Sunday Morning, (Snow) Coming Down

Random sporty and musical musings and observations as the weight of the impending Nor’easter hangs over spring’s neck like a barometric guillotine . . .

1. The beloved Royals lost yesterday, while the woeful Nationals won, dropping Kansas City into a tie for the worst record in the Major Leagues. This is early, even by their standards. Go team! (As noted in the prior post, I’ve always been a fan of Washington-based teams, so I’ve kind of adopted the Nats as my favorite National League team. Imagine my pleasure at having two basement-dwellers to root for now!)

2. About half way through the NBA season, the Washington Wizards had the best record in the Eastern Conference, and I was stoked to predict that they would be the designated sacrifical lamb set before Dallas in this year’s Finals. Now, though, Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler are riding the bench with injuries, the Wizards are barely holding on to a .500 record, and a first round demise to Miami or Detroit looks more likely. Go team!

3. My hockey faves, the Washington Capitals, didn’t bother to make the playoffs this year. Again. (Go team!) So I’m pulling for all the Canadian teams in their absence. Let’s toss ’em a bone and let them have back Lord Stanley’s Cup for a year. It would make them so very happy. And no one knows what to do with it in Nashville, Atlanta or Anaheim any way.

4. On a rare positive sports note for me, I am loving the fact that the two colleges I have attended (Navy and Albany) are both highly ranked in Lacrosse this year. I feel all but certain that they will meet in the first round of the playoffs this year, just to spite me.

5. Musically, I am totally agog and ga-ga this week over the new Grinderman album, the best thing Nick Cave has produced since 1996’s Murder Ballads. Cave is one of the most potent, powerful and visceral performers I’ve ever seen live or heard in a studio. His work with The Birthday Party and early incarnations of the Bad Seeds was literate and frightening, and delivered with an intensity that has rarely, if ever, been matched in contemporary musical history. (Marcia and I saw the Bad Seeds play in a Gothic meeting room at Georgetown University while she was pregnant with Katelin; we both consider it the finest concert we ever saw).

Since ’96 or so, though, Cave and company have generally explored more laconic and placid musical forms, especially after long-time noisy collaborator Blixa Bargeld left the band. The Bad Seeds swelled into something too big to be a rock band, but too small to be a big band. It always seemed like there was either too much going on, or too many people just marking time in many of their recent songs and albums. I frankly haven’t much cared for any of the albums during this period, since I find Cave to be far less entertaining in his piano balladeer mode than I do when he’s playing the part of ominous raving musical lunatic.

There was a glimmer of hope last year when Cave and company performed a couple of songs on Hal Willner’s Rogues Gallery collection of pirate songs and sea shanties: their take on “Fire Down Below” evinced the malice, darkness, and humor that had been woefully absent from so many of their later works. Grinderman now takes that a step further: Cave has cut the Bad Seeds in half, keeping only Warren Ellis (violin), Martyn Casey (bass) and Jim Sclavunos (drums), while Cave himself plays guitar, a first for him. The songs are raw and ragged, the performances passionate. It’s mean and dirty and ragged as all get out, but Cave sounds more convinved and convincing on this record than he has in ages. Bravo for a fiery return to form!

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Royals Fan

Hi. My name is Eric. And I’m a Kansas City Royals fan.

We’re a week into the baseball season, and the Royals are already in last place in the American League Central, two and half games behind Twins and rolling on a three game losing streak. While all of my friends and neighbors and all of the sports columnists I read hopefully banter and debate about the relative merits and outlooks of their beloved Yankees or Red Sox or Mets, there is no joy here in Smithville, for I am all but certain than someone in the Royals anemic lineup has certainly just struck out. royals.jpg (Q: If a batter swings and no one is there to hear it, does he still go “whiff”? A: If he is a Royal, yes.) About the only thing I can ponder as I look deep into the season is whether the Royals will lose 100 or more games again this year, as they’ve done four out of the five past seasons. From where I sit, a 63-99 season is quite the success story.

I’m sure (well, at least I think I’m sure) that if I lived in or near Kansas City, there might be some other folks around for me to talk about my Royal fandom with, and who would appreciate my quiet, lonely dedication to the losingest of all possible losing causes. But in the 32 years since I actually lived in Kansas (for 11 formative months), I have only encountered one person who would admit to being a devoted Royals fan like me. I think we were both embarassed by the confession, and being manly men with brawny shoulders, we haven’t talked about this sad little secret weakness since.

It wasn’t always so lonely being a Royals fan. As a kid in the Carolinas, I followed my Dad’s lead and was a devoted Washington sports fan. I diligently followed the Redskins, then the Bullets when they came along (and before they became the Wizards), then the Capital when they came along. But in the early ’70s, after Washington lost its second baseball franchise, I was without a team to root for. Then we moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for a year, where the new-ish Royals were doing whizbang good for an expansion franchise, making the postseason for the first time in 1976.

Since I didn’t have a Washington-based baseball team to claim as my own, I quickly jumped on the Royals bandwagon that fall, becoming a dogged, diligent fan of great players like George Brett, Frank White, Cookie Rojas, Larry Gura, Freddie Patek, Amos Otis, Bret Saberhagen, Hal McRae, Willie Wilson, Dennis Leonard, Paul Splittorff, Dan Quisenberry and so many others on the classic ’70s and ’80s rosters. Times were good then: the Royals made the postseason in 1976, 1977 and 1978, then made their first World Series appearance in 1980, losing 4-2 to the Phillies.

