Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Lovett and Hiatt in Waukegan

The mutual admiration and banter between Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt at their duo acoustic show in Waukegan’s Genesee Theatre on Friday night was almost as much fun hearing as the music itself. Both sporting stylish sportscoats and ties, Lovett and Hiatt sat down in their respective chairs and stayed there for the entire evening, trading songs back and forth and occasionally adding an accompanying guitar or backup vocal to each other’s performances, but always adding witty repartee between songs. Of the 160 minute performance, I’d guess that a full third of that time was Lovett and Hiatt chatting with each other in their slow, dry delivery, much like a James Taylor or Randy Newman.

I am more familiar with Lovett’s songs than Hiatt’s, but had always admired the latter’s soulful, swampy voice and his uncanny ability to stay under the radar yet command respect from musicians whom I admire. But if a newbie to Hiatt’s music were to base his opinion solely on Friday’s performance, he would likely be at a loss as to why or how Hiatt managed to attract attention. Opening with “Master of Disaster,” Hiatt immediately pushed his range to its limits, screeching out vocals that barely resembled notes, and while some of the rough edges smoothed out over the course of the evening, it was clear that he was either having a bad night or was no longer able to hit the notes in their original keys. There is no shame in this, but there is an expectation for musicians to adjust the keys or the melodies to adapt to their aging voices. Hiatt played most of his tunes with a capo, so lowering the songs by a half step or two would have been an incredibly easy thing to do. Unfortunately, he grinded it out for the evening, and his performance suffered as a result.

The contrast between Hiatt’s opening performance and Lovett’s “Creeps Like Me” couldn’t have been wider, as Lovett’s smooth tenor sounded strong and unstrained and remained so for the rest of the show, and the contrast wasn’t limited to each other’s vocal abilities. Hiatt talked about having to solo regularly with Ry Cooder’s band back in the early 80s when Lovett first saw his friend perform, and how terrifying that had been. Lovett responded that he always found soloing terrifying. As such, Hiatt took all the leads of the evening, but I found his guitar playing clunky and sloppy. I’ve played with some excellent guitarists in my life, and Hiatt wouldn’t rank among any of them. As is often the case with live acoustic guitar, the sound when strumming was overpowering and mid-rangy, often masking the lyrics of the songs, and Lovett’s picking went over better, allowing his vocals to shine through.

As for the songs, both performers are excellent craftsmen, particularly when it comes to funny, witty tunes, though I would have loved to have heard some of Lovett’s more heartbreaking compositions such as “Road to Ensenada” or a more up-tempo song like “It Ought To Be Easier.” Instead, he stuck largely to blues-based or funny songs, the most effective being “Her First Mistake,” a gem from 1996. Glancing at the set lists from this tour, the songs between performances vary significantly, so it looks like each show is one of a kind, much like these artists.

This was the first time I saw either of these musicians perform, but it was the second time I purchased tickets to see Lovett. Back in July of 2001, my wife and I were to see him perform at Ravinia on a sweltering weeknight. We had lawn seats, and I was kind of dreading the insane traffic, having to find a place to sit and sweating my ass off only to fight the traffic again on the way home. To add a little wrinkle to the evening, my wife was three months pregnant and not feeling all that great. As we were about to walk out the door, she mentioned something about not having to find a good seat because at Ravinia lawn seats aren’t in view of the stage.  I did a double take. “What?” “If you’re in the lawn seats you just hear the music. You can’t actually see the stage.” I contended then, and I contend now, that that is the stupidest setup for a concert venue in the history of mankind.

I pulled the plug. We stayed home. Sixteen years later we sat in the twelfth row of a small theater, and in addition to hearing an honest, uncluttered performance, we actually got to see the human marionette’s smile stretching out wide and strong in response to his buddy’s goofy remarks. It was worth the wait.

Sports Writing as good as the Watching

There’s a current sports columnist whose prose harken back to the glorious baseball writings of Roger Angell, whose work I hadn’t known until my wife purchased a book called Game Time: A Baseball Companion – a fine, fine read if you like baseball history – and in our current environment of immediacy and “just the facts, Ma’am,” it’s easy to overlook quality work that sometimes appears on the web. Two weeks ago the Cubs and Nationals engaged in an epic battle for game 5 of the NLDS, and Yahoo sportswriter Jeff Passan published a piece with as much beauty, poetry and gravitas as the game itself. The Cubs didn’t clinch the series until 1:15 AM Eastern Time, and Passan published his piece less than four hours later. It would have taken me weeks to produce something as good, and even then it would probably fall short. This guy can write well and write fast. 

