Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Last night, the South Carolina Gamecocks capped off a mindblowing run and took home the College World Series title, earning the school its first major National Championship.
While the University of South Carolina might be a school known for athletics, it certainly isn't known for being good at them. Our football team has a rich history of flirting with greatness but ending up with failure. Our basketball team is good for an upset every now and then (see last year's Kentucky game), but they're rarely a threat. Baseball, however, is a different story. We're considered a top tier team. We recruit far and wide. We are routinely ranked in the top ten. Yet none of that has translated to a National Championship trophy.
That is, until last night, when Whit Merrifield slapped an opposite-field single in the bottom of the 11th to drive in Scott Wingo. Walk-off, game over, season over: National Champions.
Perhaps my euphoria is difficult for some of you to grasp. And I don't mean the feeling of winning, mind you, but the feeling of finally breaking through. If you're a fan of Florida, Alabama, Texas, the Lakers, the Yankees, the Red Wings; winning to you is the norm. Losing is hardly tolerated, much less expected. But for the Gamecocks--aside from a few scattered bowl victories--seasons have always ended in with a loss. Sometimes that loss has occurred at the hands of Clemson, capping off a miserable 0-11 football season. Other times we've come close, but ultimately had to watch from the dugout as our opponents hoisted the College World Series trophy. Whatever the case, we've never been able to call ourselves undisputed champs. And now, we can.
I'll spare you the recap of our journey to Omaha, rebounding from the egg we laid in the SEC tournament, plowing through the opposition in both the regionals and super-regionals (ousting national seed Coastal Carolina in the process.) One of eight teams to earn a spot in the College World Series, Carolina went to Omaha as one of the sleeper-favorites. But Arizona State was the true favorite. UCLA was playing in the wake of John Wooden's death. Oklahoma is a huge program that was looking to add another trophy to its shelves. Florida and Florida State's rivalry overshadowed ours with Clemson. And TCU had the scrappy underdog tag. Neither South Carolina team fit into ESPN's storyline parameters.
Things started in dubious fashion when we lost our opener to Oklahoma, thus placing us on the brink of elimination. Now it was win four in a row, or go home. What's worse, Clemson handled #1 seed Arizona State in their opening game, which meant our life depended on eliminating the perennial powerhouse. But pressure was our magic potion, and we dismantled Arizona State. Our next game was a grudge match with Oklahoma, Clemson having defeated them in the winners' bracket. We gave up a run in the second and trailed before tying it in the eighth inning. The game would go into extras. In the top of the 12th, Oklahoma blasted a solo home run, and things looked grim. The Gamecocks were on life support. Down to our last strike in the bottom of the 12th, we put together a spectacular rally, pushing across both the tying and winning run.
Success was sweet, but Clemson awaited. Having won out so far, the Tigers were in a good spot. They needed one win to advance; we had to beat them twice. But in a repeat of the 2002 semifinals, the Gamecocks beat Clemson twice, eliminating our arch rivals and earning a spot in the College World Series finals. We'd face UCLA, who knocked off the scrappy TCU Horned Frogs. Since 2003, the finals have been a best two of three format. We'd have to beat two of UCLA's three aces if we wanted to take home the hardware.
The first game wasn't even close--a 7-1 Gamecocks win--but last night was a different story. UCLA's pitching was domineering, ours was holding but seemed shaky at best, and our bats were asleep. Still, in a near re-creation of the second Oklahoma game, South Carolina trailed 1-0 going into the eight inning. We'd had plenty of runners on via walks and the occasional single, but we weren't getting solid hits when we needed them. And we wouldn't until later. But in the eighth, we were just fine with an unearned run that resulted from a boot by UCLA's first baseman.
The remaining three innings were a beautiful display of pitching. Our freshman phenom closer Matt Price came in and went three excellent innings, most notably getting out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth by way of a brilliant strike-out. But Carolina had no answer; UCLA's closer was equally as impressive, blowing away batter after batter (including Jackie Bradley, Jr., who spoiled his 22-game hit streak by posting an 0-5 line.) But in the bottom of the 12th, Scott Wingo led off with a walk. Wingo, to that point, had played a pretty terrible College World Series. He'd made several errors and was hitting well below .200. Suffice to say, he needed to contribute. Wingo took second on a wild pitch, and made it to third on a ground out. That brought to the plate right-fielder Whit Merrifield--with whom Wingo had collided in the second Clemson game. And as soon as Merrifield connected, there was no question. It was a clean hit down the right field line. Wingo scored, and the celebration began.
