Look who’s out of the house

I don’t get out much. That’s pretty obvious. I go outside to run, I buy groceries and I hang out with the kids in the yard or the Country Day playground across the field from my house. My friends have jobs and kids with early mornings looming. As a result, most of my conversations with people are electronic.

Then there is work, which usually takes place in a large stadium or arena with professional ballplayers and media types. Obviously, the nature of the conversation in this realm is limited as well. After the game is finished and the stories all finished it’s usually close to midnight or a little after and  I have to drive all the way back to Lancaster. That means my post-game social life is limited to time spent in the car with an iPod loaded with downloaded podcasts and loud music to keep me alert on the way home.

But that’s all fine. Besides, is there anything more pathetic than a guy pushing 40 just hanging out?

No. No there is not. It’s just plain creepy.

Anyway, because I don’t get out much and because my wife and I are always looking for different forms of entertainment, excitement and travel opportunities, she went all out and surprised me with tickets to see Pearl Jam in Washington, D.C. last Sunday. Actually, it was a Father’s Day gift for me, which is totally unnecessary. As long as I get a drawing from the kids or a bottle of Brut or Old Spice, I’m as happy as can be. I don’t wear anything like that – in fact, I don’t even brush my rapidly thinning hair [1]– but if my kids got me some I’d splash it on like it was pay day.

Hell, if they got me a wacky tie that didn’t match anything I have in my closet I’d wear that, too. If they took the effort to get me something, by golly I’m wearing that thing out in public… all the time.

But instead of Old Spice or a gaudy tie, we left the kids with my mom and went to The District so she could stare at Eddie Vedder for three hours (more on that in a bit). Sure, we could have gone to one of the two shows in Camden just before the band hit Washington, and perhaps I should have picked up on her hints when she asked me about going to Philadelphia vs. Washington. Instead, I lauded the drive from The Lanc to The District and ripped away on the town where I work.

“There is no comparison between the cities,” I told her and quickly tamped down any type of social activity that involved me going to Philadelphia for something other than work.

Clearly we made the correct choice. In comparing notes with a friend who attended the shows in Camden, the D.C. crowd was treated to a better show and the folks who skew toward the older end of the demographic didn’t have to tolerate ridiculousness from fellow concert-goers.

I’m sure there is another rip job on Philadelphia fans between those lines there. Let’s just leave it with what my friend told me:

“Everyone was either 18 and looking to buy drugs or trying destroy anything they could get their hands on,” he said, noting that Washington and Philadelphia “Were totally different.”

Having lived in both places I agreed, noting that the D.C. natives I knew well all were similar in that they were all intensely into what they liked. They focused on it passionately, yet always knew where to draw the line. With Philadelphians, the line doesn’t exist.

Needless to say, both approaches have their plusses and minuses.

Just like sweeping generalizing about residents of specific geographical areas.

When presented with a choice between seeing a rock show in Washington or Philadelphia, it’s a pretty easy decision. Barring that, if both cities were equal in terms of things to do and cultural selections, Philadelphia would lose simply because one has to drive on the Schuylkill Expressway to get there.

Yes, ultimately it comes down to the pavement.

So we went to Washington to see Pearl Jam, though, truth be told, I was more interested in the opening act, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists. In fact, had any other outfit opened the gig for Pearl Jam, I doubt we would have even considered going and I’m sure there might have been like five or six other folks in the big Verizon Center, right there in the heart of downtown, with the same sentiment.

Regular readers of this little dog & pony show already know that we are big fans of the Pharmacists led by Ted Leo. In past missives I believe I wrote that I follow Ted Leo’s rock-n-roll outfit the way some folks follow baseball. If he plays within driving distance of my house and I can get away, I go. If not, I’ll check out the set list on the web and maybe even find an audio copy of what I missed because I was hanging out with the kids or watching a baseball game or something like that.