And I know, this is what great journalists have been doing for decades, but in a world when news is published as it happens, one revelation at a time, full of errors and retractions, typos and grammatical mistakes, it’s refreshing to know that a guy like Passan can pull off a feat that few are willing to pay for these days. Kudos to Yahoo Sports for shelling out some cash for quality. 

I happened upon Passan’s essay by chance after the Cubs victory, but now I seek out his material, and this morning I was yet again rewarded after last night’s incredible Game 2 of the 2017 World Series, an 11-inning victory for the Astros – their first World Series win in franchise history – and among the best baseball games I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing.

Baseball lends itself to grandiose writing, perhaps more than other sports – something about the pacing of the game, with pauses between each pitch – and it would be easy to overdo it with the writing equivalent of John Facenda’s deep baritone voice narrating an NFL film, and although Passan occasionally dips his toes in the waters of grandiloquent prose (comparing October baseball to a “feral animal best left to carve whatever circuitous path it pleases”), most of the time he just writes really good sentences – nothing flashy, but more than “just the facts, ma’am.” Consider the following:

The fortuity that favored the Dodgers in the third inning, when Bregman’s RBI single bounced off the brim of Taylor’s cap in center and caromed to Pederson instead of scooting by, had evened out by the grace of Diaz being in the right place at the right time.

Nice. Yes, the facts are there, but they’re there in a way that’s pleasant to read.

During the last week I’ve had the pleasure of watching two of the greatest endings to sports games I’ve even seen. One was last night. The other was last Thursday, when the Raiders had two game-winning touchdowns called back in the final seconds, only to score another one – this time official – to win 31–30. Unfortunately, Jeff Passan doesn’t write for football, and nothing I found on-line stood out as anything more than a decent summary of the game.  Perhaps good writers gravitate toward America’s Pastime the way good musicians do Bach, but I have to think that any sport can lead to writing that warrants our attention.

In the meantime, I’m going to tune into the remaining World Series games when I’m able to, and to Jeff Passan's writing either way.

So long, Tom Petty

My earliest memory of Tom Petty is watching the Heartbreakers perform “Change of Heart” on Saturday Night Live in 1983. The anger of this song spoke to me. Even as a 15 year-old, I sensed that the ladies didn’t exactly dig me, and a lyric that said – in essence – “Screw you, I’ll be fine without you” felt might satisfying to a brooding teenager, not to mention that as an aspiring keyboardist I dug the sounds of Benmont Tench, always tasteful, never overplaying.

Two years later, while washing dishes at Seigo’s Japanese Steakhouse in Brookfield, Wisconsin, a strange song with a sitar, synth drums, and the inimitable twang of Tom Petty came on the radio, as the band had switched gears with “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” A few months later my buddy Jim and I attended his show at Alpine Valley (with Til Tuesday opening) and yes, the Southern Accents tour featured a horn section and a huge Confederate Flag that seem incomprehensible and tasteless in hindsight, but for an ignorant 17 year-old the power of the show hit home. “Hey, hey, hey. I was born a rebel.” Fuck, yeah. I left the concert feeling empowered and emboldened…and then I got my first speeding ticket from the Wisconsin’s finest on the way home and learned that I was anything but.

Flash forward two years, and Petty was back at Alpine Valley (I believe with the BoDeans opening, my buddy Kurt in attendance with me), and the satisfying vitriol was back with my favorite Petty song of all time – “Jammin’ Me.” Yeah, man. “Give ‘em all someplace to go.” Few words were more satisfying to my young-adult self. 

I didn’t see Petty perform again until 2003 at the intimate setting of the Vic Theatre in Chicago. Petty had aged and mellowed somewhat and I had aged and mellowed somewhat, now a father of three. Allow me illustrate by sharing my two most vivid memories of that show:

1)      Petty saying something like, “This one’s for those who are no longer with us,” before playing “Handle With Care.” By then, Roy Orbison and George Harrison were gone, and just a few months earlier bassist Howie Epstein had died as well. It was a somber moment.

2)     Me wishing to God that the encore would end because my feet were killing me after standing for about four hours on a concrete floor.

Yep, the vitriol was gone, and now all I wanted was some Advil and a good night’s sleep.

I’d lost track of most of Petty’s releases over the past few decades. I paid modest attention to Wildflowers and never got back on the bus, but there’s no denying the fact that the Heartbreakers fed the soul of my youth.