It was a magical run for the Gamecocks. Not a miracle run, mind you--the Gamecocks were an exceptionally talented team. But six straight wins, two against the rival (note: this also gave USC a 3-2 season series win over Clemson), comebacks, walk-offs, unlikely heroes: This championship run had it all. Not to mention this was Rosenblatt Stadium's final game after 62 years of service. Not only did we win the title, but we own a piece of history.
But I must say, the finals were marred by ESPN's unabashed UCLA bias. Throughout the last game, ESPN repeatedly cut to Trevor Bauer, one of UCLA's hotshot starters, lavishing praise upon the wily young fireballer with the sun-bleached hat. "Oooh, he's ready for South Carolina tomorrow!" "He'll be ready to pitch today if UCLA needs him!" Not an inning went by without Frank Patrick, Orel Herscheiser, or Robin Ventura trumping up Bauer (never once mentioning Sam Dyson, Carolina's senior starter who would have gone on Wednesday.)
And guess what? Bauer never threw a pitch. He watched dejected from the bullpen as Wingo crossed home plate and UCLA's title hopes went up in smoke. I don't mean to make light of Bauer's situation; he's a good player. But I just love it when ESPN's sensationalism is for naught. Sorry your "John Wooden inspires men's baseball team" montage will go to waste. Now stop being such self-aware jackasses, and also stop injecting promos for crappy movies into Sportscenter.
Anyway, I won't let that pathetic excuse for a pressbox sully an otherwise unforgettable run. Congratulations Gamecocks. You've validated many years of stress and letdowns. I should also commend Clemson fans, who by and large were rooting for the Gamecocks to take one home for the state. Again, both teams were virtually ignored by ESPN's production team--our rivalry was criminally under-emphasized--so hopefully we'll get some increased attention next summer.
Since I feel I should at least attempt to tie in some music, I give you the Gamecocks' most well-known music-makers:
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Of course, they can't all be Phosphorescent. I submit as evidence Band of Horses' Infinite Arms, three years removed from their quality sophomore effort, Cease to Begin. While I'd hoped to have warmed to it by now, it still strikes me as uninspired and hollow. Ben Bridwell steps out of the spotlight all too often, opting for middle-of-the-road rock histrionics instead of the spacious, slow-burning rock grandeur that we saw early on. But today's Band of Horses is a mere shade of the band who made the timeless Everything All the Time, with Bridwell being the only remaining member. I'm hoping for some fireworks on BOH_LP#4, but for now, it's been diminishing returns since the start.
Another gaggle of southern boys (and 1 girl) released a mehxcellent record this year: The Drive-By Truckers. Their tenth LP, The Big to Do, was just that. It certainly has some pop, but by and large it's a handful of mid-tier Truckers songs. Patterson Hood sounds soft--surely a byproduct of age and fatherhood, but it's marked. I hate to say it, but I don't think Shonna Tucker's fronted a non-throwaway except for "I'm Sorry Huston" from Brighter Than Creation's Dark. But hey, Mike Cooley still brings it!
Dishonorable Mentions: Despite my genuine appreciation of the folks at Drag City, I found the new Bonnie "Prince" Billy record, The Wonder Show of the World, to be some adult-contemporary tedium. It's not terrible, but I fear he's spreading himself too thin (we've seen three BPB albums in three years now). Still, "Troublesome Houses" is a great song.
Best Live Experience:
Wilco in Savannah. The acoustic set alone (featuring the likes of "She's a Jar" and "At My Window Sad and Lonely") was enough to warrant celebration, but a 34 song set by your favorite band is tough to beat. The following night in Atlanta was just as enjoyable, but Savannah's setlist puts it a tick above. Can't overlook my second-row Avett Brothers experience from a few weeks ago, either. It's been a good year for the Johnny Mercer Theater in Savannah!
New to George Award:
With all this new music, I did manage to fill in my back catalog a bit. For instance, I finally found time to appreciate Paul Simon's Graceland (although I will always hate "I Know What I Know" -- nothing like shrieking African singers to ruin a song, Paul). A few months before that, however, a musical confidant inspired me to check into country luminary Buck Owens. I acquired to Owens' 1965 album, I've Got a Tiger By the Tail, and was genuinely moved by its pure, classic sincerity, so far removed from the drivel that we hear out of Nashville today. The high-lonesome ballad "Let the Sad Times Roll On", is the kind of song that probably inspired Gram Parsons to write "Sin City":
The "Most Likely to Crack the Top 3 Before 2010 Is Over" Award:
Not a hard choice here: The Arcade Fire and The Fleet Foxes, as mentioned, both have releases upcoming. But look out for Menomena, whose new record drops in July. It's far more accessible than Friend or Foe, and I think it has the potential to up the ante for the Portland indie-rockers savant.