Generally, though, the venues Ted Leo typically performs in are nothing like the Verizon Center. When he played in Lancaster in November of 2006, Leo played at the Chameleon Club, which is a medium-sized rock house a lot like the 930 in D.C. or the Trocadero in Philly only… well, nicer. It’s in those types of places – or the steady amount of live radio interviews and sets – where Leo built his following and continues to pack them in with (strapping on the newspaper writer hat to drop the clichés) an energetic assault of melodic punk rock with a solid ‘70s feel, harkening back to the early Clash.

That’s what they always write, and it’s true. But there’s something missing there that doesn’t quite grasp the appeal of Ted Leo. Sure, he and the Pharmacists are energetic and have a tight, melodic sound – but there’s more. Maybe it’s something about the ethic of the guy and the fact that at 37-years old, there definitely were easier routes to take rather than fighting for everything in the indie scene? Maybe there is some hopefulness in just seeing someone like Leo – a Jersey native educated at Notre Dame with stints in D.C., Boston and NYC – sticking to the notion that the work and the aesthetic is the most important thing? Maybe with Leo there’s something there that people can touch – it’s real?

Then again, what do I know? Michael Bolton has sold 53 million albums[2].

Nevertheless, the idea of Ted Leo in the Verizon Center warming up the crowd for Pearl Jam was an intriguing concept. How would that D.I.Y. vibe and stripped down sound and stage work in a basketball arena? Would 20,000 people be in their seats waiting for him to go on? What would it look and sound like from the nosebleed section?

Truth be told, seeing Ted Leo & the Pharmacists in a quarter-filled arena looking like a Gibson-playing dervish dressed in white was… interesting. Yes, it seemed as if he was bringing the energy from the clubs into the big building, but with so few people in the seats there wasn’t enough to absorb the sound. As a result, the sharp-edged melodies bounced all over the place just like something Gilbert Arenas tosses around in the joint.

Still, in the 45 minutes he played, Ted and the Pharmacists ripped through 12 songs, half of which were brand new. Leo told the crowd that since he was a DCite of sorts and the people who were hyped on him likely knew his body of work, he trotted out the new stuff, which should appear on an album this fall.

I wish I could report on the details of the new material, but it took a lot of concentration to keep up with the sound before it was swallowed up by the vastness of the arena. However, compared with the last record, the spring ’07 Living with the Living, the new stuff sounded angrier.

That’s good. What also was good was my wife leading my four-year-old son in a sing along of the chorus of “Rappaport’s Testament,” the tune Ted sang to close his act.

I never gave up, I never gave up
I crawled in the mud but I never gave up

Afterwards, Ted and the gang helped the crew pack up the gear to clear the way for Pearl Jam.

***

OK, how does one write about Pearl Jam in a way that hasn’t been done before? Have they become so ubiquitous and so entrenched in the pantheon of agit-rock that all that’s left is for them to cruise into the ether much like their predecessors? Will they turn out to be like The Who, a group that lead singer Eddie Vedder claims “saved his life” and whose guitarist, Pete Townshend, Vedder says should receive a father’s day card from him every year? Twenty years from now are we going to see a Pearl Jam reunion tour like something out of the Rolling Stones’ playbook? You know how they do it – it’s always the last one ever until the next one.

I doubt it any of this will occur with Pearl Jam. You don’t stick round for a long time and produce meaningful work by getting old.

But whatever. The notion that someone should quit doing what they want just because they get old is arrogant and stupid. Who doesn’t want to do what they love forever? Hell, I hope I’m engaged in all of my passions when I’m old. Better yet, I hope I’m lucky enough to get old.

When Pearl Jam gets that old and takes their act out on the road, I suspect it won’t be any different than what we saw last Sunday in Washington. Stripped of all the bloated, rock-star excess, Pearl Jam played for nearly three hours. That includes short breaks between the pair of encores, though the extra sets lasted nearly as long as the initial, 18-song preliminaries. Actually, the 13-song encores went on so long that some of the workers in charge of cleaning up the Verizon Center had gathered near one corridor waiting for Eddie and the gang to call it a night.

