Jazzin’ Up the Music Hall

September 28, 2010

The Charleston Jazz Orchestra in full swing

In true Southern fashion, the crowd slowly trickled into the Charleston Music Hall Saturday night to attend “Latin Night,” the fourth concert of the 2010 season by the renowned Charleston Jazz Orchestra.

Led by conductor and accomplished trumpeter Charlton Singleton, the CJO has garnered steady attention and accolades since its inception in early 2008 with rousing performances and a stream of high-profile special guests sharing the stage.

This night was no exception.

Although the program stated that the music would begin promptly at 7 p.m., emcee Jack McCray did not take the stage until 20 minutes later to officially get the night’s events underway.

McCray’s onstage demeanor set the tone for the night, as he invited the capacity crowd to sit back, relax and “take some dust off of the day.”

Singleton soon entered to a loud ovation and chatted with the crowd, offering previews of what his group had in store for the night and down the road before kicking things off with Duke Ellington’s “Flaming Sword,” a mid-tempo, upbeat piece that featured several outstanding solos from the brass and woodwind sections.

The first special guest of the evening, flautist Regina Helcher Yost, was introduced shortly after as the featured player for the next batch of songs, starting with the three-movement “Sonata Latino.” This arrangement started off with a heavy dose of bongos and pianos before the full band kicked in with much majesty.

There was an evident chemistry between guitarist-vocalist Duda Lucena and vocalist Leah Suarez, as the two performed a steamy duet titled “Samba em Prulido.” Lucena was given a well-deserved cheer as he exited the stage, leaving Suarez to perform a spicy version of “Save the Last Dance for Me.”

After an intermission that lasted just “15 jazz minutes,” the second set saw Singleton introduce featured Cuban pianist Fernando Rivas to the stage. Rivas not only is a Lowcountry local, but also happens to be a Grammy and Emmy award winner. “Afro Blue” featured some interesting percussion solos from another special guest, Ecuadorian-American Gino Castillo. Castillo’s inventive and exhilarating use of several different pieces of percussion really drew the approval of the audience.

The middle portion of the second set saw the performance stripped down to a core group, featuring Singleton’s trumpet and John Cobb’s baritone sax at the forefront. Although this group did not utilize the full band’s sound, the songs did not lose their power and grasp of the audience.

“Recuerdo” featured guitarist-vocalist Cristobal Cisneros, who alternated between acoustic and electric guitar, which helped to give the piece a balance between flamenco and rock-and-roll as the full orchestra once again joined the fray.

The set was closed out by a jazz icon Chick Corea’s “Spain,” an aptly-titled arrangement given the night’s theme. After receiving a standing ovation from a wildly-appreciative crowd, the CJO performed an encore to preview their October 23rd show titled “Pops,” leaving the audience wanting more.

September 7, 2010

A sold-out Music Farm audience was treated to an impressive performance from the Deftones, the Sacramento-based group known for creating some of the more memorable genre-bending rock albums for the better part of the past two decades.
Since their debut album Adrenaline dropped in 1995, the band has made a living of crafting their art both on stage and in the studio leading to a career highlighted by critical acclaim and mainstream success. But they have always strayed just a bit out of the spotlight, which has helped them stay fresh during the downfall of a genre they helped inspire – numetal.
The members of the band seemed quite relaxed as they enjoyed food and drinks at Juanita Greenberg’s before the show, talking with fans and posing for pictures. But they were all business on this night.
Openers This Will Destroy You played to an already crowded house, hammering through a 30-minute set consisting of post-metal instrumental jam sessions that had some in attendance bobbing their heads as they jostled for position in the crowd.
As the house lights went off and the Deftones crept on stage, the room came alive and it was apparent the band had a strong local following.
Starting the set off with the title-track off their newest album, Diamond Eyes, the band was energetic and tight. Frontman Chino Moreno was on point, displaying a vocal range unparalleled in the industry and the charisma to boot.
With a catalog full of radio hits and fan favorites, one could basically throw darts at a list of their songs and create an interesting setlist. But it seemed that there was some careful thought put into those they chose to play for their first-ever performance in Charleston.
The band plucked tracks from all six of their albums save for Saturday Night Wrist, an album that dropped in 2006 during some of the most tumultuous times the band has ever faced. This was the record that was the result of the band’s near breakup at that time, and it seemed as if the band chose to focus on the positive instead.
The band tore through over 20 songs in a little under two hours, knowing just when to lay off the gas on some of their more aggressive offerings by slowing the tempo down with electronica-tinged ballads. There was a good amount of interaction between the crowd and Moreno, who has been known to sometimes give less-than aspiring performances in the past. The band was having so much fun they even launched into an impromptu cover of the beginning of Steve Miller Band’s “Swing Town” as the crowd sang along with delight.
Other highlights of the night included some of their lesser known songs, including “Needles and Pins” from their self-titled album and “Feiticeira,” the opening track off 2000’s epic White Pony.
However, as the night came to a steamy and sweltering close, it was clear that the band was here to entertain their old school fans. Performing a finale featuring several tracks off Adrenaline and ending with a furious rendition of “7 Words,” the Deftones left the crowd feeling worn out and energized simultaneously as the house lights went up.
Click on the link for a setlist!
http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/deftones/2010/music-farm-charleston-sc-bd5e99a.html

Top Five Albums of 2009

January 14, 2010

It’s been a long time coming since my last post. Almost four months. But in my defense, I haven’t had internet at my house since I moved from Chicago back to Charleston in mid-October. Kinda hard to maintain a blog when you can’t get online for more than fifteen minutes at a time.

