Thursday, April 30, 2009

Womack Daddy

On Saturday night, Lisa and I saw Dave Alvin play at the Columbus Maennechor in front of a couple hundred very well-behaved patrons.

The Maennechor is an old German supper club-type joint and the show was in a small ballroom-ish space that was kinda sterile and kinda creepy, frankly.

Anyway ...

I love Dave Alvin. He is responsible for a great many of my favorite songs and also plays a central part in one of the enduring urban myths of our time — The Wet Alternator.

It has to do with Dave Alvin at the Tin Angel in Philly in 1997, my brother Trip, rain and deep deception.

(You'll have to ask Trip about the details — I've repressed the whole sordid affair.)

Dave Alvin's show was impeccable.

It was the musical equivalent of the film Unforgiven. Moments of greatness and inspiration sprinkled through long, tasteful stretches of Alvin's warm baritone talk-singing/storytelling that nearly put my wife down for the count.

(Beware the mango-tini at The Old Mohawk in German Village. And, for the record, she was out like a light 40 minutes into Unforgiven — no alcohol was involved.)

The Dave Alvin concert was a show that I know I'm supposed to have loved. I mean finally taking advantage of the opportunity to see this living legend in concert.

But — brace for the heresy, music nerds — Dave Alvin acoustic live is a little boring. A tad monotonous. Something of a museum piece.

Yes, he got our blood surging with a rousing King of California and a lovely Every Night About This Time and a heartfelt Kern River. Plus, he's genuinely funny and endearingly grumpy.

Yet, I couldn't help but think of Sinead O'Connor many times during the night.

Bear with me.

Sinead O'Connor has a habit of whisper-singing to the point that I want to take a hammer to the cd player. But when she decides to actually, ya know, really sing — it is beautiful and stirring.

Dave Alvin spent a good deal of time whisper-talk-singing and, frankly, I found it kind of annoying. Mostly because when he actually sung, he sounded great.

His guitar playing — and that of his sidekick Chris Miller — was tasteful and sterling.

But tasteful guitar heroism isn't all that high on my list of concerns — concert-wise.

I want to feel. Be moved. Identify.

For that, I had to go to the Red Door Tavern the very next night.

Along with fifteen other extremely fortunate people — I had the pleasure of seeing singer/songwriter/author/wandering troubador Tommy Womack (left) play.

Yes, one-five.

15. As in one more than 14.

If Dave Alvin was channeling Clint then Tommy Womack was channeling a southern-tinged Aaron Sorkin. Highly literate, self-deprecating, slightly sentimental, deeply opinionated and often hilarious, Tommy Womack is a first-rate songwriter, a sneaky-good singer and a road-tested sure-footed performer.

He even got the dickhead in the corner to stop his relentless texting and join in the standing O after Womack did The Replacements — the best song ever about a real band.

If you like John Prine. If you dig Todd Snider. If you can't get enough of well-written, world-weary, witty, generous and occasionally angry songs that you sing along to even though you've only just heard them for the first time —

Tommy Womack is your guy.

I'm no expert on Tommy Womack. I've seen him play live twice in my life. And the first time, in 1999 at the Sutler in Nashville, I wasn't crazy about it. Lisa was. I was not.

I am now crazy about it.

And prior to Sunday, I couldn't name you more than three Womack songs. Further I have incurred the enduring wrath of my brother Scott (who recently shared the bill with Womack in Philly — and put the wandering troubadour up as well) by neglecting to, as yet, read The Cheese Chronicles.

But, let me just say this about that ...

For one night in a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall in front of 15 people, Tommy Womack killed it. He connected. It was loose, scruffy and emotionally fraught.

He was singing about himself ... and us.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

... In The Booth Today

Column inches by the hundreds and blog pages by the thousands are paying tribute to Harry Kalas, the one and only voice of the Philadelphia Phillies.


Why is Harry Kalas, a guy who announced baseball games and narrated football highlight films for a living so beloved? Why is there so much emotion behind the tributes? Why do we care?

Because ...

It is rare to experience someone so clearly the very best at what he does — and experience it for so long (Kalas became the voice of the Phillies in 1971) with no hang-ups, no hiccups, no dust-ups.

Kalas loved his job. He respected his good fortune. Unlike Harry Caray, he was no clown but he never took himself too seriously. Unlike Vin Scully, he never tried to make baseball or the announcing of it more than what it was, yet he knew how to frame the drama of the sport. In addition, Kalas had the great fortune of having the perfect broadcast partner — Richie Ashburn — for nearly thirty years.

Listening to Harry Kalas do a baseball game was damn near sports perfection.

Countless books, articles and essays have been written about the generational pull of baseball — the magical way that it connects people to their past and those who inhabited it.

That is the greatest gift that Harry Kalas gave to those of us fortunate enough to hear his calls.

It's impossible to hear the voice of Kalas and not be flooded with images, sounds and emotions from summers and falls gone by.

The cliched image of a little kid listening to some piece-of-crap transistor radio under the covers fit like a glove in our chaotic, unpredictable household. And it was Harry Kalas who often carried us through the night — especially on the West Coast swings that stretched past midnight and beyond.

Not only the greats like Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa and Juan Samuel but forgotten names like Max Scarce, Willie Montanez, Tommy Hutton, Wayne Twitchell and Larry Hisle— not to mention Gene Garber, Oscar Gamble, Bake McBride and Dick Ruthven — came to vivid life across the airwaves via the memorable pipes of Harry Kalas.

The call by Kalas of Mike Schmidt's 500th home run is one of the great, emotionally stirring calls of all time.

Hearing it again these last few days gave me chills. It choked me up.

My brothers and I spent untold hours playing baseball and every variation of baseball every summer of my youth. And we always did Kalas when something memorable happened.

My old man was an accomplished minor-league and semi-pro baseball player and he lives and dies with the Phillies. Listening to Harry Kalas and Whitey Ashburn in the summer was one of the only things (possibly the only thing) we could all agree on.

So many of those moments Kalas called — from Rick Wise's no-hitter in 1971 to Schmidt's 500th in 1987 to Brad Lidge striking out Eric Hinske this past October — evaporate the distance between what we were and who we are now.

Finally — Mike Schmidt, the greatest Phillie of all-time, told a story today on ESPN radio about how Kalas would affectionately call him "In The Game Today" — as in "the greatest player in the game today." Schmidt would respond in kind with "In The Booth Today."

The booth today is empty and will never be the same.