Sunday, September 27, 2009

Flowers for Levon?

Went to see a Levon Helm show on Saturday and a Steely Dan show broke out.

Actually, it wasn't that extreme. Levon brought his Midnight Ramble jamboree to The Stanley Theater in Utica, a beautifully renovated old playhouse in a decidedly unbeautiful city. J. and I have seen Levon a couple of times in the last few years, once at his studio in Woodstock, another at a mini-festival with Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst, The Swell Season and others at SPAC. R. is a recent convert to The Band and wanted to go.

My cousin's boyfriend worked at the Ramble for years and tipped me off to the fact that Levon wasn't singing again. Several years back, Helm was down and out, a victim of bad finances and throat cancer. Miraculously, and heroically, he regained his voice and, though it was more frail than in times past, it was wonderfully emotive. A Grammy followed for Dirt Farmer and a new disc, Electric Dirt, carried the comeback further. I didn't want to tell R. and J. that Levon wouldn't warble, but I wasn't sure and it felt more prudent to wait and see.

A local DJ, looking like every other local DJ you've ever seen, pudgy, unwashed and pony tailed, came out to introduce the show. He announced Levon wouldn't sing, "but you knew that." I didn't think that was so well-known. Then he chastised any potential refund seekers. "There will be some assholes who'll want their money back." Really, that's what people are who bought tickets expecting a certain kind of show and now weren't going to get it? Look in the mirror, asswipe.

Now the big surprise to me was that Donald Fagan of Steely Dan was sitting in with the band. J. noticed it on the marquee as we entered the hall, but later I found out that it was announced a few days back. I'm not much of a Steely Dan fan, although I do love "Deacon Blues," and the presence of Fagan did nothing to neutralize the loss of Helm. Yet, there was an indisputable excitement to having another legend on the stage. It was very cool and the highlight of the show was Fagan's lead vocal on "King Harvest (Has Surely Come), with the intro sung by Amy Helm and Teresa Williams.

Teresa's husband, Larry Campbell, has emerged as the leader of these shindigs and he is a fabulous guitar/mandolin/violin player, but he doesn't have the presence to carry a show with a silent Levon. That' s not to say that the performance wasn't crowd-pleasing and electrifying. There were a ton of great musicians on that stage, including keyboardist Brian Mitchell, who should seek medication for his Dr. John fixation. Even mute, Levon stole the show, dancing a bit and clearly in charge of the group. He was clearly touched by the overwhelming support and love that emanated from the crowd. In recent years, Levon has benefited from the good will of his fans and entourage, who kept him afloat when he was down. Though I've heard that the Ramble has become more of a business than a family affair, and I've noticed that the show in Woodstock is more polished than it was 3 or 4 years ago, Levon seems pretty nice to those who've been part of his network. Except, of course, for Robbie Robertson. Levon thinks Robbie ripped him off.

The star of the show, in comic relief, was the spotlight guy. Don't know where they got this dude, but he was incapable of finding the soloist. When Campbell played a few mean choruses, spotlight guy was focused on Jim Weider. When Weider tore into a furious riff, Campbell was lit up. The best was when the spotlight would roam the stage in search of the proper musician. I think it was the same spotlight guy from the old Looney Tunes cartoons who would never hone in on Daffy.

So, will Levon get his voice back? Campbell indicated it was coming back, but who knows. My thoughts often turned to Flowers for Algernon. In that book, a retarded man becomes the beneficiary of a miracle cure and becomes a genius. Slowly, the medicine wears off and, by the end, he's back to where he started. Let's hope for a better end for Levon Helm. He's earned it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Return to the Original

Way back in 1984 I came up with a plan. With 26 Major League teams in existence, I could see every ballpark in about 10 years. I had it all laid out. Since I was living in New York, I could visit all the East Coast teams by car, then slowly fly my way out to further destinations. When we moved to Chicago in 1987, a whole new roster of stadia (or stadiums, if you prefer) were within a reasonable drive. Then, K. and I planned some efficient California trips, knocking off the 3 SoCal teams in one week, the two NoCal teams in a similar time frame.

Well, you all know about the best laid plans. Two new teams came on board and, more daunting, a wave of building ensued. Those 26 trips have grown into 45. Yes, that's right, I have been to 45 Major League ballparks, missing only Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. That burns my bottom, but when that crappy park bit the big league dust I wasn't quite sure I would cover the whole list. Bad thinking. I still have a few more to pop in on - St. Louis, San Diego, Washington and, I think, next year brings Minnesota and, after that Florida. I was actually complete once. Maybe it was after the 2000 season, before PNC and Miller Park opened. I don't remember.