Even when the house lights went on a little after 11 p.m., the band raged on for another 30 minutes.

But rather than beat the crowd into submission with a show longer than my last few marathons[3], Pearl Jam hosted a sing-a-long in which 20,000 folks screamed, chanted, pumped fists into the air and recited the lyrics back at the band. Unlike a lot of big-arena rock shows where some folks in the audience are intent on ingesting various organic and inorganic substances meant to alter some sense of reality, the Pearl Jam crowd in Washington was rapt by what was taking place on the spare stage decorated with just a mural of a pair of waves crashing toward each other in the background.

Some critics have written that the Pearl Jam crowd seems to be an updated version of a Grateful Dead audience in that many of the fans will travel from city to city to see the shows, they take a painstaking interest in the set lists and the scarcity of the performances of particular songs and they collect the “bootleg” versions of the shows the band offers for download on its web site.

But unlike Dead shows that I witnessed in three different cities in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was more of a sense of community in Washington last Sunday. Everyone (at least where I was) was focused on the music and the performance instead of “where their trip might take them.”

Besides, is there any band more overrated than the Grateful Dead? OK, how about The Doors?

However, similarly to Dead shows of a generation or two (or three) ago, the mainstream media (I guess that’s me, right?) likes to charge Pearl Jam shows as some sort of cultural statement or at least the antithesis of popular culture. That’s especially the case when it comes to Vedder, who in Washington railed against the White House, the war, off-shore drilling and voiced his support for a certain presidential candidate when he said, “It’s going to be great to get some color in the White House!”

But come on… how alternative can a group be when it has sold approximately 50 million records? How “anti-” can people be if they take one specific side in a two-party system? Better yet, why are people shocked when I guy with a microphone uses it to say something?

Hell, even some Pearl Jam fans don’t like hearing Vedder’s politics or opinions. That seems to be the general opinion about all celebrities too – a lot of people want their celebrities and rock stars to be just as vapid as there are.

And that’s a damn shame. Frankly, I wanted to see the Pearl Jam show in Washington more than any other city specifically because it would be more politically charged. I like hearing other people’s ideas – I know, it’s crazy. In fact, I don’t care if I agree with what’s being said at all, I just want to hear someone say something interesting. For instance, take baseball pitcher Curt Schilling – he and I probably agree on very few political issues. I’m sure I’d even ridicule some of the things he says to friends or in print (check the archives here, I’m sure I ripped him). But Curt Schilling isn’t boring. That counts for something.

Eddie Vedder isn’t boring either. Though he fronts a really tight band with guys who are stars in their own right, all eyes were on the singer. I know that because my wife was damn-near swooning from the second he took the stage. During a couple of stretched out jams, Vedder left the center of stage to wait in the wings where he drank from a bottle of wine, caught a quick smoke and chatted up some of the fans. Yet the entire time the band was wailing away, I heard, “Look at him… I wonder what he’s saying to them.”

It was the same thing in July of 2003 when Vedder showed up at Veterans Stadium before a Phillies game. Everyone swooned. Mike Lieberthal got an autograph, others tried to wiggle past the extremely large body guard to get close enough to say something to the singer. Hell, even I wanted to walk over to the guy and tell him that Fugazi is the greatest band of the past 30 years because I knew he’d agree.

And then we’d both be right.

Regardless, only one person – a player’s wife – penetrated the wall and chatted up Vedder and even she had the same look on her face that my wife had last week. Shoot, the guy was so short and wiry that I thought about picking him up and putting him in my pocket.

Yeah, that was creepy.

Anyway, Pearl Jam is far from perfect. There a few songs that are so odious that they have become very difficult to listen to. But presented in a nearly perfect rock show format even the bad ones are kind of good. For instance, the song “Black” is so heart-wrenching that I can’t stand to hear it. When 20,000 people sing along to one of the saddest songs outside of Elliott Smith, it’s tough.