After a pair of quick postseason eliminations in 1981 and 1984, the Royals finally ascended to baseball’s highest pinacle in 1985, when they beat the Toronto Blue Jays 4-3 in the American League Championship Series, and then beat the St. Louis Cardinals 4-3 in the World Series. Of course, the East Coast Sporting Elites wanted to sully my celebration even then, noting that the Royals were the beneficiaries of a series of ridiculously bad umpiring calls, not to mention Cardinal pitcher Joaquin Andujar‘s monumental on-mound pyscho meltdown in Game Seven. But I didn’t (and don’t) care. The Royals were the champs in 1985, and I gloated like a champ, as the only known Royals fan within a 500 mile radius of Annapolis, where I lived at the time.

It’s a good thing I gloated so much then, because the Royals have never returned to the post-season, and I haven’t been able to do so again since. I don’t believe in the Curse of the Bambino any more, but I do believe in the Curse of Joaquin Andujar, who most certainly directed so much antipathy towards the Royals and Umps who shamed him that they have never been able to get out from beneath the lingering cloud of bad karma that he tagged them with in that ominous, potentious seventh game. They won the battle that year, but clearly the war turned against the Royals and their fans.

I am sure that somewhere Joaquin Andujar smiles at our suffering.

Got Clutch! (And Fall!)

I scored a copy of Clutch’s ace new album, From Beale Street to Oblivion, a couple of days ago, and have been doing some serious head-banging and singing along with it while driving ever since. I’d be hard pressed to think of a walloping contemporary rock band anywhere near as good a Clutch: they blend outstanding lyrical imagery with ferociously swinging rock riffery like nobody’s business. It’s like something lifted straight out of 1974, only with better production values and fewer hippies. I see the blues-laced Beale Street sitting pretty as the third of a troika of legendary albums produced by this Maryland-bred crew of rock roustabouts, alongside its predecessor, Robot Hive/Exodus, and 1998’s sterling The Elephant Riders. Those three records offer particularly effective blends of power and finesse: the songwriting and melodies are richer than on any of the other Clutch elpees, the production mines the ever-fine line between live oomph and studio polish, and the performances just flat out blow the roof off of whatever you choose to experience them in. Sterling sounds, all around. Highly recommended for the rock fan in your life, no matter what flavor they prefer: I know blues hounds, metalheads, stoner rockers, hardcore kids and lawyerly moms who respond to the solid grooves that Clutch offer. Give ’em a shot.

I also got the Fall’s Reformation Post-TLC, about which I had posted earlier, when I was still in full anticipation mode. It lived up the advance billing: it’s rough, rugged, nasty, surly and more edgy than any Fall albums in quite some time. The version of the group that crafted the album is currently on tour in England, winning rave reviews from some pretty picky fans. Thing is, the band is so transient and singer-songwriter-mastermind Mark E. Smith is so mercurial that there’s always an element of worry about such a seemingly successful line-up: some concert attendees have noted that American bassist Rob Barbato seems to be in some sort of a visible, palpable, uncomfortable hot seat with his boss on stage. Which is too bad, since I hope he’s got the gumption to stick out the on-stage abuse after the tour ends. I think he was the best part of the latest album, and would love to see him hang around long enough to anchor at least one U.S. tour where I could see him work his four-string magic in person. Fingers crossed . . . since they’ve got two bassists in the band now, so it would be pretty easy for MES to drop one without having to hire a replacement

Holy Thursday

Just back from my last Holy Thursday at the Chapel + Cultural Center. Or at least my last one in a “behind the scenes” capacity anyway. I think of all the things I’ve accomplished during my time at the C+CC, helping the parish streamline and simplify their Holy Week liturgical observances may be the one in which I take the most pride.

Five years ago, when my crew and I stage-managed my first Holy Week observance there, I calculated that we moved eight tons worth of chairs, tables, risers and other furniture in a veritable merry-go-round of room re-configuration, all in support of an insanely labor intensive Agape dinner on Thursday, dramatic pageant on Friday, and Vigil Mass on Saturday. By the time we got to Easter itself, the most important day on the liturgical calendar, the day of rebirth and resurrection, our core volunteers and staff were absolutely spent, physically, spiritually, emotionally and psychologically.

Over the next couple of years, the parish priest and I worked with our liturgy committee and parish council to find ways to make the process less cumbersome. Our signature metrics for all changes we contemplated were: is it simpler to implement? is it more elegant (not in the fancy sense, but in the well crafted and orchestrated sense)? will it allow the maximum number of people to participate in the worship experience without having to leave to do menial labor in the middle of the service? and does it help us all to be in the right frame of mind for each of the liturgies?

Tonight’s Agape Supper absolutely met all of those criteria. There was no stress. There were no angry parishioners. There were no arguments about food service. Literally everyone in the building was an active participant in the service. People had a satisfying, healthy meal before receiving the Eucharist . . . not a vast, gluttonous pot luck pile of carbs and fats as had become the tradition in years before we implemented our changes. The service was quick, elegant, and true to the spirit of the day, with the washing of the feet of the volunteers at the heart of the liturgy, a simple ritual that demonstrates how we can care for each other, and how we can put service at the heart of our ministry.

Tomorrow night’s Good Friday service will be similarly simple, as will be the Easter vigil, as will be the Easter masses. I’m proud to have played a role in helping the parish reinvent its traditions in ways that are more rewarding to all the participants. Worship doesn’t lend itself to ruts. Reinvention and freshness can be crucial to a faith community’s sense of reverence and dedication. And you really can’t go wrong by keeping such things as pure and simple as possible, letting the message resonate more than the pomp and pagentry do.

It was a good evening. These are things I’ll miss about the place.