Which brings me to this past weekend, when I revisited Camden Yards in Baltimore. The first of the retro parks, it has always been, to my hazy memory, the best. I saw two games during the Inaugural Season of 1992 and now, having been to so many of the other copycats, I had some basis of comparison.

It is still number one. While most new ballparks have attempted to have a city feel, Camden does it best. The warehouse, a historic building looming large on Eutaw St., seems like part of the Oriole Park, but it's not. By having this huge structure outside the yard, the stadium itself is allowed to have a smaller feel. That the corridors feel as much outside as in also permits the playing area to feel tinier. Most of the new parks give the aura of intimacy until you get there. They are all, by and large, large. Monstrously so. As to the organic feel of stadium and city, that is still a rarity. Some parks like that of the Rangers, are plopped in the middle of nowheresville. Others have had "neighborhoods" spring up around them. Camden Yards is truly part and parcel of the Inner Harbor area.

That the Red Sox hammered the Orioles was incidental, though sad. There was a time when sellouts were the norm at Camden Yards, but now that the Birds are fully and completely lousy, the stands are partially full, and worse this past weekend, crammed with obnoxious BoSox fans, as if there is any other kind.
One story. During an inning break, the scoreboard flashed the "Kiss Cam." Those on screen are supposed to smooch their significant other. You know the drill. The camera panned on a couple. The guy was deeply snoozing beneath his Red Sox cap. The girl, seeing their image on the big board, tried to wake him. No luck. In a few seconds there unfolded a story of a dysfunctional relationship. To the right of our protagonist, dreaming happily of the times when he thought the 2004 Champs were not a bunch of steroid-happy drug abusers, was a guy in an unmistakably black and orange Orioles cap. When he saw the girl was unable to arouse her partner, he stood up and spread his arms in an "I'm game" pose. Well my friends, she grabbed hold of this fellow and laid a passionate kiss on him that was laced with discomfort for the viewing audience. I guess she showed her boyfriend/husband! As to the lucky recipient of the scorned woman's spite kiss, it was a rare time when someone in an Orioles cap scored that night.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Remaster Heaven

Listen readers, whoever you may be. I may be out of touch for a bit. Besides researching 4 stories for Maybe Baby (or, You Know That It Would Be Untrue), and screening 13 films as judge for the 3rd Annual Baseball Hall of Fame Film Festival, I am ensconced in my carriage barn listening room, a prisoner of The Beatles remasters, stereo and mono. I am a happy captive, a willing sufferer of Stockholm Syndrome.

I may or may not write in depth about the remasters, so let me say a few words right now, based on hearing the first four stereo discs (Please Please Me, With the Beatles, A Hard Day's Night and Beatles for Sale). It's an amazing feat to take the utterly familiar and make it brand new, but the remasters have done that. All four members are fab in ways that are fresh and revealing. John's rhythm guitar has never sounded so propulsive, an alternative energy source if ever there was one. George's lead guitar rings, the switch to the Rickenbacker so evident in ways I've never heard before. His fills are a joy. Paul's early bass work, while a couple of years from the groundbreaking inventiveness of Revolver and after, is not nearly as simple as once assumed. He's got his tricks that Macca, even in the most seemingly simple of songs. His tone is deep and flowing in a way that seemed to begin much later. And Ringo, let me tell you something about that Ringo. I never understand why conventional wisdom made Charlie Watts so sterling and Ringo so unskilled. Ringo may be the most redeemed of all via the remasters and Rock Band. His beat is unnervingly solid, his style unmistakable and now, rescued from the mire of the old mixes, it's clear that The Beatles would never have been The Beatles without him.

I won't go song to song - that would take forever, but I'll throw two at you. "Don't Bother Me" reveals a sizable debt to surf music in a way never before apparent. It could be a Chantays instrumental if George's curmudgeon-with-a-grin vocals were stripped away. The stops and starts in "You Really Got a Hold on Me" (boom -"hold me" - boom- "hold me") are punctuated by Paul's bass. I gotta say I never even heard it in their before.

Back to the barn. "Help" is next on the play list. And, by the way, you say it's your birthday? Well, it's my birthday too, yeah.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Out With the New, In With the Old

No where is the difference between the Mets and the Yankees more apparent than in their new ballparks.

