that the concept of ladies' night means offering half-price admission and/or promotional giveaways to the fairer sex, not creating an exclusive situation for them. After all, the team did not offer to buy back his tickets in exchange for going along with their silly plan. Needless to say, the 'Gades also received a considerable amount of grief from local government.

KJ and I joined my father and his old IBM pal at this past weekend's season-ending showdown with the Oneonta Tigers. The game was also KJ's introduction to keeping score, and she caught on fast, but also found out how much there really is to learn. For a while, I thought she was going to be Renegades pitcher Alexander Colome's good luck charm, as his stuff looked nasty and he carried a perfect game into the 5th inning.

Alexander Colome vs. Alexis Espinoza
Colome lost his perfect game on a walk in the 5th frame, then saw his no-hitter slip away with one out in the 6th. An error by first baseman Eli Sonoqui later, and the shutout was gone as well, but his final pitching line (6 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 0 ER, 9 K) was pretty impressive, despite taking the loss in a 2-0 Tigers victory.

Add Colome (7-4, 1.66 ERA, 1.03 WHIP on the season) to my short list of lesser prospects whom I'll be keeping an eye on in years to come.

The night ended with fireworks off the field, although the Renegades were unable to generate any of their own on it. Despite the losing effort, Brady Williams—the son of former major league manager and current Phillies bench coach, Jimy Williams—ended his first season as a professional skipper by guiding Hudson Valley to a winning season, at 38-37.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Gilded Otter

The Gilded Otter was the name of the ship that the French Huguenots who founded New Paltz, New York came to the United States on. They came from the German state of Rheinland-Pfalz, the latter part of which was pronounced Paltz by the people of that particular area.

The Gilded Otter is also the name of a brew pub in this upstate New York village that also happens to be quite the hippie college town. KJ and I visited there on Saturday, and discovered another brew pub that has much better food than it does beer.

Gilded Otter sign
Rather than order the sampler, we opted to order a pint each and share them, of course. My initial impressions were that they were pretty good, but as we neared the bottom of each pint, I realized that may have been a bit generous.

The Dusseldorf Altbier is a medium-bodied brown ale with medium hop bitterness. Its toasted biscuity flavor has real potential up front, but just kind of fades to the land of bland. It's well-balanced, but I would rate it above average at best for the style.

The Three Pines India Pale Ale has a nice floral hoppy aroma—I accidentally wrote hippy when I was taking down notes on my iPod Touch—but doesn't taste overwhelmingly hoppy. Despite this, the hops still dominate to the point that I think it could stand to be a little maltier.

We also asked for, and received, a small sample of their Stone House Coconut Stout, mainly because we were curious. I couldn't taste the coconut at all—although I thought it was pleasantly creamy—but KJ did, so here I introduce you to a new occasional feature of this blog. KJ Says: "It's too flat. I get the coconut, then a little hint of coffee, but there's nothing dancing on my tongue."

I like that description.

As I said, the food was great. We ordered—and shared—the Pizza Rustica, one of their spent grain pizzas, and the Meatloaf Sandwich. The Pizza Rustica was a Greek style that was covered in tasty kalamata olives, feta cheese, roma tomatoes, artichokes, caramelized onions and garlic oil basil pesto. The Meatloaf Sandwich was advertised on the menu as served cold, but we asked for it heated. It was served on Texas toast with chipotle mayonnaise and tabacco [sic] onion petals. We opted to top it off with pepper jack cheese, and it was just fantastic, as was the pizza.

I thought I was only hungry enough for a light lunch, but these dishes did quite the job of coaxing my appetite out of hiding.

Other than the food, the one really positive thing I have to say about the Gilded Otter Brewing Company is that they rotate their beer selection much more frequently than most. Typically, brew pubs feature one or two seasonal beers at a time, but the Gilded Otter is constantly rotating half their menu. While they consistently serve their four standards, the other four on the menu are constantly changing. So, for variety and experimentation in brewing, they get high marks in my book.

I wish I could rate their beers more highly. I've been mostly disappointed by my experiences with brew pubs in the mid-Hudson Valley, and was really expecting this place to stand above the rest. Maybe it was unfair to the Gilded Otter that it was the first new brewery I've visited since my trip to the craft beer capital of the United States, but unfortunately they will simply be lumped in with all the other so-so brew pubs I've visited during my 15 years as an aspiring beer snob.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Frequent Spins (2009.6)

The Fiery Furnaces - I'm Going Away
My introduction to the Fiery Furnaces was 2004's Blueberry Boat, and I quickly fell in love with its quirky, frenetic, and sometimes pompous, eccentricity. Several unremarkable albums later, I'm sucked back in by the Friedberger siblings once again. I'm Going Away is easily their most straightforward album to date. Don't get me wrong, there are some weird moments here, but songs like "The End is Near," "Staring at the Steeple," "Keep Me in the Dark" and "Lost at Sea" show that this band has some serious pop sensibilities.

