Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Bugsy" & Warren Beatty

I'm back, dear readers! Where was I? Well, nowhere in particular, just busy with schoolwork and not especially motivated to blog. I've been to some good concerts, like Chris Isaak, Rufus Wainwright, and Nick Lowe, and I would think, "I should write about this," but somehow it just didn't happen.

What topic am I about to tackle now? Well, Warren Beatty and his 1991 movie "Bugsy." (Okay, so Beatty didn't direct it, so it technically isn't "his" movie, but he produced and starred in it, and it sounds like he basically takes over every movie he makes, so I think it's fair enough to call it "his"movie.) Beatty is a fascinating man, he's an actor I've been aware of for a long time, ever since the summer of 1990 when 9-year-old me saw Beatty's movie "Dick Tracy." I was swept up in Tracy fever, and I was thrilled that someone made a movie out of the comic strip. I know that I saw it at least twice in the theater. The movie also got a lot of attention in the Twin Cities because Charlie Korsmo, who played the kid that Tracy adopts, was from the Twin Cities. And of course Beatty's romance with Madonna was big stuff at the time too. One thing I remember about watching the movie was seeing a close up of Beatty's hand and thinking, "That hand looks really old." I didn't really think Beatty was old, because I was 9 and had no concept of adult age. All I knew was that Beatty was older than me but younger than my grandmother. But I thought his hands looked old.

In high school I finally saw Beatty's iconic 70's movies "Shampoo" and "Heaven Can Wait." I was impressed. For whatever reason at that time I never saw "Bonnie and Clyde," I'm not sure why. I remember once it was going to be on a double bill at a revival movie theater with "Badlands," but the print of B&C didn't arrive. And by the time I was in college Beatty was off the movie scene, more often seen escorting Annette Bening to awards shows than making movies of his own. I've followed the Beatty biographies that have come out over the last ten years and I've watched him get awards like the Kennedy Center Honors, and the Golden Globes lifetime achievement award. I've often thought, he made so few films, it would be relatively easy to follow his whole career trajectory, and now I'm finally making the time to see those films.

Benjamin "don't call me 'Bugsy'" Siegel has many similarities with other characters Beatty has played. Like Clyde Barrow, Bugsy is a charming psycho. Like Clyde, Bugsy is an astute judge of people, he is able to size them up quickly and get them on his side. (This is also a trait that Beatty would seem to share as well.) Like John McCabe in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," Siegel becomes obsessed with building a place of entertainment in a remote location. For McCabe, that means building a brothel in the Old West. For Siegel, that means building a casino, the Flamingo, in 1940's Las Vegas. I watched "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" a week or so before "Bugsy," and I was struck by the parallels between the two movies. Both McCabe and Siegel are visionaries, dreamers who most people consider a bit obsessive. They both anger people who have a great deal of power, and both pay for their independence with their lives. Obsessive might also be a good word to describe Warren Beatty. He is obviously a perfectionist when it comes to making movies, which is one explanation for his relatively small filmography. As Beatty once said about filmmaking:

"It is all detail, detail, detail. When...the person you are working with has to go home and return a call to his press agent, and lunch is being served, and the head of the union says, 'Well, you have to stay out there for another 10 minutes because they have to have coffee,' and then the camera breaks down, and there is noise, a plane flying over, and this wasn't the location you wanted...are you going to have the energy to devote to the detail of saying, 'That license plate is the wrong year'? That's where the stamina, the real fight comes in."

Wow. That's focused. Beatty is well-known for shooting numerous takes of scenes. Buck Henry, Beatty's co-director on 1978's "Heaven Can Wait," once said, "Ideally, Warren would never, ever, ever finish anything, because there's always got to be a better way to do something-the shot, the edit, or the scene, or the line, something." One of the hardest parts in the act of creating is knowing when the act is finished, when to step back from it and say, "It's done." Can something always get better the more time you spend on it, the more takes you shoot? Beatty seems to think so. Billy Scharf, an assistant editor on Beatty's "Reds" had this to say about Beatty's methods:

"A lot of people say Warren overshoots. I know that not to be true. Directors who come back with insufficient material are doing a disservice to the opportunity. They get intimidated by stars. Warren does not. In the movie, when Reed wants to leave Russia and go back to America, Zinoviev tells him, 'You will never be at this place, at this time, again.' Warren felt that way when he shot. He believed that that was the time, and that was the place, and he had to exploit the opportunity to the hilt. He had the resources, and he wanted to use them, because he knew he would never get another chance."

All that Scharf says is true, you really only have one chance to capture what you need for a film. You have to do a certain scene on a certain day, and you have to nail it that day, that's your one chance to get that scene done perfectly. (Of course, you can always re-shoot, which of course Beatty is known to do.) But while you're shooting, no matter how many days or how many takes you do, you have to catch that lightning in a bottle, that magic that makes film such an amazing and powerful medium. It's a big responsibility. And if you're directing a big-budget Hollywood production, every shooting day costs a lot of money. Beatty's reputation as a perfectionist actor/director/producer might also carry over into his personal life. Dustin Hoffman related this story from the set of "Ishtar."

Hoffman asked Beatty, "Theoretically, is there any woman on the planet that you would not make love to? If you had the chance?"
Beatty: "That's an interesting question: Is there any woman on the planet that I wouldn't make love to? Any woman at all?" Beatty pondered the question a moment and finally said, "No, there isn't."
Hoffman asked, "You're serious?"
"Because you never know."

And that, in essence, sums up Warren Beatty. Why shoot another take after you've shot 25 or 30 takes? Because you never know, the next one might be the perfect one. Why sleep with another woman when you've slept with so many already? Because you never know, the next one might be the perfect one.

So this post has turned into more of an exploration of Warren Beatty than the movie "Bugsy," but to return to the movie for a moment, there's another clear parallel between Beatty and Siegel. As Siegel builds the Flamingo in Las Vegas, he keeps going over budget and missing deadlines. Similar in many ways to a Warren Beatty movie. Siegel is a controlling perfectionist, just like the man who plays him on screen. Maybe the best scene in the movie is the one where Siegel, in a chef's hat, alternates between keeping his daughter's birthday party going and selling his mobster friends on his vision of Las Vegas as the new American paradise. The scene is funny, and it presents Beatty's charm at its best.

"Bugsy" is also a very significant movie in Beatty's life, as it was on the set of "Bugsy" that he met his wife, Annette Bening, who gives a great performance as Virginia Hill, Bugsy's girlfriend. It's a great movie, and it's definitely one of Beatty's best performances. So, even though I will never be at this time and place again, I'll end this post now. I'm going to step back and say, "It's done."