Tom Seaver once said he didn't understand why the Mets didn't play up their own interesting past.Citi Field's generic, Mets-free approach, is typical of the current ownership, as is the homage to the history of, not the current denizens of Queens, who have been the National League franchise from the Big Apple for almost 50 years, but of the team that left the city high and dry, the Dodgers. Not stadium related, but equally ridiculous, is the Mets donning a throwback uniform of the team they were playing, the Giants, a few weeks back. What the Wilpons don't grasp is that Met fans love their history. The poor schmoes who dig the Mets want to see pictures celebrating Ed Kranepool and Jim Beauchamp, game used bats pried from the sweaty palms of Rod Gaspar, films of Mackey Sasser throwing wild pitches back to the mound. Don't go to Citi for that - it's not there.
You will not find such lapses in reason at the new Yankee Stadium. Its facades are back and beautiful. The gold letters on entrance ways are stunning. There's no need for statues outside the park. The stadium itself is integral to the annals of the game.
We picked up our tickets at Gate 2, site of the Yankee offices. Before the doors opened at 10 AM, J. and I waited outside. As we cooled our heels, up came Yankee broadcaster Michael Kay, wheeling his game day luggage behind him. J. loves Kay, and asked for an autograph. J. knows how to be polite and said. "You're my favorite announcer," to which Kay replied, "Why are you wearing a Cubs hat then?" J. laughed. Once inside, we quickly noticed a statue of George Steinbrenner, peering at any who dared enter the elevators, making sure that any such person deserved the privilege.

Once our tickets arrived, we made it into the park itself. We had a plan - hit Monument Park right away, then head to the Yankees Museum. Our timing was perfect. Monument Park is fine for what it is, a tribute to the most successful team in pro sports. The plaques have always left a lot to be desired. The Yankees should use the same sculptor the Hall of Fame employs. The likenesses are pretty poor. Yankee fans are a picture taking crowd and it's awfully hard to make your way through them with any speed. We did, and when we got out the line filing in was ungodly, and it was only 10:30!
At the Museum we met up with Curator Brian Richards, who I knew from Cooperstown. He's got a challenge ahead of him, as it's clear that the Yankees have kept nothing over the years. All the artifacts, and there are some great ones like the Babe's bat from his first homer at the old ball yard, are on loan from collectors. The cases celebrating new Hall of Fame Inductees and ex-Yanks Joe Gordon and Rickey Henderson, have Brian's mark all over them. They tell the story of the two men very well with a bit of text, great mementos and a lot of humanity through the use of quotes. The central piece of the Museum is a wall of single signed baseballs from living Yankees. On one side of the case are facsimile autographs of past stars, on the flip side the balls themselves.
One after another, people came up to Brian, asking "Is there any order to the baseballs." Repeatedly, and patiently, Brain explained that there was no order, that balls keep coming in and it would be difficult to realphabetize, or reorganize the chronology if they were kept that way right now. He pointed to the computer screen on the wall which did guide people to their favorite Yankee by location (21C, or something like that). As someone who has shelved albums, CDs, and books, I can sympathize. Nothing is worse than reorganizing everything when the supply shifts.
Because Monday was a day/night doubleheader, we ended up in a difficult spot. We had ordered tickets for the 1:05 game, but, once I was safely in the ballpark, I noticed the tickets were for the 7:05 contest. There's a huge subgroup of Yankee employees holding baseball signs which have the message "How Can I Help You?" I have to say, every one of those people were of enormous assistance and we got straightened out with time to spare.
Oh yeah, the game. The Yanks beat the Rays with a bottom of the 8th rally. Sabathia and Garza squared off in a wonderful pitching contest, Brett Gardner made a sprawling catch behind Nick Swisher's interference, Evan Longoria hit a home run. From our seats in Section 226, we had excellent site lines. The video screen is colossal and impressive. The replays seemed almost more real than the action itself. We didn't eat much, a couple of Nathan's hot dogs and some cheese fries, so I can't comment that much on the variety.
Even leaving the Stadium seemed easier than in the old days. We parked in an indoor lot on River Ave. The parking garages I recall from the first Yankee Stadium were a nightmare to get out of. Not so now. At the monstrous intersection of Jerome Ave., River Ave., 16-something St. (and about five more streets it seemed), was a storefront one could only find in New York - "Everything 99 cents or more." A great laugh to end a perfect day.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Solid Bond

Record shopping. It's a passion of mine, as frequent readers know. Whenever I go travelling, the first thing I do is check if their are record stores. I've never planned a vacation around whether I could buy used LPs, but don't think I wouldn't. I used to go to the record stores in Chicago and Evanston around my birthday, yet another treat to myself.

When we moved to Cooperstown, I wondered whether there would be any kind of outlet for my vinyl needs. Lo and behold!, there was Last Vestige in Albany. Great store, with bins of $1 albums that are hard to get past. There's also a nice selection of $3 discs, as well as racks of higher end pieces. (For a complete list of the 45 albums I bought on this trip, check my Facebook note).