The same goes “Last Kiss,” the remake of the early-‘60s number, which gave me a good chance to sneak out to the nearly deserted concourse to find the restroom. “Crazy Mary,” the sublime number from the Victoria Williams benefit soundtrack was a little overdone with the addition of keyboards.

However, “Yellow Ledbetter,” another one I always found a little… well, awful, was pretty good with the house lights up and guitarist Mike McCready finishing it off with a Hendrix-style “Star Spangled Banner.”

The highlight? Try Vedder singing “No More” from his solo record made for the film Into the Wild. Actually, it was just Vedder and an acoustic guitar singing a perfect, folk/protest song that he wrote as a tribute for a soldier injured in Iraq.

The song also made it onto the documentary Body of War.

Finally, the most in-the-know bit of stage banter came when Vedder introduced “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” with, “This one is for Mt. Pleasant…”

He didn’t have to come out and say Ian MacKaye, right?  I mean, Vedder is on record saying that MacKaye should be put up for sainthood – and he’s right – but everyone got that reference…

Right?

***
Afterwards, we rolled up to Adams Morgan to The Amsterdam Falafel Shop only to find it closed at 12:15 a.m.

Oh well, at least I got out for a change.


[1] I wash the hell out of it, though.

[2] Do you know anyone who owns a Michael Bolton album (or will admit it)? Fifty-three million! Who is buying 53 million Michael Bolton records?

[3] Was that me bragging? Yes, I believe it was.

Fully engaged?

Barack & HillaryToday is another Super Tuesday of sorts in the Presidential primary races. It gets the all-encompassing “super” moniker simply because of the implications the races in Vermont, Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island. For the Republicans it means that shoo-in nominee John McCain will collect the necessary delegates to put him over the top.

On the Democrats side, a four-state sweep by Barack Obama could push Hillary Clinton’s Presidential bid to the brink. However, if Clinton wins the two delegate-rich states in Texas and Ohio, be ready for a full-court press by both candidates before the Pennsylvania primary on April 22.

Here comes the understatement of the week: There is a lot at stake today.

But that fact has been known for a very long time. In fact, media reports indicate that the 2008 bid for the White House has galvanized voters of all ages in ways that have not been seen in a very long time. People are engaged in the process, they are listening to the speeches out on the campaign trail, dial up the relevant news on the Internet, and have turned out to the polls in record numbers.

Everyone is engaged, especially 20-something year-old voters, who, according to reports, have turned off the ridiculous YouTube videos and dived into the national discourse. Better yet, those folks are asking questions and confronting conventional wisdom… these are all very good things. Frankly, it should make all citizens, regardless of political philosophy, to see so many people engaged.

It is an exciting time in our history.

But according to an ESPN.com story by Jeff Pearlman, there is one subset of folks whose precarious bubble has not been pierced to allow reality inside. That group?

Major League Baseball players.

According to Pearlman’s story, there are little fraternity houses in every ballpark around the country where Maxim magazine, the lack of fuel efficiency of one’s Hummer, and the run-of-the-mill superficiality of the bling-bling culture have not been offset by a true historical moment. Yes, according to Pearlman, baseball players are as dumb as ever.

Chronicling his visit with the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals and the lack of political discourse therein, Pearlman charted the top 10 topics of discussion. They were:

Indeed, a top 10 list of spring training topics discussed by ballplayers would look something like this:

1.Baseball
2. Free sunglasses
3. Breasts
4-5. Jesus/golf (tie)
6. Dinner options
7. The Kyle Kendrick YouTube video
8. Britney Spears
9. Strip clubs
10. More Jesus/golf (tie)

C.J. WilsonNot every player is so switched off, though. One who was not shy about discussing his disdain for his teammates’ apathy was reliever C.J. Wilson, a left-hander who has been described as a Taoist and adheres to the Ian MacKaye-inspired “Straight Edge” philosophy of personal politics. When asked who amongst his teammates is as interested in the Presidential races as he, Wilson glumly answered, “No one.”