Monday, June 7, 2010

What Happened to this Book?

Back in 2008, I was looking forward to the publication of Ashley Kahn's book "Somethin' Else: The Story of Blue Note Records and the Birth of Modern Jazz." I had it on my Amazon wish list, but then one day it just disappeared. It's still listed on Amazon, but you can't buy it, it hasn't come out, and there's no new publication date. I googled the book, but I couldn't find any more info about it. I emailed the publisher, and they said the book has been delayed indefinitely. Which stinks. I've read one of Ashley Kahn's other books, "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece," and it's quite great. (I have an earlier blog post about it.) I was really looking forward to reading "Somethin' Else" and learning more about my favorite Blue Note recording artists like Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, and Horace Silver, to name just three. So, all you jazz fans, write to Penguin Putnam and tell them to publish this book!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Is Jamie Moyer a Hall of Famer?

It's baseball season, and since the opening of Target Field, I've been thinking about baseball more than usual. Yes, baseball really was meant to be played outdoors. Sorry, Metrodome, stadium of my youthful dreams and site of two World Championships, but Target Field is amazing!

I love baseball stats. I could read baseball stats for hours. Okay, maybe sometimes I spend too much time on it's fun. I've been following the Phillies' 47-year-old starting pitcher Jamie Moyer as he makes his way up the all-time wins list, he's currently in 40th place with 263 wins. Which leads to the question: is Jamie Moyer a Hall of Famer? (Apologies to baseball-reference, they had a blog post about this very topic just a week or two ago.) For those who would say no way, I say, look a little closer. Now, I'm not going to say that if he retired today, Moyer is, or should be, a definite Hall of Famer. I just want to examine his credentials. Clearly, there are worse pitchers than Jamie Moyer in the Hall of Fame. (Jesse "Pop" Haines, I'm looking at you.) However, as Bill James points out, this is not a good argument to use, since the Hall of Fame has made some pretty bad decisions regarding admittance. If we started admitting everyone who was better than the worst inductees, we'd have a huge Hall of Fame.

Moyer's career has been an up and down one, he started out as a starter for the Cubs in 1986, then turned into an ineffective reliever for the Rangers, a poor starter for the Cardinals, and didn't pitch at all in the majors in 1992. His career seemed to be over at the age of 29. But somehow Moyer rejuvenated himself, and made his way back to the majors. He didn't really get going until he was traded to the Seattle Mariners in 1996. In 1997 his record was 17-5, the first time he had ever won more than 13 games in a season. At the age of 34, he was finally a great starter. Moyer won 20 games in 2001, and 21 in 2003, suffered through a lackluster 2004 season, but rebounded to go 16-7 for the Phillies in 2008, at the age of 45. His career record is 263-199, and on May 7th, he became the oldest pitcher to ever throw a shutout.

How does Moyer stack up against other Hall of Fame pitchers? He is not, and never has been, a superstar. He hasn't won any Cy Young Awards, and has only been selected to the All-Star team once. He's never led the league in wins or strikeouts, and he's not a power pitcher. He's just been consistently good, and now he's at a point where the Hall of Fame debate can start to happen. Of the starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame, Moyer has more wins than 31 of them. And I didn't count any relievers, just every HOF starter from guys like Addie Joss, Dizzy Dean, and Sandy Koufax, whose careers were cut short by injury, (or death, in Joss's case) to HOFers like Don Drysdale, Jim Bunning, Juan Marichal, and Bob Gibson. Moyer has fewer wins than 27 HOF starting pitchers, so he's right in the middle of the pack. While this doesn't prove that Moyer is in the upper echelon of HOF starters, it proves that, just looking at wins, he is more than qualified for the HOF.

While reaching 300 wins is considered a benchmark for HOF pitchers, I looked at every pitcher with more than 250 wins. Every post-1900 pitcher who is eligible for the HOF with more than 250 wins is in the HOF, except for Bert Blyleven, who fell just short this year and will make it in next year, Tommy John, Jim Kaat, and Jack Morris. So, with 263 wins and counting, does this mean that Moyer will eventually get in? Perhaps, although the sportswriters voting for the HOF have been tough on Kaat and John, the two pitchers most similar to Moyer. Kaat and John never got very close all 15 years they were on the ballot, and they can now only be voted in by the Veterans' Committee, which has been very stingy lately with who they let in. Kaat and John were similar to Moyer in that they were not power pitchers who put up big strikeout numbers, and they pitched forever, Kaat for 25 seasons, John for 26 seasons. (Moyer is in his 24th season.) Kaat and John also had very short "peaks" of performance, as did Moyer, and all three pitchers were very durable and had more than their share of 14-12 seasons which don't look that outstanding taken season by season. None of them had very many great seasons, the best is probably Kaat's 1966 season, in which he was 25-13.

The charge could be leveled that Kaat, John, and Moyer are merely "compilers," guys who hang around for a really long time and pile up impressive stats, but who aren't truly "great." I can understand this argument, but I would also argue that anyone who wins 250 games has to be a pretty great player. If these players weren't truly great, they would not have played as long as they did. And also, once you "compile" a certain amount of stats, you are a lock for the Hall of Fame, no matter what. Don Sutton won over 300 games, but he never won a Cy Young Award. (Neither did Nolan Ryan, for that matter.) Sutton only won 20 games in a season once. But what Sutton lacked in peak performance, he made up for in longevity. But Sutton is in the Hall, and he was a great pitcher, he just wasn't as dominant as some of his peers like Steve Carlton or Tom Seaver.

So, where does this leave Jamie Moyer? I think Moyer needs more wins to solidify his HOF candidacy, and honestly, I think he needs 300 wins. If writers are not willing to vote for Tommy John at 288 wins, and Jim Kaat at 283 wins, Moyer is a long shot at 263 wins. The writers have shown that the line is drawn at 300. Give John back his missed 1975 season, give him 13 wins for a total of 301, and he's in. Give Kaat back his partial 1972 season, (he missed time due to injury, he was 10-2 in 15 starts) and a few more starts at the end of his career, and he would be over 300 wins easily. Of course, we can't do that, and it starts us down a slippery slope if we do. But, the point is, Kaat and John are very close to 300 wins and they aren't in, so I don't see Moyer getting in with fewer than 300 wins. It even took Don Sutton 5 tries before he made it in the Hall!