So long, Tom. Rest in peace.

And to music fans everywhere: brace yourselves. Petty, Bowie, Prince, Emerson, Lake, Michael...these are only the beginning. It’s going to be a rough, rough ride.

The 2017 Brewers

With the Brewers finishing just a game behind playoff contention, it’s tempting to play the what-if game. Even Brewer manager Craig Counsell admitted as much: "We'll always look back and want more," Counsell said. "We played so many close games that it's an easy season to play 'what if' a little bit. But we were on the other end of those games, too.”

Indeed. The Crew played more close games than any other team in the MLB this season, and overall the results were good, but it’s hard not to look back on some of those early games and ask what if. What if Counsell hadn’t stuck so long with original closer Neftali Feliz? Or second baseman Jonathan Villar? Or centerfielder Keon Broxton? Or starter Matt Garza? Or set-up man Jacob Barnes?

Or a bigger what-if question: what if general manager David Stearns hadn’t inexplicably let second-baseman Scooter Gennett go before the start of the season for nothing in return? This one had me scratching my head last April and now it’s more of a head-slapper, as Gennett went on to hit .295 with 27 home runs and 96 RBIs for the last-place Reds. Avoiding that blunder alone would likely have pushed the Brewers to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Or another transaction that I believe will bite the Brewers in the ass if it hasn’t already: the trade of first-baseman Garrett Cooper for reliver Tyler Webb, who lasted all of two games before returning to the minors. Eric Thames, after performing at a blistering pace in April, proved to be just another Chris Carter: lots of strike outs and a fair number of home runs, but overall a liability (I would rather have seen Jesus Agular get more playing time) and the question of a reliable first-baseman – something Milwaukee has lacked since Prince Fielder in 2011 - remains. Is Thames really the guy you want to go with for the next several years? And are you now reconsidering whether you should have traded a good minor-league first baseman for a lousy reliever?

But let’s face it. If someone had told me at the start of the season that the Crew was going to win 86 games, I would have been thrilled, and the truth is the Brewers showed enormous resiliency, bouncing back from losing streaks and avoiding total collapse in spite of losing not one, not two, but THREE starting pitchers on the basepaths, all three of whom were considered the Brewers’ number one starter at the time: Junior Guerra on opening day, Chase Anderson in June and – the final nail in the coffin – Jimmy Nelson in September. You have to hand it to the coaching staff on this one. Somehow the Brewers managed to have the 9th best ERA in 2017, and even though I really, really, really wanted the Brewers to make it to the playoffs, the reality is they didn’t have enough left in the tank to go any further. They were running on fumes ever since Nelson went down. Had Guerra, Peralta, Taylor Jungmann, Garza or someone else proved to be as effective a starter things might have been different, but such is baseball in the National League. Though the game itself is a lot more entertaining in the NL, sometimes pitchers hurt themselves at the plate or on the basepaths, and this year the Brewers suffered more than their fair share of injuries.

I wrote a blog back at the all-star break about the Brewers who were then 5 ½ games out in front, and I predicted then that the Crew would win somewhere between 81 and 87 wins but fall short of the playoffs. I was right. Just after the break, the Crew went on a predictable 5-11 run that pushed them out of first place, never to return. But although the Brewers only finished one game over .500 after the All-star break, given the history of this franchise and the horrific weeks following the break, the team remained surprisingly resilient. Credit Counsell and his coaching staff, and credit Stearns with some good July acquisitions, including Neil Walker and Anthony Swarzak, not to mention the promotion of reliever Josh Hader, who looks to be a potential pitching stud in years to come.

So what to expect next year? I’m optimistic despite the team setting (yet again) a new record for strikeouts. I can’t say the Brewers will be favorites to win the NL Central, but I would be surprised if Milwaukee ended the season under .500. Yes, that’s very much a modest sort of Midwestern optimism where mediocrity is considered a blessing, but just expecting your team to finish above .500 is a nice change for a team that’s done so poorly for so long minus a few seasons. With outfielders Brett Phillips and Lewis Brinson expected to make an impact next year, and with Garza off the books – leaving room for off-season acquisitions – things could get interesting. The big question marks to me are second base (the Crew will likely lose both Walker and Sogard to free agency, and who knows what’ll happen to Villar after a terrible season) and first base (I am not at all convinced that Thames is the answer there, though I suspect Stearns disagrees). And then of course is the massaging of the pitching staff, but there’s some reason for optimism there, too. Brent Suter and Aaron Wilkerson proved to be a potential winning MLB pitchers, and Taylor Jungmann – despite having a terrible time in the Major Leagues – had a tremendous year at Triple A. Perhaps he’s ready now to make an impact at the Big-League level. And even though Counsell loved using Josh Hader as a setup man down the stretch, he’d have to be high not to at least consider him as a starting pitcher for next year. Add to that Zach Davies, Chase Anderson and eventually Jimmy Nelson, once he recovers from surgery, and perhaps the Crew may end up with a decent pitching staff. The relievers lost a lot of games this year – a LOT – but bullpens are something general managers are often able to fix in the off-season.