Be sure to vote in the poll at the right, thereby telling us who you think has the best record of the year thus far. And for old times' sake, here are the past three HSWMTTY Awards:
Midway Through the Year 07 Music Awards
Midway Through the Year 08 Music Awards
Midway Through the Year 09 Music Awards
Sunday, June 27, 2010
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Jonny: It was a scratch! A scratch!
You never know with these guys. One second it's, "Oh, we're never releasing an album again," and then the next it's, "Oh, we're almost finished with the next LP." Thankfully, the pendulum has swayed towards the latter, as Ed O'Brien has confirmed that Radiohead is wrapping up the In Rainbows follow-up.
Of course this has created a lot of chatter amongst Radiohead fans, and an equal amount of boo-hooing from unappreciative ninnies who probably also complain when Ben and Jerry's give away free scoops. Anyway, no hints of--anything at all, really--pertaining to the nature of this new record, aside from the standard "it's different from the one before" line. Has a band ever said "Our new album will be a complete retread of our last effort. Very little will change, and odds are in a decade or so you'll forget which one came out first"?
It doesn't need saying, but I'll be following this one closely. Here's to hoping it breeds a tour that doesn't stop at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Charlotte. Coincidentally, I've been working on a feature that involves this very band. You should see it in the next few days.
Monday, June 21, 2010
So HSW contributor Drew Harkins is, believe or not, a bona fide writer. That is, he's occasionally paid to produce. I know, I know -- in this era of unfiltered bloggery, that seems novel. But by gum, Drew is a top notch scribe, so why shouldn't he earn some scratch for his skills?
As evidence, I give you his recent Free Times piece on the lovely Cary Ann Hearst, South Carolina's own alt-country dynamo. Be sure to visit the page, linked in the previous sentence, so to give the excellent Columbia alternative rag a few hits, thus boosting ad revenue. But for your convenience, I've republished it below. Without further ado:
“I got a couple iiiirons in the faaaiire,” Cary Ann Hearst drawls over the phone as we discuss her schedule. Though her thick Southern accent drips with a politeness as sweet as sugared pecans, finding the time to talk about her new album isn’t in the cards, partly because of her busy schedule.
|Cary Ann Hearst|
The reason that particular designation endures is not just because she’s a cutie. It’s also because she plays some damn good country music. Now, if you were to get technical, you might best describe her catalogue as a mix of folk and Southern rock, sometimes with inflections of Cajun stomp and hillbilly shuffle thrown in for good measure. Regardless, her musical persona is as directionally challenged as her many personalities. On the one hand, she has the honky-tonk pedigree of Miranda Lambert, replete with sass, vigor and the whole nine. On the other hand, she has a mean artistic streak that often veers into a very noir thematic territory a la Neko Case. Sometimes, she purrs and croons like Wanda Jackson. Other times you’d swear she’s reminiscent of John Denver. It’s this confusing duality that guides her Americana pastiche and keeps the dorks at No Depression guessing.
Oh, did I tell you that she stands about five feet tall in her cowgirl boots, yet can wail and howl like God’s own truth? Mmm-hmm. Yep.
Hearst can talk about having irons in the fire, but it seems more like she’s burning the candle at both ends right about now. When she plays with her backing band, she calls them The Gun Street Girls. She also plays in a duo with husband Michael Trent, formerly of Charleston’s The Films, called Shovels and Rope. (They played the Cannes Film Festival and hung out with movie stars, you know.) Not to mention that she and Trent, with the help of other Lowcountry musicians, founded a local, artist-run label called Shrimp Records.
One of the first releases for the label is her latest solo EP, Are You Ready To Die. Recorded in L.A. and cut with renowned producer and erstwhile Georgia boy Butch Walker, the album is a bit of a departure for the notoriously down-home girl. It’s slick in the sense that the instrumentation is more ornate than her previous D.I.Y. effort, Pocahontas, but it’s not gussied up in the Taylor Swift sense. Because as Hearst knows best, banjo riffs and mandolin licks do not a country song make. Sometimes it’s turning the twang on its head by employing an accordion, as she does on the album’s zydeco-worthy opener, “The Thread.” Or rather, it’s the Ronettes-style doo-wop vocal riffs on the Orbisonian title track, or the saloon piano on “American Made Machine.” Hell, it could be the plod and yelp of the decidedly non-Hayseed Dixie “Hell’s Bells” that gives Heart’s brand of country its undeniable je ne sais quoi.