Good luck Jamie Moyer, I'll be watching your starts and I hope you get closer to 300 wins.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Robyn Hitchcock Updates!

Sorry I haven't been entertaining you, dear readers, but I have been very busy lately with schoolwork. (I'm going back to school to become a teacher!) I have suffered from a little bit of homework shock, since I haven't been in school since I finished my undergrad in 2003. But the semester is almost over, and at that point I will work on some longer blog posts. But enough about me...Robyn Hitchcock has a new CD! It's called "Propellor Time," and it's quite good. I've only listened to it once so far, but it's lovely. And it also answers the question of what happened to some of those songs we saw Robyn working on in the documentary "Sex, Food, Death, and Tarantulas." There's also a fantastic interview with Robyn on his newly-redesigned website, here's the link to that:

Robyn also has a new section of his website called "Phantom 45's." It's a place where he lets fans download two of his songs, an "A" and "B" side, for free. Robyn being so prolific and awesome, these are not just re-treads, but brand-new previously unreleased songs. Four songs have been issued so far, and they're all very good. Here's the link to that page:

I'm enjoying all the new Robyn songs, I just hope he comes back on tour soon!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Concert Review: Leon Redbone at the Dakota

I don't like giving bad reviews. Life is too short to focus on the negative, and I would much rather use the limited power of my blog to champion artists I enjoy, rather than flinging arrows at artists I don't care for. That being said, I also feel like I need to be honest when I write, and not just blindly praise everything I read/hear/see. I have written some negative reviews on this blog, but honestly, a lot of them are reviews of pretty crummy Richard Burton movies. But I've also been critical of people whose work I usually admire, like Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer. Why this intro? Well, last night at the Dakota I saw one of the worst concerts I've ever seen. The artist in question is Leon Redbone, whom I like. I saw him in concert in 2002 and I remember it being a great show. He's a very talented guitar player, and he has his own unique style. Unfortunately, last night he was a caricature of himself. As I thought about it more, it struck me: Leon Redbone is really a performance artist. His whole persona is artifice, and you can never tell exactly when, if ever, the mask slips and you get a glimpse of the real person, whoever that might be.

Now I knew that I should expect a certain amount of shtick from Leon, I just didn't know quite how much we would get last night. From the time he walked out on stage until the time he started his second song of the night, fifteen minutes elapsed. Fifteen agonizing, boring, unfunny minutes. Leon complaining about the sound. Leon filing his fingernail. Leon playing the same riff on his guitar but not starting a song. Leon complaining about the lights. Leon wanting a "sing-along song." It was ridiculous and absurd. I understand now why people originally thought that Leon might be Andy Kaufman pulling another joke on people. Last night was Kaufman-esque in that Redbone seemed to be asking himself, "How far can I push this?" I like banter and jokes and goofing around on stage, but you have to be funny and you have to have a point. There are so many artists who put their whole heart into their art, and here's this guy coasting. Now, people have bad shows, I realize that. But compared to, say, John Hammond, who puts everything he has into every single song, Leon Redbone just looks lazy. Which is part and parcel of his shtick. And I get that. But you have to have an affection for your audience, and I don't get that feeling from Redbone.

While my Mom and I were thoroughly fed up with Redbone's antics, other audience members thought every single thing he did was funny. Which just proves that if you have the persona of being funny, sometimes you don't need to be actually funny. When Leon finally played some songs semi-seriously, he was good, but too many songs suffered from mumbled vocal lines. Maybe Redbone is finally showing his age. Since he claims to be the son of Paganini and Jenny Lind, he must be 170 years old at the youngest. Leon had a piano player with him, but he wasn't given very much to do, his main job was as Leon's straight man. All in all, it was a disappointing show. I was looking forward to hearing some laid-back 20's-30's ragtime blues, but I didn't hear very much of it.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Macbeth" at the Guthrie

I saw the Guthrie Theater's production of "Macbeth" a few weeks ago, and it was quite impressive. I've read "Macbeth" before, I think in both high school and college, but for whatever reason, I had never seen it on stage before. The Guthrie chose to present it without an intermission, which made for an intense experience. With a running time of two hours, it definitely makes sense, because the play is so compact and thrilling, but it's so bloody that the tension level just goes up and up until finally, mercifully, the play is over.

"Macbeth" is quite a fascinating play. Does Macbeth have free will over what happens, or is he doomed by the witches' prophecy that he will become king? There's no easy answer to this question. Macbeth could simply wait and see if somehow he will become king without killing Duncan, the current king. Macbeth even alludes to this, saying, "If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me without my stir." (Act 1, Scene 3) But then he and Lady Macbeth decide to go ahead with their evil plan and slay Duncan as he sleeps in their castle. It could be that the witches merely plant the idea of becoming king in Macbeth's head, that they tap into the latent ambition that is already inside of him. Reading the introduction to my handy Bantam Classics edition of "Macbeth," editors David Bevington and David Scott Kastan say something similar. Bevington and Kastan remind us that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have discussed killing Duncan before, thus "the witches appear after the thought, not before." Furthermore, "Elizabethans would probably understand that evil spirits such as witches appear when summoned, whether by our conscious or unconscious minds." According to this reading, Macbeth's murderous thoughts summon up agents of evil, which in turn strengthen his ambition to become king, whatever the costs. And since the witches say that Macbeth is to be king, who is he to argue with them?

In a way, "Macbeth" reminds me of "Oedipus Rex." Both characters are faced with a prophecy. The prophecy that Oedipus hears is that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus's reaction is to run as far away from the prophecy as he can, but he unwittingly fulfills it. Macbeth, on the other hand, runs as fast as he can towards the prophecy that he will be king, and, of course, fulfills it. The problem is that both men do not know how to interpret the prophecies. After Macbeth is king, he is told by the witches that he cannot be killed by a man "of woman born." Macbeth then becomes full of hubris, blind to the fact that there might be a loophole. (The loophole is Macduff, who was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped.") Does hearing the prophecy change Macbeth's actions, or would he have acted in the same way even if he didn't know of the prophecy? Perhaps the prophecies just bring to the surface the evil that lurks under Macbeth's surface.