Joe Pernice - It Feels So Good When I Stop
Not surprisingly, this one has been in heavy rotation of late. Of course, you can read a little of what I had to say about it in my August 29 post.

Levon Helm - Electric Dirt
The follow up to Dirt Farmer, an album that graced my Best Music of 2007 list, is Helm's second impressive effort following his successful battle with throat cancer. Whereas its predecessor was a collection of mostly old folk and country standards, Electric Dirt combines elements of gospel, blues and soul, including a few originals with some carefully chosen covers. Highlights include the Grateful Dead's "Tennessee Jed," Muddy Waters' "Stuff You Gotta Watch," and Randy Newman's "Kingfish."

Modest Mouse - No One's First, and You're Next
A small collection of songs from the We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and Good News for People Who Love Bad News sessions, this EP clocks in at just under 35 minutes, but is just essential as either of their past two albums. Particularly on the album-opening and single-worthy "Satellite Skin," the melodic banjo-laden country twang of "Autumn Beds," and the sonic weirdness of "King Rat," these songs hardly sound like leftovers.

Patterson Hood - Murdering Oscar (and Other Love Songs)
Just as I'm partial to Spencer Krug over Dan Boeckner in Wolf Parade, I prefer the songs of Patterson Hood over those of Mike Cooley in the Drive-By Truckers. So, you would think I'd prefer an entire album of his songs to a shared effort with Cooley in the DBTs. But, of course, I don't. Murdering Oscar is a very good album, and well represents Hood's ability to write compelling Southern country-rock narratives, but it falls a little short of the brilliance of his main band's recent efforts.

Son Volt - American Central Dust
Son Volt seems to have grown progressively mellower since their 2005 comeback album, Okemah and the Melody of Riot. Jay Farrar has never been too adept at re-inventing himself, but he certainly keeps trying, albeit in baby steps. American Central Dust hasn't been all that well-received by the critics, but there are some real bright moments here, particularly on the album opening "Dynamite," the plaintive "Cocaine and Ashes," and the mid-tempo rockers "No Turning Back" and "Jukebox of Steel."

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Flaming Lips @ Bank of America Pavilion

Flaming Lips took on a whole new meaning Sunday night when the band members emerged from an on-screen representation of a certain female body part to kick off their show at Bank of America Pavilion. All of the band members sans one, that is, as Wayne Coyne suddenly appeared inside a large clear plastic ball.

If you think you've seen it all, you'll have to reconsider, unless you've actually witnessed a lead singer crowd-surf while emulating an embryo inside a womb. In fact, if you've never seen the Flaming Lips live, you're really missing out. Even at a venue that is far from my favorite, they put on an unbelievable show. The best way I can describe their live performance is that it's akin to Frank Zappa fronting Pink Floyd, and teaming up with the rejects from the Denver Broncos cheerleader tryouts, to play the guest slot on Sesame Street. Of course, I mean that in the most reverential way.

With ticket prices that were certainly on the steep side, especially when factoring in the additional charges of almost $20 per, the Lips chipped in a few extras themselves. Each online ticket purchased came with a special code to download three tracks from their forthcoming album Embryonic, three rare B-sides, and an official live audio recording. For the latter, I waited the two days necessary for them to post the audio of the Boston show. I was torn between that and downloading a show I hadn't attended, until I realized I received two codes for the purchase of two tickets. So, I can use the other for a different concert, perhaps the Portland show that we missed by just a few days.

Listening to the live recording as I write this, I've come to the conclusion that Wayne Coyne is a worse singer than I realized, even for someone who ranks near the top of the list of my favorite singers who can't. But, that's OK with me, because he's an exceptional performer—aided on this night by a couple of Red Bulls and some whiskey—with an endearingly quirky voice. Musical highlights included the feel good singalong "Bad Days", the rare lead vocal from Steven Drozd on "Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung", and "Vein of Stars", which was dedicated to—in the words of Coyne—their "cosmic brother" Ted Kennedy.

Although it seemed there were fewer balloons traveling around the audience than usual, and the crowd atmosphere never quite reached Grateful Dead show status—not that I would know from personal experience, but I swear their last show did—this was another exceptional performance from a truly great band. I can't imagine giving as much to the crowd as the Lips do, and doing it night after night while on tour, but these 40-something indie rockers do not hold back, nor are they even slightly lacking in appreciation for what the audience gives in return.