“It’s frustrating,” Wilson told Pearlman. “I’d say there are two reasons. One, there’s a general lack of education among us. But two – and most important – you’re talking about a population that makes a ton of money, so the ups and downs of the economy don’t impact whether we’re getting paid. Therefore, we often don’t care.”

“It’s not that complex,” Wilson says. “Baseball players think about baseball.”

That’s true. Baseball players get paid a lot of money to play a game and there are always dozens of players just waiting to get a chance to bump off another from the lineup. Understandably, there is a lot of pressure involved in keeping such a high-profile and high-paying job.

Yet at the same time there is a ridiculous amount of downtime for professional athletes. Games don’t last all that long and there is only so much time that a player can devote to workouts and treatments and whatever other job-related tasks. As a result, Pearlman’s list is pretty apt, though he seems to have missed on the ballplayers’ devotion to gambling, card playing and crossword puzzles as favorite pastimes.

At the same time, maybe Pearlman picked the wrong clubhouse? The Phillies have a few players switched on to issues, if not elective politics. Chase Utley is a budding conservationist and has lent his name to environmental and animal-rights initiatives. Meanwhile, Jimmy Rollins, the team’s player representative, is quietly aware of history regarding civil rights and baseball.

Jamie Moyer runs his Moyer Foundation, which created and funds Camp Erin, the largest national network of bereavement camps for children and teens; Camp Mariposa, for children affected by addiction in their families; The Gregory Fund, for early cancer-detection research; and The Moyer Foundation Endowment for Excellence in Pediatric Palliative Care for Seattle’s Children’s Hospital.

Additionally, Moyer’s father-in-law, Digger Phelps, worked for the Office of National Drug Control Policy and also served as an observer in the 1993 elections in Cambodia.

Those things are little more involved than simply following along with the process. Still, baseball players have – and various athletes in general – have picked up the label as being nothing more than “dumb jocks.” Some have chided golfer Tiger Woods for refusing to take a stand on various racial and political issues. Meanwhile, Michael Jordan famously failed to endorse African-American democratic senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt in his early 1990s race against arch-conservative Jesse Helms in North Carolina, because, as Jordan stated at the time, “Republicans buy sneakers, too[1].”

That’s hardly as inspiring as Ali’s, “I ain’t got no quarrel with no Viet Cong,” but perhaps Jordan and Woods have to protect their corporate interests first? If that’s the case, how does one define ex-cyclist, turned marathoner, Lance Armstrong, who has been nothing if outspoken in endorsing political candidates and calling out others for their failure to work for improved cancer research and better health care?

Greg Odenwhat about Greg Oden, the top pick in last summer’s NBA draft? Out with an injury for the entirety of the season, Oden has spent his time following the campaigns and musing about them on his blog. In a recent interview with The Washington Post’s, Michael Wilbon, Oden admitted some of his naiveté about politics, but said he is committed to being fully engaged in the process.

“I can’t even imagine that now, knowing enough to govern a city or a state,” Oden told Wilbon. “I’m just at the point where I’m watching CNN more than I ever have, listening to the candidates. I’m not the most educated guy in the world on the issues, but I’m getting there.”

During various campaign stops, Oden has had a telephone conversation with Obama and introduced First Lady Laura Bush at a campaign event. He admitted that both events were quite nerve-wracking.

Nevertheless, Oden has come out with an endorsement for Obama on his blog and says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I can’t say I know every single one of his policies by heart,” Oden told Wilbon, “but I’ve done enough homework to know what I like about him. I really feel more strongly about young people voting, about making an educated decision. I’m not trying to tell people what to do or who to vote for, just to educate themselves and participate. What could be the harm in that?”

None. None at all. Perhaps all this engagement could have some sort of influence on our democracy and maybe even get a few more folks involved.

***
Also by Pearlman: Nomar is a creep.


[1] To be fair, Jordan contributed money to Gantt’s campaign and has also been a contributor to Bill Bradley’s and Obama’s run for the White House. Plus, people have the right to shut-up, too.