The Guthrie's production was quite good, with a number of striking visual tableaux that seemed very cinematic to me. The blood on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's hands in the murder scene was disturbing, it made me nearly sick to my stomach. It made the murders seem much more real. The acting was fine, with a particularly good performance from Michelle O'Neill as Lady Macbeth. Erik Heger was good as Macbeth, but he didn't bring a lot of charm or personality to the role. There is a wonderful quote from a poem, "The Cup," by Alfred, Lord Tennyson that was included in the program:

"I heard a saying in Egypt, that ambition

Is like the sea wave, which the more you drink,

The more you thirst-yea-drink too much, as men

Have done on rafts of wreck-it drives you mad."

What fitting lines for this strange and terrifying play.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Oscar Peterson-Exclusively For My Friends

I finished listening to Oscar Peterson's 4-CD set "Exclusively For My Friends" last week, and it is a great introduction to this very talented jazz pianist. These recordings, which date from 1963-68, were taped in Germany at the private home of a record producer. For whatever reason, they were apparently some of Peterson's favorite recordings of himself. Considering that Peterson recorded heavily from the early 1950's into the late 1990's, that's really saying something. So what separates these sessions from the other 100 or more records that Peterson made? I don't have an easy answer for that, but it sounds like Oscar was very relaxed when these sessions were made, and maybe he felt that these sessions captured his style better than any others. (One album from these sessions was called, "The Way I Really Play.") They're certainly my favorites of all the Oscar Peterson CD's that I own. It feels like he and his trio have more room to stretch out than on his 1950's sessions for Verve.

Oscar Peterson was a true virtuoso. He was probably most influenced by the playing of Art Tatum, and he is probably the pianist who comes closest to replicating Tatum's style. Which means that Oscar played a lot of notes, very quickly, and he wasn't afraid to show off now and then. Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal are kind of at opposite ends of the jazz piano spectrum. Where Ahmad would play one note, Oscar would play ten. Personally, I tend to prefer Jamal or Dave Brubeck's playing over Peterson's, but that's just a matter of taste. There is no denying the immense talent that Peterson brought to the keyboard. Peterson's playing was always impeccable. Like Tatum, his technique was almost overpowering. There's almost too much going on in his playing. Listen to his solo rendition of "Someone To Watch Over Me," on Disc 4, for a great example of his style. As the song starts, Peterson keeps interrupting the melody with fancy fills and expansive runs up and down the keyboard. It's as if so many ideas are simply pouring out of him at the same time that he can barely get the melody out. It's incredible to listen to.

The last CD on this set is all solo piano, which is a rarity for Peterson. I would think that, given his virtuosic technique, he would have recorded more solo albums, but he almost always worked in a trio format. (How other players kept up with him, I don't know!) His solo version of "Lulu's Back in Town" is another great example of his blindingly fast skills. But Peterson was also a skilled interpreter of ballads, as his lovely version of "Emily" on disc 3 shows. This whole set features great interplay between Peterson and his trio, which includes Ray Brown and Sam Jones on bass, (but not at the same time) and Ed Thigpen on drums. It's 4 CD's of great trio playing, and if you're an Oscar Peterson fan and you don't own this set, you really need to pick it up.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Concert Review: John Hammond at the Dakota

This week I saw John Hammond at the Dakota Jazz Club. Hammond might seem to be an odd choice for the Dakota, since his music is folk and blues, but he fits the vibe of the Dakota just fine. For those who don't know, here's an intro to John Hammond. His father, John Hammond Sr., (although Wikipedia tells me John the younger is not actually a junior, but for simplicity's sake I will refer to the elder John as senior) was a producer and talent scout, responsible for discovering, or at least popularizing a diverse bunch of artists, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Pete Seeger, George Benson, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. The younger John Hammond was a friend of Dlyan's, coming up in the New York City folk/blues scene at the same time, and Hammond actually recorded with The Band before Dylan did. (Okay, so it was before they were called The Band, but it was the same group of guys.) That album, "So Many Roads," has been thought by some to have influenced Dylan's later decision to "go electric." Hammond's style hasn't changed much over the years, he still plays blues and folk songs, and he is really a one-man band. To see Hammond live is really something else. He comes on like a freight train, playing fast and furious slide guitar, blowing his harmonica, stomping his foot, and singing his heart out. Hammond puts everything he has into performing live, and the passion he brings to these songs is electric.

Hammond is a terrific guitar player, he alternates between acoustic and a National guitar. He is a brilliant slide guitar player, I'm amazed at the speed of his licks. Hammond really cares about the songs that he sings, and I would guess that he sees himself as a caretaker, a link on the chain of performers handing these songs down to a new generation. Hammond is old enough to have met most of the great blues musicians in the early 1960's, so now he's our link to these musicians. One of the things that impressed me the most was that Hammond shared a bill with Phil Ochs at Gerde's Folk City in 1963! Ochs is one of my favorite folk singers, and he's also the subject of the very first post on this blog. And sadly, Phil has been dead for so long that I'm impressed to see someone who actually knew him. (I have met Tom Paxton, who wrote a beautiful song about Phil Ochs called "Phil," but I met Paxton before I was really into Phil Ochs.) Anyway, that's slightly off topic. John Hammond puts on a great live show, and all blues fans should see him. And I overheard some of Hammond's conversations with fans after the show, and he is just a super nice guy. He just sat at the merchandise table smiling his broad grin and happily chatting with people. He doesn't think he's a big deal, which is pretty cool. I overheard him say to an Australian fan, "I played at the (whatever venue) in 1981, no, it was 1982, great place." He was asking fans how to spell their names, it's nice to see artists being nice people.

Oh, I almost forgot, Hammond did an album of all Tom Waits songs, "Wicked Grin," and he's a great interpreter of Waits's songs. There's something special when he plays those songs live. The encore he played was a beautiful, haunting version of Waits's song "Fanning Street." It ended the show on a high note.

Concert Review: Ahmad Jamal at the Dakota

Last week I saw Ahmad Jamal at the Dakota jazz club. It was a great show, and even though Jamal is turning 80 this year, he shows no signs of slowing down. To those who don't know, Ahmad Jamal is one of the most significant jazz pianists of the last 60 years. He has almost always recorded in a trio setting, and his early recordings from the 1950's heavily influenced Miles Davis. Miles would tell his piano player Red Garland to "sound more like Ahmad Jamal." And Miles covered some of Ahmad's tunes, like "New Rhumba" on "Miles Ahead." That's a pretty big deal, to influence Miles Davis. Miles even said, "All of my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal. I live until he makes another record." Wow. Ahmad's use of space in his solos seems to have influenced Miles the most. Like Miles, Jamal was not a virtuoso, and was able to say more with less in his solos. Interestingly enough, despite how much Miles liked Ahmad, as far as I know, he never made an attempt to record with the pianist. It's too bad, they could have made some beautiful music together. But Jamal was always a frontman, and he might not have been happy playing second fiddle to Miles. Jamal had a major popular hit with his recording of the song "Poinciana" in 1958, which propelled the album, "But Not For Me: Ahmad Jamal Live at the Pershing," to near the top of the pop charts. Jamal never again captured so much mainstream attention, but he has remained a fixture on the jazz scene.