We shall see. At the very least, 2017 proved to a be an entertaining year for Brewers fans. 2018 will attract higher expectations, but at this point there’s no reason to think the Brewers can’t meet them. It should be fun.

Now let’s just hope the Cubs lay a big old turd in the playoffs.

Ben Folds in Los Angeles

When I first heard Ben Folds Five while driving in 1995 I nearly crashed my car in excitement. I’d never heard anything like it before. A funny, smart, musical piano-based trio sang “Underground” on the radio, a week later I overpaid for the album at CD World, a few years later I sang their songs to my twin daughters, and in 2012 the brainwashing culminated in a Ben Folds Five reunion performance with all three of my children in attendance.

At the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles on Sunday night, my daughter and I took in a solo Ben Folds show of his “Paper Airplane Request Tour” and enjoyed an impressive and somewhat unpredictable performance, as Folds took audience recommendations for the last half of the evening (via paper airplanes thrown onto the stage). My other daughter had attended his Louisville performance last April and was somewhat disappointed with the song selection, as Folds leaned too heavily on familiar territory. The paper airplane tour has helped to alleviate this tendency, and a quick glance at the shows thus far confirms that the second halves of have been completely different, and the loose nature of the programs have also allowed Ben to improv songs on the spot for comedic effect. At Sunday’s concert he performed two ad-libbed songs – one for a man in the audience who was being a dick and another for the theater where he was performing – and both were hilarious.

Folds is an exceptional piano player, something I don’t think I fully realized until this performance. When I watched Folds and Rufus Wainwright perform back in 2004 at Ravinia in Chicago the latter’s piano skills stood out to me, but Folds is right up there, exhibiting not only his own unique style and sound (something very difficult to achieve on the piano) but also very technical runs and hand independence that far surpass anything Elton John or Billy Joel are capable of at the piano. Because of this, an entire evening of piano never got old; Folds has enough tricks up his sleeve to make the last song sound as engaging as the first.

Aside from skipping the repertoire of the last Ben Folds Five release and his collaboration with Nick Hornby, each of his albums were well represented on Sunday, including his most recent effort, So There, whose songs were much more vibrant and effective as a solo performance than on the album that highlighted an accompanying sextet.

Like James Taylor, Folds is able to introduce a song as if it’s the first time he’s ever done so, with an engagingly dry wit and timing. The most compelling may have been his prelude to “Not a Fan,” during which he recounted a moment after a Cincinnati concert when a boyfriend of a fan pulled a knife on him. Apparently some people can really get worked up over music.

The last song of the first set included a short drum duet and piano duet with singer Josh Groban (who knew?) and then the airplanes flew and littered the stage, resulting in some deep cuts that had Folds slightly stumped. “Redneck Past” required a cheat sheet and Folds stumbled in the middle section of “Kyle from Connecticut,” but the rest of set was more familiar.  A 17 year-old aspiring actress who sat in front of me went crazy when Folds began “Emaline,” and my daughter and I high-fived during “Cologne,” an example of one of the singer’s biggest talents – composing beautifully heart-wrenching songs. That fans actually threw airplanes onstage to request “The Luckiest” and “Gracie” was a disappointment (that’s what you wanted him to play out of his entire repertoire?) but “Narcolepsy” and “Where’s Summer B.” helped redeem that audience in my eyes.

Prior to this performance I admit that Folds had grown a little stale in my eyes. His past four albums haven’t excited me nearly as much as his past efforts (the last one to grab me was Way to Normal), but this performance convinced me that he’s still a force to be reckoned with. A more motivated version of me would spend the next year dissecting his songs and piano playing to really get a better handle on his craft. For now, I’ll have to settle for recording my own piano-based trio sometime this winter for my next album, hopefully with a unique result, but undoubtedly owing a great deal to the man that paved the way.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved