TVD Live: The Baseball Project at the Hamilton, 8/17

Part of the appeal of the National Pastime are the endless stories of its colorful characters over the decades, their dizzying achievements or career-crashing failures, the arcane stats and mostly, the shared experience—around the TV or in ballparks.

No wonder a group of experienced rockers decided to mine the sport for material, creating a whole songbook of baseball songs. That’s been the mission for The Baseball Project since it formed 16 years ago. And with a new album out, their first in nine years, the band is back delighting audiences as they stomp through their rocking songs of baseball lore, as they did Thursday at The Hamilton in DC.

Ex-Dream Syndicate Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5 (and many other bands), are the kind of songwriters so steeped in their craft that they can turn out dozens of songs commemorating the most esoteric tales, and the history of baseball is rife with them. But their other famous band members, Peter Buck and Mike Mills of R.E.M., have been contributing music or whole songs lately as well.

In baseball, when big stars came to small towns for exhibitions, they’d call it barnstorming. And there was a similar feel in this tour stop—the exhilaration of seeing Buck and Mills up close on the kind of stage size they’d have when they began, slung with matching black and white Rickenbackers (though one was an electric guitar, the other a bass). More than a couple fans angled to snap photos of the amp case prominently stamped “R.E.M. Athens GA.”

The last time I caught Buck and Mills on such a stage in these parts (for McCaughey’s Minus 5), they did “Don’t Come Back to Rockville” in an encore. But by now there was so much baseball material to cover—in 26 rockers, over two sets and an encore—there was no need to dip into old catalogs of R.E.M., the Dream Syndicate, the Minus 5, or the Young Fresh Fellows for that matter.

The focus was on their newest release, Grand Salami Time!, named after the 1990s catchphrase of Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus. It was the kind of near-obscure detail that fuels a lot of the Project’s songs. We heard of the unexplained freeze-ups of Chuck Knobloch or Steve Sax in Wynn’s “The Yips,” a bygone phrase for the curveball brought back in “Uncle Charlie” and tributes to Shohei Ohtani and Sadaharu Oh in McCaughey’s “New Oh in Town.” Mills’ song “Stuff” had its start in original reporting—when a major league pitcher told them he thought 75 percent of pitchers smeared some verboten foreign material on the ball.

To set the scene for the famous 1979 White Sox “Disco Demolition,” the band showed that for all its rock cred, they could lay down some impressive disco vibes—particularly Mills’ bass along with the drumming of Linda Pitmon, who was stellar throughout.

Of the guitarists on stage, it was surprising that Buck had the least to do. Wynn played some solos with some creative play along the neck; McCaughey was a strong picker. And though he played electric rhythm all night, he never stepped up for a solo and only once took charge with some power chords. Still, like a Keith Richards of the alt-rock era, just seeing him on stage immersed in the music, with those forceful downward strokes and charging around the stage, guaranteed a kind of rock authenticity that was golden, whether or not his guitar could always be heard.

Because nearly every song was tied to lore, there were stories to be briefly told between songs and there was a bit where they threw out packaged baseball cards with band stats to people who guessed their trivia questions. (Anybody who knew the band knew the answers).

That the local team the Washington Nationals had a conveniently scheduled afternoon game gave some fans the opportunity to take in a game before the show to get the full baseball experience. And it allowed the Project to sing a strikingly off-key National Anthem, proving that a cappella is not their forte. As it happens, the Nats were playing the Red Sox, whose house organist Josh Cantor sometimes sits in with the band. He wasn’t on the team bus for the DC show unfortunately,

Solid players, middling singers, The Baseball Project conjures up the same kind of cheery summertime feeling that occurs every time you walk into a ballpark and see the expanse of the green diamond and all of its possibilities. Would that it could go on for even more extra innings.

Erasable Man
The Yips
Monument Park
Satchel Paige Said
They Don’t Know Henry
From Nails to Thumbtacks
Long Before My Time
Grand Salami Time
Ted Fucking Williams

Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays
Uncle Charlie
Disco Demolition
New Oh in Town
Box Scores
To the Veterans Committee
Hola America
Pascual on the Perimeter
Jackie’s Lament
Past Time

The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads
Harvey Haddix
The All or Nothings

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