So, yesterday before meeting my old college pal and fellow Slipped Disc Record Co-op manager Paul, me and the boys (a great Dave Edmunds song, that) headed up to L.V. There was a twist to this trip, 16 year old R. wants a USB turntable. We said he could get that, plus nicer computer speakers for Hannukah or his birthday, but, surrounded by records, he couldn't wait. Diving right in,,he rifled through the $1 containers and, his first record was ...... John B. Sebastian's solo LP. R. has been very much into Woodstock lately and nothing is more Woodstocky than the former Lovin' Spoonful leader's debut.

I found Pete Townshend's "Empty Glass" and "Chinese Eyes" for R. and he was beside himself. Later he would say that was one of his greatest moments ever. "Empty Glass is my favorite album ever!" he said gleefully. Happy to be part of it. He's hooked on records now, totally, and it was great fun to teach him the ins and outs of the science of purchasing used records. I showed him what to look for, and that he must take the disc out for inspection. He ran his finger over various scratches to learn the difference between surface and deep gouges. We talked about cleaning systems, proper care, etc. He even got a quick primer on warping.

I used to go to baseball card shows and sees fathers with their sons searching through stacks of singles with their want lists by their side. I always dreamed of doing that with one or more of my own sons. But this is so much better, really. It's a pleasure to see R. thrilled by the same things that I am.

One problem. He saw a copy of Music from Big Pink before I did. I don't have it on LP, for shame, and the gatefold pictures are beautiful. I told him I was jealous and he offered it to me, but I explained the first rule of record hunting, "If you find it first, it's yours." I'll just have to be more alert next time.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Lloyd, Wilson and James

I tend to avoid buying greatest hits packages. If I like someone, then I prefer to get their complete work. Lately, I've been wavering on that formerly firm belief. I've come to terms with the fact that some artists have a handful of great tunes and some really shitty albums. Last week I went on a compilation binge, collections of Booker T. & The MGs, Ruth Brown and Wilson Pickett. The two disc Pickett set, A Man & A Half has its surprises, like "Let Me Be Your Boy," which sounds like the early ska of Bob Marley or Desmond Dekker. The Wicked Pickett - an original Rude Boy?

Listening to Pickett has brought back memories of one of my favorite concerts, a triple bill of Lloyd Price, Wilson Pickett and James Brown at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, circa 1983. Bob Maffucci, Jeff Gross (where are you now ol' housemate!) and myself went together. I think Bob lived up there, maybe Larchmont, and tipped us off about the show. I can't imagine any other way I would have known in the pre-Internet days of an event like this.

Lloyd Price set the table. I remember him as very gentlemanly, in a suit, pacing the stage singing hits like "Personality" and "Lawdy Miss Clawdy." At 50, he seemed so old, but it could have been a matter of style. "Mr. Personality," uh, not so much.

Pickett hit the stage, gleaming in a white jumpsuit with a cascade of fringe. Wilson was good, very good at times, although he tended to be pretty screechy. Now that I'm 47, it's hard to reckon with Pickett being five years younger than me at the time of the show. He seemed so dated, but, maybe so am I. It's hard to tell for sure.

What I recall of the crowd was that the three of us were the only white faces in a sea of 5000. We were dressed pretty casually, and the rest of the audience was dressed for a night out.

It's unimaginable that James Brown and Lloyd Price were both born in 1933. Brother James was a blur of motion, spinning, leaping, crashing to the stage. The arena was put into an immediate frenzy. It was incredible to watch. Weirdest thing, and lasting memory - between each song the band would play the riff from Entertainment Tonight. It was hysterically funny and pretty strange.

In my long history of concert going, this show makes my greatest hits album.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Twitter. Why? I understand it's a fast growing technology and I use it for Maybe Baby to keep the site a daily happening. Every day I highlight a moment in rock history and each anecdote is fun to dig up and share. OK, so far so good.

But the incessant updates? Even I'm not interested in my moment to moment life. Why should anyone else be? If I want people to know how great a concert is, I'll write about it. If I have a random thought, I might share it with a few. But, "Eating a slice of pepperoni at Lombardi's." well, who gives a shit. Just me, and maybe the waitress. "Sitting on my porch," so?

We live in an age where privacy is nil and I do have a problem with that. When I see what's thrown out there on Facebook, or what I hear in random conversations, I admit I'm a bit appalled. I'm not a prude, at least I don't think I am, but, hey, some things are best left unshared.

That brings me to the "Follower" part of the Twitter experience. For those not in the know, you can follow people you find interesting, or, perhaps, people will become your followers. I have some good followers to be sure, readers of Maybe Baby, some bands that have caught notice of the blog. That's all good. I also have "PornoWilly," "Britney Sucks Dick" and some of their pals. I blocked them all today. The scanning of new accounts that result in spam followers is annoying and off-putting. Now, I don't mind porn sites following me per se, but I wish it was a bit more personal, like that they really enjoy Maybe Baby. It's too much to ask, I know.