Whatever it is, it’s a verve that’s working for Hearst, who despite her contrarian urges, has an admittedly love-hate relationship with notoriously stodgy Music City. Sometimes you can envision her material being picked up by a major label. Sometimes you get the sense that she toys with the whim of becoming more “commercially viable.” Sometimes you wonder why it hasn’t happened yet.
Either way, it might not really matter. If Nashville never takes to Hearst’s particular firebrand, it’s their loss. She’s already beloved down here.
Friday, June 18, 2010
Thursday, June 17, 2010
As you can see, there's also been a bit of a facelift applied to the blog. We've been rolling with that simple black scheme for three years now, so I felt it was time for a bit of refinement. Also, Blogger provided a new function allowing CSS-challenged folks like myself to very simply customize a theme. So I thought, why not?
Anyway, enjoy the new look and I'll be back with some more updates fairly soon.
Update: Now with a shiny new banner!
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
w/Jessica Lea Mayfield
Johnny Mercer Theater (Savannah, GA)
June 11, 2010
The Avett Brothers are getting big. That really isn't too mind-boggling from a musical standpoint, is it? They have an incredible sense of melody and songcraft, and the ability to compose instantly likable songs in droves. As for their recorded catalog: While they've yet to craft a true masterpiece, each album is a buffet-style spread of delicacies. Chances are you won't scoop from every steamtray, but you'll damn sure have second helping of the "Swept Away" casserole.
I'd become acquainted with the Johnny Mercer Theater only a few months prior, when I saw Wilco play a show that pretty much made other live bands look silly. Not that the Avetts had anything to prove on June 11th--their live show is probably more buzz-worthy than their music (which says a lot). Think of it this way: I knew they were a must-see live act before I'd even heard a note. But what was fascinating about this gig is that, in all their years touring the region, they'd never played Savannah.
Opener Jessica Lea Mayfield might not have bigger fans than the boys themselves, whose somewhat bewildering emfatuation with the Ohio songstress is no secret. They famously (among fans) covered her go-to song, "For Today", in a youtube clip that can be seen here. It's a good song, but I'd never heard her perform it before this gig.
Mayfield's set was like a slow-moving factory belt, plopping out one slowcore twanger after the next. It was nothing short of a relief when she announced the next song--"For Today", of course--would be her last. But what she lacked in variety, she made up for in awkward band members. Of the four gents who comprised her backing band, only two were especially strange: the bassist and the guitarist. They flanked, her by the way, so watching her dully strum between these two gyrating minstrels was like watching some kind of strange performance art. The bassist stood no higher than five and a half feet, and sported a lush red mane that fell to his leather jacket-clad shoulders. His legs were stuffed into skin-hugging jeans and laceless black boots. But it was his stage presence that took the cake. Whilst rudimentarily plucking his red Fender bass, he would bend slightly at the waist and sharply at the elbows, squeezing his knees together and tip-toeing across the stage. He resembled a marsh-bird strolling through high reeds. He looked downright constipated.
But he was downright tame compared to the guitar player at Mayfield's left. He was tall and thin, looking like a Freaks and Geeks extra, yet rather unremarkable attire-wise (save for a yellowish cowboy hat.) But the guy was a master of guitar wankery. The bassplayer might have walked weird, but at least he was calm about it. This guy was fucking nuts. While his bandmates slogged through Mayfield's set, the guitar player tore at his axe, conjuring an array of asinine facial expressions. But what truly struck me was how shaky his playing was! His sound was all awash in distortion and delay, but it couldn't mask some missed notes, unimpressive scale runs, and silly fretboard theatrics like Hendrix trills and tap-soloing. Yes, tap-soloing during a Jessica Lea Mayfield song.
Anyhow, they left and on came the boys, firing into the concert-standby "Paranoia in B-Flat Major". The band was positioned about ten or fifteen feet back of the edge of the stage, but they routinely made use of the space, sending the first few rows into a proximity frenzy. I've seen four Avett Brothers shows now, and Savannah raised the bar. Sure, it didn't hurt that I was close enough to get a handshake and a nod from Scott Avett before they left the stage (as did my girlfriend, who nearly fainted), but the five-star setlist cemented it. Culling tunes from each of their major LPs and EPs aside from Carolina Jubilee, we witnessed a two-hour reminder of why we love the Avetts. The joy they take in performing is evident, and the band seems as appreciative of the live experience as the audience is. You get the feeling they'd be just as energetic and unhinged even if they were playing to an empty house.