So, I am easing back into this whole blog thing again, and  I am going to start with something fun and easy – my favorite albums of the year.

*Disclaimer: I only check out certain bands and certain types of music. I am not a music critic that has CDs delivered in bunches to his doorstep for review. So take that into account when reading over these selections…

1. Mastodon – Crack the Skye

The kings of progressive stoner metal had a lot to live up to after 2007’s Blood Mountain pushed them to the forefront of the burgeoning prog-metal scene. After all, that record showed up on a lot of year-end lists, made Mastodon a household name for metal heads the world over and provided a blueprint for younger bands to strive for. Crack the Skye lives up to the hype. Reportedly a concept album built around a spirit that travels through dimensions before landing in Czarist Russia and saving Rasputin from an untimely demise, this mind-spinning  opus starts out with the catchy and harmonious  “Oblivion” and tickles the listener’s earballs throughout its 52 minutes. The majority of the album was penned by guitarist/lead singer Brent Hinds as he lay in a hospital, ailing from head wounds suffered in a drunken brawl, and explores rich textures and (gasp) clean, layered vocals. The album takes a few listens to truly “get” and it’s a pretty far cry from Remission, but the amazing guitar work and  drumming that Mastodon is known for is still clearly the band’s forte. ‘The band undoubtedly stretches itself to its very limits, and succeeds wildly in doing so. ‘The Last Baron’, the stunning final track on the album, might be their greatest musical achievement yet. And if you purchase the deluxe album edition, you get the whole album again – minus the lyrics. Another sonic treat.

2. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic

The Flaming Lips have always been best known for creating artsy space rock, mixing booming bass, fuzzy guitars, electronica and layered vocal harmonies to create some of the more interesting music you can find in the mainstream. They’ve come a long way from “Vasoline”. Remember that little ditty? Embyronic finds the Oklahoma natives treading unchartered territory, forgoing their pep and gloss and exploring some very dark and brooding territory – only a handful of the songs have a real backbeat to them. There are lots of little blips, beeps and noises sprinkled throughout the album and the listener almost forgets where one track ends and the next begins. Again, and as with most good music, the album takes a few spins to leave its mark. It is best experienced through headphones and from start to finish.

3. Every Time I Die – New Junk Aesthetic

The best thing to come out of Buffalo since the hot wing, Every Time I Die takes the best traits from metal, hardcore, southern rock and grunge and blend it into their own dirty mixture. The album is built around elastic riffs and breakdowns, but the most notable aspect on their newest effort is the amazing transformation of singer Keith Buckley. Over the past few albums, the former high school english teacher has gone from spazzoid screamer to more of  a hardcore crooner. Buckley has become one of metal’s best frontmen, with his ability to seamlessly transition between throaty screams and clean vocals, all the while spinning his yarns with an uncompromising wit. NJA is the next logical step in this band’s career and offers a great overview of one of the genre’s most promising and fun groups.

4. Eminem – Relapse

Eminem, no stranger to controversy and contempt, comes out swinging harder than ever with his latest effort. Fueled by his failed marriage and the murder of his best friend, Eminem spent the better part of the past three years in exile, mired in drug addiction and depression. Now he’s back and at the top of his game again. Using his sharp wit, dark humor and robust rap skills, Em had already cemented himself as one of the genre’s finest MCs and this album strongly reinforces that. Blunt as a broadsword, Eminem dips and dives through scathing raps, attacking and mowing down anyone in his way. His delivery is unparalleled and some of his most humorous and sadistic flows to date are found sprinkled throughout. Having Dr. Dre has your producer and collaborator doesn’t hurt either. However, the most revealing and compelling aspect of Relapse is the fact that, for the first time, Eminem points the finger at himself.

5. Baroness – Blue Record

Straight from the swamps of Savannah come Baroness. Although they have stood in the shadow’s of genre buddies and local stalwarts Kylesa, Baroness came into their own with 2008’s outstanding Red Album and became more than just the heir apparent to the throne currently owned by Mastodon. The compositions that Baroness produce are not as challenging as that of Mastodon, nor are they as heavy as Kylesa. Their strength lies in their craftsmanship of exploring every riff to its fullest capacity. Jumping from sludge to jam-band in a mere matter of seconds is a tough task to pull off, but the transitions are seamless throughout their work. The fact that the band perseveres through constant lineup changes and through the burden having to play second fiddle to Georgia’s other hard rock royalty is a testament to the band’s vision. Singer/songwriter John Baizley, who also does all the cover art for his band and a slew of other acts, is one of music’s most underrated frontmen.

Honorable Mention: Isis – Wavering Radiant; Pelican – What We All Come to Need; Suicide Silence – No Time to Bleed; Mos Def – The Ecstatic; Jay Z – The Blueprint 3; Converge – Axe to Fall.

Greg Matthews celebrates after scoring the game-winning touchdown against Notre Dame.

Greg Matthews celebrates after scoring the game-winning touchdown in Michigan's upset win over Notre Dame.

Last week, I was fortunate enough to score tickets to the showdown between Notre Dame and Michigan in Ann Arbor at the Big House. I have seen a handful of games there before, but none of them had the magintude or scope of this one. Both programs were in desperate need of a signature win. On one hand, Michigan was coming off its worst season ever and an offseason full of questions and scandal, whereas Notre Dame was looking to live up to expectations after several years of top-10 recruing classes fielded a team of talented and experienced players.

The stage was set for a slug-fest of epic proportions, and the weather was forecasted to be a beautiful, sunny day in A2.

The drive from Chicago to Ann Arbor is a long one, and it was made even more ardous due to the stressful night that preceded it. After compiling a hefty happy hour bar tab at one of our local watering holes, my brother’s wife fractured her ankle later in the evening while eating risotto and dancing in the kitchen. At first thought, it looked to be nothing more than a bad sprain, but as it neared midnight, it became evident that it was something more serious. The decision was made to take Megan to the hospital to get it looked at by a trained medical doctor, rather than by the group of inebriated amateurs at the house. With that being said, my brother’s maiden voyage to Michigan Stadium was all but kuput, as leaving his wife at home by herself the night after an emergency room trip was probably not in anyone’s best interest. His duties as a husbanded superseded his love of Michigan football.

And rightfully so. For sick or poorer, for good times and bad…

In stepped my brother’s best friend, Steve-O, to scoop up the extra ticket. He called in a favor to his boss to get the day off, a mere seven hours before we were set to hit the road for the trip to Michigan. After only a handful of hours of stressed sleep time, the two of us piled into my 2003 Mitsubishi Galant, a car not suited for long hauls on the road due to lack of cruise control. As we pulled onto I-94, both Steve-O and I half-joked that we were glad there was no cruise control, because any more creature comforts in the car might put us back to sleep. At least this way, I couldn’t take a second off of paying close attention to how I was driving, hence keeping me awake. Although both of us were a bit hungover and could have used a few more hours of rest, we were both very amped and antsy during the four-plus hour drive and neither of us could hardly sit still nor wait to arrive at our destination.

We pulled into Ann Arbor at about 1:30 p.m., roughly two hours before kickoff. We found some decent parking on a Michigan fan’s lawn for a mere 15 dollars, and trekked about a mile to the stadium. As we neared the intersection of Stadium and Main, the throngs of Maize-and-Blue clad tailgaters grew thicker and thicker, each group more boisterous than the next. Michigan flags flew everywhere, shouts of “Go Blue, Wear Maize” were overheard, and the smell of beer and sausage wafted through the air.

There is nothing like college football tailgating.

After milling about and navigating through the meandering crowds outside of the stadium, we decided to enter through the gates and onto the hallowed grounds of the nation’s largest stadium. We located an M Go Blue shop soon after and each purchased a Maize shirt, unwittingly becoming a part of a larger effort to turn the whole Big House into one enormous MaizeOut. From the outside, Michigan Stadium is not an opposing structure. It only stands a few stories high, but holds over 110,000 fans on a given game day. The reason for this is nearly the entire stadium is sunk into the ground, like a giant crater surrounded by benches. And until recently, that’s all there was – benches. Now, towering on each side of the Big House are brand new private suites that not only give off an imposing image, but help trap the crowd noise in and create a more hostile environment for opposing teams.

We quickly found our seats in section 8, about 80 rows up from the field. While they were basically in the nosebleeds, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house and we actually had a pretty decent vantage point for all the action. The stadium was nearly empty, what with it being over an hour till kickoff. The special teams players were on the field warming up, and both bands were taking their respective places. I called my friend, Chris Larson, to see where he was at.  I had learned earlier in the week that he would be working the sidelines for ABC driving one of the cable cart. Basically, he was getting paid 25 bucks an hour to watch the game from the Michigan bench, as he put it. Sounds like a dream job to me. He had hoped to get us down on the field to watch warmups, but it was not to be. He came up to say hello anyway. It had been probably four years since I had seen him, and it was good to share a laugh with him again.

We sat in our seats and watched the stadium gradually fill it up. One by one, thousand by thousands. On game day, the Big House becomes the third largest city in the state of Michigan. The last group of fans to make their way to their seats was the Michigan student section, which ended up taking up almost a quarter of the stadium. Decked to the nines in Maize, they were loud and boisterous and set the mood and tone for the game to follow. Our section was kitty corner from them, and was a liberal mix of Michigan and ND fans, old and young.  Sitting directly in front of us was a group of four Notre Dame student. They were your basic South Bend dorks but they were friendly and taking our trash talk rather well, and they dished it out back to us too. It became apparent this was going to be a fun game for the both of us.

The Irish took the field to a smattering of boos, and then the home team ran through the tunnel and under the “Go Blue M Club Supports  You!” banner to the standing ovation. Kickoff was near, and the atmosphere in the stadium was electrifying. Michigan won the coin toss and opted to defer, and the crowd let out a deafening roar as the ball was kicked off.

As any college football fan knows, the game that followed was a back-and-forth affair that featured momentum swings, big plays and two of the most hyped quarterbacks in the nation. Notre Dame boasted Jimmy Clausen, a junior who came into Notre Dame as a five star quarterback with an NFL-ready arm who had yet to live up to huge expectations that came with his arrival. On the other hand, Michigan fielded true freshman Tate Forcier, who shouldered the burden of running the spread option and leading the Wolverines out of last season’s miserable funk.

The Wolverines led early 14-3 after an amazing 94-yard kickoff return by Martavious Odoms. The crowd was at a fever pitch, and even though the high-octane Notre Dame offense was moving the ball, the Wolverines defense held its own. The PA announcer recited the final score from East Lansing, “Central Michigan 29, Michigan State 27,” and the crowd cheered with delight. It looked to be a great day to be a Wolverine.

But Notre Dame answered and the momentum shifted quite quickly, and the Irish led 20-14 at halftime. It could have been much worse, but holding penalties relegated ND to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns. The Irish fans around us were chirping loudly now, and the hopes of an upset looked more and more like a long shot. Notre Dame had almost double the total yards as Michigan, and other than the special teams play, the Wolverines were being outworked, outmanned and out played. Somewhere in the distance, crazy-ass Lou Holtz was smiling. Someone made note that Matt Millen, the George Bush of NFL general managers that submarined the woeful Lions franchise over the past half-decade, was commentating the game for ABC. Maybe his presence back in the state of Michigan was putting a jinx on this Wolverines squad.

The second half opened with Michigan marching down and scoring on a Forcier touchdown pass to tight end Kevin Koger. It looked like the Wolverines still had plenty of fight in them as they clawed back into it, and you could sense the momentum shift again. After the ND offense stalled again, Michigan was driving, but faced a 4th-and-1 from midfield early in the fourth quarter. Forcier took the snap, held his ground in the pocket, shifted right to elude an Irish defender, than broke through the line and scampered to the endzone right in front us. Bedlam ensued. The crowd was so loud that it drowned out the band as they played “The Victors”.

31-20 Michigan, 14:16 left in the game.

The fourth quarter provided so much excitement, I could barely stand it. Michigan held an 11-point lead, but Clausen and the Irish stormed back to draw within four points on a 21-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate, who showed the ball to the Wolverines defense to rub it in. Irish fans (and their coach) bellyached after the game that Michigan got all the calls in their favor, but here was one of several instances were the Irish did not draw a flag on a blatant offense. Michigan was still in the lead and the fans still felt good about the situation, but Forcier committed one of his only mistakes on the ensuing drive and threw an ill-advised pass into the arms of an Irish defender. Notre Dame took over in Michigan territory and the apprehension was felt throughout the stadium. Minutes later, the Irish punched it in on a touchdown run by Armando Allen, and just like that, Notre Dame led. The Irish faithful were jubilant, and their cheers echoed over the somber and silent 100,000 Michigan faithful. Besides the chants from the ND fans, you could hear a pin drop in the Big House. As suddenly as we felt an upset brewing, the air was let out of the stadium like a deflated birthday balloon.

Michigan’s next drive ended in a three-and-out and the Irish took over with just over two minutes left deep into Michigan territory. And here is were the game turned. Instead of running the ball to wind the clock down and make the Wolverines burn their timeouts, the Irish decided to throw on first and second down, both attempts failing to acheive their goal of just a single first down. Notre Dame was forced to punt, and Michigan received one more chance to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.

Michigan moved the ball with relative ease, and Forcier overthrew a wide open receiver on the right side side of the field on second down. If the receiver hauls it in, its a touchdown. Game over. See ya. But the ball goes just over his head and falls out of bounds incomplete. The Wolverine drive resumes though, as Forcier brushes it off, and leads Michigan to a first and goal inside the Notre Dame ten-yard line. A field goal ties, a touchdown wins. I am so nervous, I can barely watch. Only seconds remain on the clock, yet it seems like an eternity.

On first down, Forcier finds another wide-open reciever in the end zone, but LaTerryal Savoy drops the pass, the ball fumbled around his hands on onto the turf. A collective yelp from the fans, all on edge, followed by groans of exasperation. 15 seconds left, second down. Savoy blew it, and he knows it. He is instantly pulled to the side lines. The Wolverines run the exact same play and Forcier’s toss finds Greg Matthews in the exact same position.

Except this time, the result is different.

TOUCHDOWN MICHIGAN!!!!

The stadium erupts in a deafening cheer. Strangers are hugging, high-fives are being dealt out like playing cards in Vegas. I am jumping up and down so vigorously that both my camera and my cell phone fall out of my pockets. The sheer delight is beyond words. 38-34 Michigan. Upset is only seconds away. After the ensuing kickoff goes out of the back of the end zone, Notre Dame’s last gasp at the equalizer falls considerably short and the clock strikes zero. The Michigan bench rushes the field and the celebration begins. The dejected Irish trudge off the field, their fans make their way towards the exits with their heads down.

“Bye, thanks for coming!”…”Have a nice drive back to South Bend!”, I say to the Notre Dame faithful. In front of us, the Irish students sit, stunned, heads held in hands. We shake hands, a classy move from both sides. The Michigan team sprints over to the student section and begins a rousing rendition of “The Victors”. The game has been over for 15 minutes, yet no one in Maize and Blue wants to leave yet. Everyone wants to savor the moment. This might be the most important home win for the program since the 2003 victory over Ohio State that sealed the last outright Big Ten title for Michigan. And its another giant step for Michigan’s return to national relevance.

After soaking up the good vibes for a few more minutes, I race down closer to the field to take one final picture of the scoreboard. An ear-to-ear grin stretches across my face as we leave the Big House. Chants and cheers surround us, and I almost feel bad for the remaing Notre Dame fans as the exit the stadium grounds.

Almost.

The game could not have gone any better. I got to see a Michigan game, I got to see them play a nationally-ranked arch-rival, it was a great game all the way around, and it ended with a last-second victory for the good guys.

Needless to say, the drive home seemed a lot easier than the drive there.

Big Ern

September 5, 2009

Ernie Harwell: A living legend

Ernie Harwell: A living legend

When one thinks of Detroit Tigers baseball, one name always comes to mind.

Ernie Harwell.

Sad news came out of Motown today about reports of the 91-year old former broadcaster being diagnosed with an incurable cancer. He was the voice of the Tigers for over four decades, and was a well-known man in the community as well. Some of my earliest and fondest sports memories have his imprints all over them. I can remember one early evening in 1990 listening to Harwell call the game when Cecil Fielder broke the 50-homerun barrier. I was grounded to my room for some surely absurd reason, so I sat there listening to the game while playing with Legos. I can recall the moment when Fielder hit the towering shot to propel him into MLB stardom that day, and Ernie was there for the call…it was before the luster of the long ball was tarnished by the Steroid Era, and it was the first time a slugger hit over 50 home runs in 17 years.

He symbolized everything that was right with the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan. He was warm, endearing, a man with a wealth of knowledge that would just assume to recant with a total stranger about the heydays of the majors as he would want to talk about local news. He was famous for naming the “small town” from which a player was from, a testament to his love for the man from a small town. His smile could light up a room, and his knowledge for the history and the intimacies of the game were second to none.

I know I come off as a guy that knew a lot about Ernie, which is not the case. But this is a tribute to a living legend in Tiger lore, and that’s the most important thing. Before his time on this earth is up, he plans on finishing his fourth book since his retirement. Here’s to hoping he accomplishes that goal before the end.

At 91, he’s lived a life that only most people can dream. And he knows this all to well. In a interview with the Detroit Free Press, Harwell stated: “It could be a year, it could be much less than a year, much less than half a year. Who knows? Whatever’s in store, I’m ready for a new adventure. That’s the way I look at it.”

And to his fans and his followers: “I’d like to thank them for their loyalty and support over the years. And their affection, which I don’t know whether I deserve or not, but I accept it.”

Pure class and humility from a living legend and a man that casts his long shadow over the entire sports world over.

To read his inception speech from his Hall of Fame induction, click on the link below

http://www.baseball-almanac.com/hof/Ernie_Harwell_HOF_Induction.shtml

Tim Hiller looks to shock the world and the Wolverines this Saturday in Ann Arbor

Tim Hiller and Western Michigan look to upset the Wolverines this Saturday

Rarely does a sports fan have a conflict of interest in a singular game. Everyone has their favorite team that they root for with a diehard vengeance. A team, where if they lose on a given day, it will crush your spirit, ruin your day and make you punch a wall or kick the dog…Relax, I’d never do the latter, but the other three? Guilty as charged.

It’s no secret my love for the Maize and Blue. I grew up a Michigan fan since the day I can remember. Saturdays in the Fall you won’t find me anywhere but planted on a couch or a bar stool watching my beloved Wolverines take the field in hopes of acheiving eternal greatness, or at least pulling out a big win.

But, as most of you know, I did not attend the university. I applied to two schools – Michigan and Western Michigan. There was no other choice. Like I was going to go to school in East Lansing. Please…

Option A, or Option B.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite smart enough and not nearly wealthy enough for the tastes of Ann Arbor. It was a tough day for me when I received that letter of denial, but I carried on and attended WMU. Kalamazoo treated me just fine and I enjoyed my time there and believe that I acquired myself a a pretty decent education. And while enrolled at Kalamazoo, I became a pretty big fan of Bronco athletics as well. But it never trumped my love for the Wolverines. I followed both closely, and could spout of facts, history and rhetoric about both athletic programs (well, mostly football and basketball, those are really the only college sports that count.) Let’s face it though. Michigan is just that much more of a premier program and even though WMU has a special place in my heart, I will always be a Wolverine first.

Which brings me to the reason I am writing tonight. Who do I cheer for this weekend in the matchup between the Wolverines and the Broncos at the Big House? I have been to a couple games there before between the two schools. I sat in the WMU student section, sang the fight song, cheered with my fellow students and had a great time. But when Michigan ended up on the winning side of things, I was of course cheerful on the inside. Both times I attended, the Wolverines were a preseason top-10 team with Big Ten title aspirations and a great chance of making noise in the national picture. A loss to Western would have erased all those hopes. It would have been a great win for the Broncos if things had gone differently, but in the grand scheme of things, it would not have mattered all that much as the season progressed.

This weekend presents a different angle on the whole quandry. Michigan’s season starts off with more questions than answers. No one expects them to do too well this year, and just qualifying for a bowl game with six victories seems like a daunting task right now. It’s totally possible, but then again, it’s also not. A win for the Wolverines is expected and will give them a boost of confidence that is sorely needed for a team whose locker room is as divided as its fan base. But what about the Broncos? Some preseason publications have them ranked HIGER than their opening-weekend opponent. When was the last time that happened? My hunch, without doing any research, is never.

Never ever.

So the question is: Is this game bigger for U of M or WMU? In past seasons, Western has beaten Iowa, Purdue and Illinois all away from the friendly confines of Waldo. A road win against the (once) mighty Wolverines would be the biggest win in program history bar none. It can be done. The Broncos are led by one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Tim Hiller, who isn’t as heralded as some other signal-callers across the country but is just as talented. He and his recieving corp will test a shaky Michigan secondary early. If they jump on the Wolverines early, watch out! WMU may be an underdog, but I like their chances of pulling off the upset.

I just don’t like the fact that I do like their chances, if that makes sense.

Saturday should be an interesting afternoon for both teams, both schools and both fan bases. And for one fan in general, a real conflict of interest.

Prediction: Michigan 31, Western Michigan 27

Rich Rodriguez might be using his thumb to hitch a ride out of town soon.

Rich Rodriguez might be using his thumb to hitch a ride out of town soon.

Ugh.

Less than eight hours after I posted my Michigan blog yesterday, more disheartening news came out of Ann Arbor in the form of NCAA violation allegations. ESPN blogger Adam Rittenberg put it best in his report, saying the most troubling aspect of the story isn’t the allegations themselves, but the people who made them.

Former and current players allege that the Wolverine coaching staff not only mandated their athletes to workout well beyond the time alloted by NCAA regulations, they also covered up these infractions by telling the players that the extensive workouts were in fact permitted by the NCAA, although they most definitely weren’t.

This is another example of what some involved in the program believe to be a rift between coaches and players. Since coach Rich Rodriguez arrived in Ann Arbor, a discord has grown in the locker room. Rodriguez upset alumni and former players right off the bat by bringing in a whole new staff and doing away with several long-standing Michigan traditions, most notably doing away with team captains for the season, and instead appointing different captains for each game. After his first season at the helm that saw UM reach a new record of futility, he also told overcritical Wolverine fans to “get a life.” But the most serious black eyes have come from those who have just got up and left town. Several players and recruits abandoned UM citing an “eroding of family values”, as one offensive lineman put it. He than abruptly transfered to hated rival Ohio State.

Pot, meet kettle.

Of course, the players spoke out on these workout violations spoke on condition of anonimity, a tactic not only cowardly, but childish. To play devil’s advocate on behalf of the coaching staff, when someone is accused of wrong doing, they should at least be granted the right to know who the accuser is. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that these allegations, if proven to be true, will add another blemish to a program mired in uncertainity and

Some will try to play it off, saying that most NCAA programs tend to push the limits when it comes to workouts and practices, but Michigan has never been like most programs. In the 20 years that I can recall following Wolverine athletics, the football team has never been cited for major infractions. There was always a certain aura of pride in doing things the right way, opposite of the current “win at whatever cost” philosphy. The term Michigan Man was coined to describe guys like Bo Schembechler and Lloyd Carr. I don’t think Rodriguez quite fits in to this category.

Now, with this coming out and depending on what the NCAA does, the football team could very well be heading down the same path as the basketball team did a decade ago after the fallout of the Bill Martin scandal. It was a long uphill battle for the hoops squad to become relevant again, and the fact that the football team is already on shaky ground after RichRod’s disasterous initial campaign does not bode well.

Any optimism for the upcoming season has now been swept under the rug, much like the coaching staff allegedly attempted to do with these training transgressions. If the product on the field does not significantly improve from the past season, the cries for RichRod’s ouster from Ann Arbor will only grow louder.

Here is to a hot seat that just became hotter.

Coach Rich Rodriguez leads Michigan out of the gates in his second season at the helm.

Coach Rich Rodriguez leads Michigan out of the gates in his second season at the helm.

Opening day for college football is right around the corner, and as a sports nut and a devout fan of Michigan football, this is usually the time of the year that excites me most. But for the second year in a row, questions and concerns swirl around the once-proud program. Instead of hopes of competing for a conference championship and national title, the Wolverines just hope to be competitive in each game, something that they could not achieve last year when they hit rock-bottom and set an all-time record for futility.

3-9. First losing season since the 60s. The nation’s longest consecutive bowl streak snapped. First ever loss to a MAC team. These

Things  will be better this fall, but not by much.

Once again, the keys to the offense will most likely be handed to an incoming freshman. Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are highly-touted athletes, but it remains to be seen how quickly they can make the jump from high school ball to the big stage of powerhouse college football. Not only is there a big difference in the talent level, every aspect of the game is faster, louder, harder, more intense and more intricate. The offensive line should be improved, led by four seniors highlighted by Stephen Schilling, which will help whatever fresh-faced kid coach Rich Rodriguez throws under center. The running backs and recievers will be solid, but there is no visible playmaker or go-to guy in the clutch. Or at least none of stepped up to fill that role yet.

Even a bigger question mark will be the defense, which last year was supposed to be the anchor of the team, but instead gave up more points throughout the season than any other Michigan defensive unit did before them. Running attacks gashed the front seven and passing attacks cut the secondary apart on a weekly basis. There are few bright spots, however, in end Brandon Graham and linebacker Obi Ezeh, both who should be up for All-Conference honors.

The only player garnering any All-American attention heading into the season is punter Zoltan Mesko, who did make the Playboy team. I will say that again – the best and most consistent player on team is the punter!

A lot will be known after the season’s first game against Western Michigan, but if memory serves me right, Michigan did not fare well in its last opener to a MAC team. The Broncos have a star quarterback in Tim Hiller who will pose problems for a defense that will be searching for its identity early in the season. If WMU pulls of the upset, it could be a long, cold fall for Wolverine fans. A victory over their I-94 rivals could give the Maize and Blue a huge confidence boost heading into the following week’s matchup with Notre Dame, who are poised to finally have a breakthrough season after going through their own growing pains. This matchup looms large for both squads and will be a make-or-break game.  The last time the Irish played in Ann Arbor, they failed to score a point and turned the ball over six times. But both teams are vastly different now, and both teams seem to be heading in opposite directions. ESPN analyst and former Irish coach Lou Holtz actually has pontificated that ND will play for the national title. But anyone who follows college football even in the slightest knows that a) this will most likely not happen and b) Holtz is a kook.

The schedule actually lays out well for Michigan, with eight home games on the slate, including contests against conference heavyweights Penn State and Ohio State on friendly grounds. If the Wolverines can get out to a quick start in non-league games and pick off a team or two on the road, a bowl game is a certainity. But on the flipside, tripping up early would have awful consequences for a team that needs its confidence and its wits about them to have any hope of having a winning season. Being on the front end of a .500 record would prove to be a successful campaign for most fans, but traditionalists are accustomed to playing for a Rose Bowl year in and year out, and anything less than double-digit wins is a disappointment.

Prediction: 7-5, 4-4 conference

Sorry for the absence…

August 26, 2009

Brothers

Brothers

Well, its been nearly six weeks since my last post to this blog and I apologize to all my loyal leaders (if I have any). I will do my best to make sure that I do not disappear for an extended period of time again. But a lot has happened in that time span. Most notably, my older brother, Shawn, tied the knot on August 1st in the Upper Peninsula, a gorgeous backdrop for what was undoubtedly the most important day of his life.

It was another step in the maturation of who has become one of my biggest role models. As I had mentioned in my Best Man speech, he and I did not get a long all that much when we were younger. We tormented each other constantly, which would eventually lead me to me getting my ass kicked. But as we grew older, things began to change. The difference in age will always be the same, with he being four years my elder, but our maturity levels began to match up throughout the years, and we both figured out how important and wonderful one was to the other. He and I have a lot of different characteristics, in fact we don’t really have all that much in common. I am laid back, to a fault in some regards, where he is high strung. He prefers to constantly be on the go, whereas I like to relax. I enjoy heavy metal music and horror movies, he prefers radio hits and slapstick humor. But we make it work, and we rub off on each other in some aspects. He is an accomplished cook, and that is something that I love as well. He takes great pride in creating a spectacular meal (and I take great pride in wolfing it down). He loves to entertain guests, and I think I get that from him.

It was all put in perspective during the wedding though, when I realized how great he is, as a man and as a brother. I thought the waterworks might be turned on during the nuptials, but instead I just had an ear-to-ear grin the whole time. I was so proud of him. He is smart, successful and loyal. And I know he is lucky to have finally met someone he can call his own, someone he can spend the rest of his days with, someone to grow old with. We should all be so lucky. And he knows how lucky he isas well, and that has humbled him. The woman he married, Megan, is a beautiful and intelligent lady who has a great family, one that I am now happy to be part of.