How do I describe Jamal's playing style? He's not a virtuoso like Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson, and he's not as bluesy as Ramsey Lewis. He doesn't have the same rhythmic drive that Dave Brubeck does. He has some of the same lyricism that Bill Evans had, maybe this is why Miles Davis liked Bill Evans so much. Jamal is quick on the keys when he needs to be, but he never shows off his technique. Suffice it to say, he has a style all his own. Jamal is still a force to be reckoned with in concert. He pounds out powerful chords, and the dynamics of a song will change several times, from soft to loud in an instant. His group is totally in sync with him, bass and drums in close conversation with his piano. (There was also a percussionist, but honestly, he wasn't my favorite part about the concert.) Jamal really listens to his sidemen when they solo, and his concerts seem like true collaboration. Most of the songs they played were from his latest CD, "A Quiet Time." Songs like "Paris After Dark," "After Jazz at Lincoln Center," and "The Blooming Flower," showed that Jamal is still writing and performing at a very high level. He still takes such pleasure in playing, and that makes him fun to watch. And he still plays "Poinciana," not exactly the same way he did in 1958, but he still incorporates many of the improvisations he added then. And it still sounds fresh. If you ever have a chance to see Ahmad Jamal, go see him.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Decline and Fall of Gore Vidal

Christopher Hitchens had a good little article in the February issue of Vanity Fair, "Vidal Loco," about how the quality of Gore Vidal's writing and public statements has fallen off since 9/11. It's an interesting article, and I have to agree with Hitchens. I have been a fan of Vidal's writing since high school, so it pains me to admit this. I think Vidal's best essays are nothing short of brilliant, and his best novels are witty and sharp. He is, as Hitchens says, the 20th century's Oscar Wilde.

I would actually say that Vidal starting losing the plot slightly before 9/11, when he starting corresponding with Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. McVeigh wrote to Vidal from jail, sensing that he had found someone who shared some of his anti-government views. Now, most people would have said, "I don't want to have anything to do with this nutjob." But not Vidal. For whatever reason, his ego was stroked, and he wrote back, starting a correspondence between the two men. Vidal has never condemned McVeigh's actions. There's a difference between being a patriot and being a terrorist, but Vidal chose not to see it.

In a crotchety interview with Johann Hari of the London Independent, Vidal rants and raves about many things, but one thing he pointedly does not do is place any judgement on McVeigh's murderous actions. Vidal says that McVeigh was "too sane for his place and time." He goes on to call McVeigh "a noble boy." Hari tries to prod Vidal, asking if McVeigh showed a callous disregard for human life. Vidal's response, "So did Patton! So did Eisenhower! Everybody's rather careless about it once you start getting involved in wars." But McVeigh's act was committed in peacetime, against his fellow American citizens. Even if it were committed in wartime, it would be a war crime. Hari then asks Vidal if there were more people like McVeigh, would that be a good thing? "It strikes me as a perfect nightmare. Of course I don't want more people like McVeigh." Hari then writes: "I don't understand. I try again and again to tug him back and get him to say whether this means he thinks McVeigh was wrong to plant the bomb. He won't. Finally, he jeers: 'You are trying my patience.'" How sad that this great thinker is unable to see a monstrous act for what it truly was.

Vidal has an inability to say anything nice about anyone else, which has grown worse in the last few years. His ego has consumed him. In talking about his fellow writers, he used to be quite funny. In the past, Vidal would have had a sharp comeback or a witty bon mot, but now he is simply bitter and angry. When asked about John Updike, whom Vidal never cared for, he says contemptuously, "Updike was nothing." Really, Gore? Or are you just jealous of his 2 Pulitzer Prizes? Vidal's worst instincts have unfortunately taken over, and he seems to be content to simply be a parody of himself as an angry old man. He couldn't even find much of anything nice to say about his friend and rival Norman Mailer. "Mailer was a flawed publicist, but at least there were signs every now and then of a working brain." That's about as close to a compliment as Vidal gets these days. As Hitchens writes, "One sadly notices...the utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the absence of any wit or profundity." Well said.

In Vidal's interview with the Independent, Vidal says that China will surpass the US as the world's great power, and then China will "have us running the coolie cars, or whatever it is they have in the way of transport." This is a familiar sentiment coming from Gore. Whereas now it's the Chinese who are out to own us, back in the 80's and 90's, it was the Japanese who we would soon be serving, he said. I remember reading those essays in the late 90's, after Japan's economy had collapsed, and thinking, "Well, that didn't quite happen Gore."

Vidal seems to have simply run out of gas. He hasn't published a novel since 2000's "The Golden Age," and his essays just re-tread the same old subjects. His 2006 memoir, "Point to Point Navigation," reads as just a re-tread of his 1995 memoir, "Palimpsest," which was a truly great book. It's difficult to criticize someone who has had an immensely prolific and varied career for slumping after the age of 75, but it is a sad way for Gore to exit. Nothing seems to interest him any more, and he has run out of things to hate. I suppose after 24 novels, more than 200 essays, 6 plays, and 46 books overall, it's expected that Vidal's energy would eventually run out. But no matter what he does in his old age, the post-2001 Vidal will not be the one I remember. I'll remember the Vidal who rubbed shoulders with the Kennedys, who was a great friend of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward's, who made the Roman empire come alive in "Julian," who created a bizarre and funny world of his own in "Duluth," who wrote with skill about a disgraced Founding Father in "Burr," and who made me laugh and question the world in his essays.

Monday, February 15, 2010

March 22nd is Propellor Time!

According to Robyn Hitchcock's fancy new website, March 22nd is Propellor Time. What does that mean? Well, it would seem to indicate that he's releasing a new album of that title on that date. I'm guessing that the above picture is the album cover, meaning it's another album with his crack backing group, The Venus 3. (Okay, so they do more than just back Robyn. Peter Buck, for example, also plays with a little group called REM.) I'm excited, not just because I like Robyn, but I really feel that his last two albums, "Goodnight Oslo" and "Ole, Tarantula," are some of his best work. I'm excited to hear where Robyn will go with this album. Maybe his trip to Greenland as part of Cape Farewell inspired some of these new songs. Only 5 weeks and one day until Propellor Time!