Just a few notes, since I've already blogged about Avett shows extensively:
Song of the night had to be "Pretty Girl at the Airport", the Seth-penned ballad to which "Laundry Room" probably owes its tender approach. Seth's other Mignonette standby, the silly-yet-goodhearted "At the Beach", was also played. A trio of tracks from the Gleam EPs showed up: "Backwards in Time", an ambivalently received "Yardsale", and finally a Scott-solo performance of "Murder in the City" that provided the night's best moment. During the roaring finale of "Pretty Girl From Chile", Scott strayed a little too far from his pedal rig, ripping his chord straight out. He re-plugged, and went on to break two strings. At the song's end, Seth made light of it, saying "On the four-string, partially plugged-in guitar, Scott Avett!"
The encore was a couple of songs I could have gone without: Live staple "Go to Sleep" and the title track from last year's I and Love and You. They're both fine, but I would have swapped them out for "Kick Drum Heart" and "Talk on Indolence". But these are but petty gripes, because it was overall a damned fine show. So good, in fact, it was cause for one, er, hyper-fan to place it in the top five of her 78 (yes, 78) Avett live experiences. But still, top five!
After the show, we ventured back with roughly eighty others to try to score a picture or a handshake, but alas, the band eschewed meet'n'greets to hit the highway to Bonaroo (understandable). We hit the highway ourselves, rolling into Charleston at around 2 AM. So the Avett's first gas in Savannah was a complete success. At one point, Seth said "This may be our first time here, but it certainly won't be our last", which of course was received with a steady hoot-and-holler chorus. Sure, it smacks of rock show pandering...but he might just have meant it. The crowd really was as fired-up as I've ever seen at an Avetts concert. As they should be; they've waited patiently for a show of their own, and now they've got a classic to boast.
Here's the setlist and some iPhone photos that do little justice to the overall performance:
Paranoia in B Flat Major
I Would Be Sad
Head Full of Doubt
Die Die Die
Pretty Girl at the Airport
Backwards With Time
At the Beach
The Perfect Space
Pretty Girl from Matthews
Murder in theCcity
Pretty Girl from Chile
And It Spread
Go to Sleep
I and Love and You
And some pictures:
Other Johnny Mercer Theater Reviews:
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
1 (3%) - Heaven Is Whenever by The Hold Steady
5 (16%) - Forgiveness Rock Record by Broken Social Scene
3 (10%) - Together by The New Pornographers
10 (33%) - High Violet by The National
5 (16%) - So Runs the World Away by Josh Ritter
2 (6%) - Infinite Arms by Band of Horses
4 (13%) - None of the above
Despite at least some support for each entry, it was never that close. The National's moody opus garnered twice as many votes as the next closest contenders, those being BSS's Forgiveness Rock Record and Josh Ritter's So Runs the World Away. 4 voters scoffed at my choices, no doubt favoring the Black Keys or Phosphorescent above my six. Who can blame them? Both should have probably been included.
Thanks as always for voting, and look for a new poll to spring up in the next few days.
Oh, and I can't believe only one of you knuckleheads voted for the Hold Steady!
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
We're nearly halfway through this year and, I have to say, I'm rather floored by the amount of quality new music that's been released thus far. Who says music is dead? Our fourth annual "Halfway Through the Year Awards" will shed some light on that--look for it at the end of the month--but suffice to say, I've had no shortage of freshly pressed music with which to flood my ears.
If you're harboring any thoughts that Q3/Q4 of 2010 will be comparatively lackluster, I have two pretty hefty arguments against them:
1. The Arcade Fire has announced its third album, The Suburbs. It'll drop on August 3rd.
2. While there's been no official announcement, the Fleet Foxes posted this picture on their Facebook page:
Call me crazy, but that looks a lot like a finished album.
So it looks like the bands responsible for two of the 00's most immaculate debuts are poised to release new LPs. Man, that sentence goes down smooth! Relative to this blog: the Fleet Foxes eponymous debut was my top album of 2008, and the Arcade Fire's Funeral was hastily named 5th best album of the decade (in retrospect, the Fleets should have made that list too.) So you understand my excitement.
Anyway, hope that starts off your June on the right foot.