As South by Southwest gigs go, the audience seeing the Baseball Project on 5th Street in Austin midnight Wednesday definitely appeared to include a significant quotient of balding older white men up past their bedtimes. Whether this is because they were aging fans of R.E.M. and Dream Syndicate (whose Peter Buck and Steve Wynn are in the band), aging fans of baseball (the sport that provides all of the band’s subject matter), or just plain Nuvola regulars (perhaps ones sticking around after seeing three earlier bands from Spain), was not entirely clear. But it was appropriate, given that this is as much a band about past glories as about the national pasttime, per sé; the first song on their first album, from 2008, was literally called “Past Time” (about how time passes, the game stays slow, and Minnie Minoso and Luis Aparicio had very musical names); the first song on their new Vol. 2: High And Inside is called “1976,” and it’s as much as eulogy to that long-gone era as to late beloved bicentennial Tigers looneytune Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. The Baseball Project – also prominently featuring Young Fresh Fellows/R.E.M. utility man Scott McGaughey and Wynn’s Miracle 3 drummer Linda Pitmon – did both of those songs at Nuvola, closing with “Past Time.” And their power-pop sound – jangle-hooked, supermelodic, comprehensible words always in the forefront – was really from another time, too. But part of what makes them work is how they’re aging alt-rock guys who seem comfortable and good-humored about being past their own primes. And live, their loose, business casual demeanor drove that home.
The TV above the bar, angled directly toward the stage, was actually showing Nuggets Vs. Hawks basketball during the set , which the band seemed to find disconcerting. (“I hope you enjoy watching sports,” Wynn joked. “We had these monitors flown in.”) But that didn’t stop them from paying their tributes to the ego of “Ted Fucking Williams” (Wynn: “There goes our PMRC sticker”), the eye tragedy of “Boston’s chosen son” Tony Conigliaro (in Italian-restaruant bel canto operetta form), ocean-crossing Mariners hero Ichiro Suzuki (homaged Beach Boys style), weed-smoking Frisco “Freak” Tim Linceum, and sundry players whose careers were derailed by 100-MPH-hurled cowhide projectiles. A warmup-jacketed Wynn basically took lead-vocal turns with paunchy McCaughey, whose out-of-control grey hair suggested a mad professor’s and whose sport jacket suggested an old pack of cards. The new album features plenty of pinch-hitting alt-rock guest stars, but the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn wasn’t in the house, so Wynn handled Twins defense “Don’t Call Them Twinkies” on his own. But for “Jackie’s Lament” – about Jackie Robinson – Buck’s R.E.M. mate Mike Mills came out to lend a hand, and do the Simon and Garfunkel-quoting parts. Many old men in the crowd held high their cellphones, and clicked his picture.
Editors’ note: This story has been updated since it was published.