Monday, February 1, 2010

AllMusic Loves 1965, and so do I

 just published one of their periodic "Best Of a Random Year" lists, and they finally chose an awesome year, 1965. Their editors all picked their favorite albums and singles from that year, so I thought I should blog about some of my favorite music that came out that year. Okay, let's start off with the obvious albums...

The Beatles, "Help!"

"Help!" showed the Beatles moving forward in leaps and bounds in their songwriting. John Lennon was entering a particularly fertile time in his writing, penning the title track, "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," and "Ticket to Ride." I quite enjoy John's "It's Only Love," which he said later was one of his least favorite songs ever. Oh well. And even though Paul McCartney's songs for the movie are rather slight, "The Night Before," and "Another Girl," he came up big on the second side of the album with "I've Just Seen a Face," and a little song called "Yesterday," which has since become the most performed song EVER. Wow. And George Harrison is starting to emerge as a great songwriter as well, with "I Need You," and "You Like Me Too Much."

The Beatles, "Rubber Soul"

"Help!" is great, but "Rubber Soul," recorded in a frantic rush to have product out for the Christmas season of 1965, is a quantum leap forward in production. John and Paul are pushing at the boundaries of rock and roll. I've always felt that "Rubber Soul" marks a huge high point for John Lennon's songwriting, the same kind of peak that Paul would reach in 1966 on "Revolver." John's songs on "Rubber Soul" are: "Norwegian Wood," "Nowhere Man," "Girl," "In My Life," and "Run for Your Life." (Along with co-writes on "The Word," "What Goes On," "Wait," and "Drive My Car.") Okay, so "Run for Your Life" is filler, but the other four songs are among the finest he ever wrote, and show the group progressing far beyond typical rock and roll subject matter. Given how great the production is on "Rubber Soul," it's amazing that this album was banged out in such a short time. Everything seems so perfectly thought out, unrushed. And Paul adds another song to his list of Lennon-McCartney standards, "Michelle." And he and John wrote his concert opener, "Drive My Car." My Mom has always been puzzled by Paul's great love for "Drive My Car." I came up with an explanation over Christmas when we were watching the mini-documentaries from the Beatles re-issues. Paul has said that he and John really struggled over "Drive My Car," they had some nonsense about "golden rings" to start off with, but that didn't work. And eventually, over the course of the day at John's house, they polished "Drive My Car" to a sheen, coming up with a fun song with a "beep beep yeah!" chorus. So it was really the two of them working together to create this song, and I wonder if that's why Paul likes it so much, maybe it reminds him of that partnership he had with John.

Bob Dylan, "Bringing It All Back Home"

And Dylan went electric...abandoning folk protest music for rock and roll, Dylan wrote some of his most brilliant songs, and influenced just about everybody making music at this time. This landmark album starts off with "Subterranean Homesick Blues," a fast-talking number that isn't about anything in particular. Practically every song on this album is terrific, from the bitter "Maggie's Farm" to the hilarious "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream." The second side is acoustic, and introduced the world to "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Gates of Eden," "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Wow. A staggering achievement by a single artist.

Bob Dylan, "Highway 61 Revisited"

And just 5 months later, he did it again. Starting off with "Like a Rolling Stone," this album never lets up on the rock. There was no acoustic second side this time. Dylan is pushing his imagery farther and farther, churning out surrealistic pop masterpieces like "Ballad of a Thin Man," the title track, and "Desolation Row." He was clearly on a hot streak, and even if his folk audience was deserting him, he was gaining new fans from the rock world.

Okay, so those are the obvious ones. I haven't actually heard the Beach Boys' albums from 1965, so I can't say how good they are, but most of the AllMusic critics picked their two albums as well.

The Kinks, "Kinda Kinks"

Yes, this album has some less than essential tracks, like Ray's cover of "Dancing in the Streets," but it also has "Tired of Waiting For You," the first Kinks single to not just be a re-write of "You Really Got Me." And if you get the version with all the bonus tracks, you get great singles like "Set Me Free," "See My Friends," and "A Well Respected Man." Great stuff, and it shows Ray Davies beginning to flex his brain more.

The Kinks, "The Kink Kontroversy"
More great Kinks songs on their second album of 1965, including "Till the End of the Day," "I'm On an Island," and "Where Have All the Good Times Gone." Sets the stage for their first masterpiece, "Face to Face," from 1966.

John Coltrane, "A Love Supreme"
Perhaps Coltrane's most complete and beautiful musical statement, this album shows his classic quartet at the peak of their powers, working together to create a stunning album-long suite of music in praise of God. Amazing.

Frank Sinatra, "September of My Years"
Frank Sinatra turned 50 in 1965, an event which he commemorated with a new album, "September of My Years," and a 2-disc retrospective, "A Man and His Music," which was also a TV special. He was a busy guy, and "September of My Years" proved to be one of his classic albums, it introduced "It Was a Very Good Year" to his repertoire, and the album as a whole dealt with the theme of aging, and features terrific versions of songs like, "This Is All I Ask" and "September Song." This is one of Frank's last classic concept albums.

Bobby Darin, "Venice Blue"
Okay, I'm a huge Bobby Darin fan, so I'm not expecting anyone else to know this one. But it features some great Darin performances, like his swinging version of Tony Bennett's "The Good Life," and "I Wanna Be Around," and a gorgeous rendition of "Somewhere," from "West Side Story." And check out Bobby's bluesy "Ain't No Sweet Gal Worth the Salt of My Tears," it's great. Bobby's 1966 album, "Bobby Darin sings The Shadow of Your Smile" is fantastic, he sings all the songs from 1965 movies that were nominated for the Best Song Oscar. His version of "The Shadow of Your Smile" is simply lovely. And the second side featured some of my favorite songs of his, "Rainin'," "Lover, Come Back to Me," and "Cute."

Hank Mobley, "Dippin'"
Hank Mobley was the great underrated jazz tenor saxophonist of the 1950's and 60's. He cut tons of great sessions for Blue Note, and he was always a "musician's musician," but he never broke through to wider acclaim. "Dippin'" is just one of his classic sessions featuring Lee Morgan on trumpet, and it also features Mobley's skill at writing great songs.