The two of them have been very supportive of me during my ardous move to Chicago. They have been there every step of the way, providing advice, financial assistance, laughs and the occasional shoulder to lean on. I don’t know if I am a burden on them as a young couple, but I am grateful for what they both have done for me. I hope down the road that I can pay them back somehow. And I also hope that in the future, I can be as lucky as he is.

We work with the league, Miggy. Can we test what's in that Gatorade cup?

We work with the league, Miggy. Can we test what's in that Gatorade cup?

Heading into the All-Star weekend in St. Louis, Detroit fans should be thrilled with the success their Tigers enjoyed in the first half of the season.

At this time last year, the Tigers sat at .500 even, 6 1/2 games behind AL-Central leading Chicago. We all remember how that season turned out, as Detroit fell off in August and ended up dead last in the division. A lineup that was projected to score 1,000 runs and cruise to a pennant instead floundered with hitting and pitching and limped toward the finish line, finishing well below the lofty expectations at season’s start.

Turn the page forward one year, it’s a different story. Detroit sits at nine games over .500 and leads their division by 3 1/2 over the White Sox. The Tigers have done it with solid starting pitching, timely hits and a solid – though admittedly sometimes shaky – bullpen. The Tigers boast the second-best home record in the league, which is good news for a squad that has a majority of their remaining games at Comerica Park. The team is represented by four All-Stars in third baseman Brandon Inge, centerfielder Curtis Granderson and starting pitchers Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson. Their best player, Miguel Cabrera, one of the most feared hitters in the game, was somehow left out of the midsummer classic.

The most exciting thing for fans is that the Tigers haven’t even played their best ball yet.

Throughout the season, the team has been hurt by injuries, from Carlos Guillen – 2008’s lone All-Star representative – to pitchers Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis. Yes I know, the Dontrelle experiment has proven to be a failure, but the fact of the matter is Detroit can use some help with the back end of the rotation, and Bonderman and Robertson could provide that spark. Verlander and Jackson have proven to be horses throughout the season, with Verlander returning to his dominant form and is one of the most feared power pitchers in the game, leading the AL in strikeouts. After coming to Detroit from Tampa Bay in a deal that sent heralded prospect Matt Joyce to the Rays – a move that was hammered by writers and fans – Jackson has been nothing short of magnificent and is among the leaders in ERA and WHIP. 20-year old phenom Rick Porcello has been surprisingly effective as well, and will someday be someone’s ace.

Granted, the quality pitching has been rendered ineffective when the offense sputters, which has really been the only Achilles’ Heel that the Tigers have shown. The main culprit has been Magglio Ordonez, whose numbers are bordering career lows. Just two years ago, ‘Maggs’ was one of the top hitters in the game, leading the AL in hitting percentage with a .363. He also hit for power, hitting 90 extra base hits, and was runner-up for the league’s MVP honors. At this point, to say Ordonez is in a slump is a slight understatement. His totals through 87 games: .260 with 4 homeruns, 10 doubles and no triples and sporting an OPS of .673, almost four-tenths of a point below his 2007 final number.

Granderson, although an All-Star, as been far from spectacular at the plate as well. His power numbers are on track for career highs, but he has shown little patience at the plate, batting well below his career average and striking out way too often. His ability to strike fear in defenses with his base running and his stellar play in the outfield have been major reason for his invitation to St. Louis.

While these two have been somewhat disappointing (I would really only describe Maggs’ season with that adjective), there have been many pleasant surprises, highlighted by Inge’s career-season. Inge has been a journeyman on his own roster, having gone from catcher to third baseman to outfielder to third baseman. Some thought he’d be playing for a different team at this point of the season.

But you can’t argue with his results this season.

His 21 homeruns rank in the top ten of the AL and he is well on his way to ecplipsing his career-highs in dingers and rbis, which he set in 2006. He is often regarded as one of the best fielders in the game, which has turned a Detroit’s annually offensive defense into something more respectable.

That defense has helped a rotation that was supposed to be the weak link this year. As in the previous season, experts believed the Tigers’ bats would keep them in contention, but the pitching would lead to a downfall. The starting pitchers have held their own for the most part, and the bullpen, which has a penchant to make things interesting in late innings, has achieved solid results. Closer Fernando Rodney has been the brunt of harsh criticism, despite his ..950 ERA and his perfect 19-for-19 clip in save opportunities.

When all is said and done, the Tigers and their fans have to be happy with where they are. Anyone that thought Detroit would be one of the top teams in baseball at this point of the season should go out and purchase lottery tickets STAT. The feeling in Motown has been similar to that of the 2006 season, when the Tigers stormed to a World Series appearance. While there is still plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the ball, Detroit has played well above expectations and will undoubtedly have their say when the pennant race comes to a conclusion.