Hank Mobley, "The Turnaround"
Only some of this album was recorded in 1965, some songs are from a 1963 session. The title track, a groovy number in the style of Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder," is a killer.

Hank Mobley, "A Caddy for Daddy"
Yes, people often recorded 3 albums in one year! This is another solid hard-bop set from Hank, with support from Lee Morgan and McCoy Tyner.

Rolling Stones, "The Rolling Stones, Now!"
A solid early Stones albums, before Mick and Keith turned into great songwriters. My highlight is "Little Red Rooster," dig Brian Jones's slide guitar!

Rolling Stones, "Out of Our Heads"
Features some sub-par cover versions, but also early brilliance on "The Last Time," "Satisfaction," "Play with Fire," and the very funny "Spider and the Fly" and "The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man."

Rolling Stones, "December's Children"
This was one of the first Stones albums I got, for some reason. I like it, kicks off with a fiery version of "She Said Yeah," and has a live version of "Route 66." It also included perhaps the only song that both Dean Martin and the Rolling Stones recorded, "You Better Move On." No, I'm not kidding. Also features "Get Off Of My Cloud" and "As Tears Go By."

Dave Brubeck, "Time In"
Yes, another one of Dave's "Time" albums, this one is an overlooked gem. If you like Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, pick this one up. But, you can only get it in the box set, "For All Time," which collects all of Brubeck's "Time" albums for Columbia.

Phil Ochs, "I Ain't Marching Anymore"

Phil Ochs picked up where Dylan left off, and recorded one of the great folk protest albums, "I Ain't Marching Anymore." The title tune takes us through all the wars that America has fought over the years, with the narrator vowing that after every war he ain't marching anymore. This album also features Ochs's hilarious "Draft Dodger Rag," a young man's litany of reasons why he can't fight. ("Someone's gotta go over there, but that someone isn't me.") Ochs has a touching tribute to JFK, "That Was the President," and ends with the bitter, angry, "Here's to the State of Mississippi," which none-too-subtly suggests that the rest of the US should kick Mississippi out of the union. "Here's to the land you've torn out the heart of, Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of." I wish that Phil Ochs were still alive.

The Chad Mitchell Trio, "Typical American Boys"

Okay, as long as I'm on the folk protest train, I should add the Chad Mitchell Trio's album. The title comes from a line in Phil Ochs's "Draft Dodger Rag," which they covered on their 1964 album, "The Slightly Irreverent Mitchell Trio" to great effect. (What a great album title!) For those of you who don't know, the Chad Mitchell Trio were a folk group, similar to the Kingston Trio, except they had better harmonies than the Kingston Trio, were more overtly political, and of course, were nowhere near as popular. "Typical" features their great harmonies on songs like "Jesse James" and "My Name is Morgan." Their other 1965 album, "That's the Way It's Gonna Be," was cut after Chad Mitchell left the group. His replacement was a young man named John Denver. The title song is one of my favorite Mitchell Trio songs, written by Phil Ochs, who unfortunately never put it on one of his own albums. The album also features some of their humorous topical material, like the "I Was Not a Nazi Polka."

So, there you have it, some of my favorite music from 1965. Quite a year. What are your favorites from 1965, dear readers?

Ringo at the Grammys wearing Electric Fetus shirt!

I didn't watch the Grammys last night, but I read in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune today that Ringo was wearing a t-shirt from the Electric Fetus, my favorite Minneapolis record shop! See the photo above for proof. So this means that a Beatle actually knows about the greatest record shop in the Twin Cities, that I have spent many hours at! Awesome! I would love to know if Ringo actually chose that shirt himself, or if some assistant was like, "Here's a cool shirt, boss." I'm secretly hoping that it's really Ringo's favorite record shop as well, as it reminds him of when he thumbed through the stacks at Brian Epstein's NEMS shop in Liverpool. Come to think of it, the last time I was at the Electric Fetus two weeks ago, there was a limousine parked outside. I was thinking it might be Prince. (Seriously. He still hangs out in the Twin Cities.) Maybe the next time I go there, I'll run into Ringo flipping through the used CD's, and we'll strike up a conversation and he'll say, "Oh, yeah, I brought me mate Paul along too." And then Paul McCartney will look up and say, "Ringo and I are going to play a couple of tunes, you know, unannounced, in-store show, get back-like, do you want to sing harmony?" Hey, I can dream, can't I?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Best Music I Heard in 2009

Like my similar post from last year, this list is not just the best albums released in 2009, but the best music I discovered/rediscovered during 2009, regardless of when it originally came out. And I'll pick one great song from each CD.
First up, albums that were released in 2009:
Robyn Hitchcock, "Goodnight Oslo"
A simply brilliant album from one of my favorite songwriters. I've listened to this CD a lot this year, and it holds up very well through repeated listens. One of my music highlights of 2009 was seeing Robyn in concert and meeting him after the show. Check out "Intricate Thing."
Chris Isaak, "Mr. Lucky"
Great comeback album proving that Isaak still has his great songwriting talent and his gorgeous, haunting voice. This is his first album of all-new material since 2002, it's nice to have him back. Listen to "Mr. Lonely Man."
Nick Lowe, "Quiet, Please: The New Best of Nick Lowe"
Okay, so this is a compilation, but it's the only release we got from Nick this year, and it's wonderful to hear all his great songs spread out over two discs. It makes you realize how many truly great songs he's written. Give "Without Love" and "Soulful Wind" a spin. (I had to pick two songs!)
Elvis Costello, "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane"
The ever-prolific Elvis dropped another album this year, and it's a winner. I need to listen to this CD some more. Check out the funny "Sulphur to Sugarcane."
The Beatles re-issues
I just got these for Christmas. (Thanks Mom!) So I haven't fully explored them, but the sound is amazing! Give "Back in the USSR" another listen. And the promo film clips make me want to see a DVD of all of them! (And can we see all 3 "Hello, Goodbye" clips, please?)
Okay, that takes care of CD's that came out in 2009, so let's move back into the past.
The Fireman (Paul McCartney), "Electric Arguments"
Amazing. Macca continues his 21st century winning streak with this more experimental album. Paul's not trying to please anyone here, it really sounds like he's making music for the sheer pleasure of it. Groove to "Highway."
Bruce Springsteen, "The Essential Bruce Springsteen"
I bought Bruce's single-disc "Greatest Hits" in the summer of 2008, but it wasn't until his Super Bowl performance in 2009 and my subsequent purchase of the double-disc "Essential" that I really became a fan. Bruce picked up social protest music where Dylan left it. And he writes better melodies than Dylan. Give "Badlands" and "Brilliant Disguise" a listen.
Leo Kottke, "Instrumentals: The Best of the Capitol Years"
Kottke's guitar playing isn't easy to categorize. Is it folk, country, Americana, jazz, or some hybrid mixture of all of the above? Kottke is a long-time Minnesota resident, so I've known of him for a long time, but it was just this fall when I started to seriously listen to his music. There's no one quite like him on guitar. Check out "Lost John," and prepare to be amazed.
The Beach Boys, "Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys"
I've loved the Beach Boys since I was about 8 years old. I think it had something to do with the fact that they had so many songs about cars, which were one of my primary obsessions as a youngster. I had numerous tapes of their music, and this CD has all the songs that I loved as a kid. Listening to it all over again it reminds me why I loved this music, it's just so much fun to hear! The beautiful harmonies, the sheer joy that drives most of their songs, the great arrangements, it's really stood the test of time. It's too bad that Brian Wilson kind of lost it after "Pet Sounds" and the group really didn't evolve much after 1966. But from 1962-66, they were working at a very high level. Listen to "California Girls" and "Good Vibrations," and tell me that you don't forget all of your problems for three minutes.
John Coltrane, "The Classic Quartet: Complete Impulse Studio Recordings"
I listened to absolutely every note of this mammoth 8-CD set this fall, and it made me rediscover Coltrane's great group. The lineup was Coltrane on tenor and soprano saxophones, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. This set collects all of their performances from 1962-65. The first two discs start innocently enough, with Coltrane covering well-worn standards from the 1930's and 40's, played in a relatively straightforward style. The reason Coltrane did this was because many critics at the time were labeling his playing "anti-jazz." So he wanted to show them that he could produce music that was not as "out there" as some of his more recent recordings on the Atlantic label had been. Things change pretty quickly, though, as on Disc 3 we get all of "A Love Supreme," perhaps Coltrane's most eloquent musical statement. In the later discs, song structures start disappearing, and it sounds more like the musicians just jamming. Coltrane's playing was constantly evolving, and one can only speculate where he music would have gone had he lived past 1967 and the young age of 40. The music on this set captures him at the peak of his powers. Listen to the whole album of "A Love Supreme," and if that's too much, go with the haunting song "Alabama," Coltrane's tribute to the civil rights movement.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Live at the Dakota: Dorado Schmitt All-Stars

I saw an amazing concert on Tuesday night at the Dakota jazz club. The concert was part of a series celebrating Django Reinhardt's 100th birthday. Dorado Schmitt, a French Gypsy guitarist who plays in a similar style to Django Reinhardt, brought his great group to Minneapolis. The line-up was Dorado on guitar, his son Samson on rhythm guitar, the blind accordionist Marcel Loeffler, Pierre Blanchard on violin, and Brian Torff on bass. They played some original songs, and some songs associated with Django and Stephane Grappelli. (Samson was able to copy Django's licks on "Minor Swing" just about perfectly.) Dorado is able to perfectly capture Django's impossibly quick, impossibly perfect-sounding runs up and down the fretboard, no small feat. Whether it was an uptempo song or a ballad, all the players were outstanding. They were all able to get just the right feel for a piece. These are clearly musicians who enjoy playing together. Dorado can play as fast as Django could, but he can also bring the required emotion to slower songs.

This show is as close as I will ever come to seeing Django Reinhardt live. It was like taking a trip back to Paris in the late 1930's. Amazing. Tres bien.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hall of Fame Voting 2010

I'm finally back after an extended Winter Break from the blog. The goal in 2010: post more! So, today's post is about baseball, my favorite sport. Today the voting results for the Hall of Fame were announced. Only one player was elected, outfielder Andre Dawson. Bert Blyleven, one of my favorite pitchers, who played most of his career for the Twins, fell just five votes short! Oh well, I guess next year will finally be Bert's year.

I think that Andre Dawson definitely deserved to be elected, he was one of the best players of the 1980's, and he combined speed and power. Dawson played 20 years, despite having terrible knees, (I read today that he had 12 knee operations!) and the numbers he put up are very impressive. 2,774 hits, 503 doubles, 438 home runs, 1,373 runs, 1,591 RBI's, 314 stolen bases. Okay, so his batting average of .279 and on-base percentage of .323 are pretty low...but I would still want him on my time any day. When you add 1 Rookie of the Year, 1 MVP, 8 Gold Gloves, 4 Silver Slugger awards and 8 All-Star Games, it's an amazing career that Dawson had.

Bert Blyleven was stuck pitching for some pretty crummy teams throughout his career, which prevented him from reaching 300 wins. He ended his career at 287 wins, which is still impressive. Blyleven also threw 60 shutouts, good for 9th on the all-time list. And, perhaps most impressively, when he retired in 1993, he was 3rd on the all-time strikeout list, with 3,701. The only two pitchers ahead of him were Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan. That's very select company to be in. I'm really glad that it looks like next year will be Bert's year to get in, he's definitely the best pitcher not in the Hall of Fame.

For players on the ballot for the first time, Roberto Alomar came very close to making it in, with 73.7% of the vote, so he'll surely make it in next year. Alomar was a slick-fielding second baseman who also put up great numbers at the plate. Barry Larkin and Edgar Martinez did well in their first years, 51% and 36%, respectively. Larkin could have a chance to get in, as he was a good fielding shortstop, but Martinez could have a more difficult time, as he spent the bulk of his career as a DH. Fred McGriff was the only other first-year player to garner more than 5% of the vote, and thus ensure getting listed on next year's ballot. The "Crime Dog" got 21% of the vote, a rather tepid response to some pretty solid offensive numbers. I think McGriff was a great player, but I'm not quite sure that he's a Hall of Famer. I was sad to see the "Big Cat," Andres Galarraga, drop off the ballot in his first year, he was an awesome hitter who came back in 2000 after missing all of 1999 due to cancer. In 2000 he posted one of his best seasons, hitting .302 with 28 home runs and 100 RBI, at the age of 39.

Most other players on the ballot increased their vote totals, Jack Morris, Lee Smith, and Tim Raines all went up. Dave Parker and Dale Murphy held steady at 15% and 11%, pretty low totals for two great players. And Harold Baines, one of my favorite players growing up, just narrowly avoided falling off the ballot again, moving up slightly from 5.9% to 6.1%!

Well, I'm excited for next year when Bert finally gets in!