By Mike Tierney
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Hardly the locale you would expect to see three-fifths of R.E.M. on what amounts to the Star Bar stage. That is, if you stood on tiptoe, the stage rising maybe a foot off the ground.
The occasion was the tour opener, as it were, for The Baseball Project, a side venture of various R.E.M.-ers and an underappreciated rocker named Steve Wynn, the force behind the '80s cult band Dream Syndicate.
Turns out, Wynn is a onetime aspiring sportswriter who found he shared a passion for baseball with R.E.M. guitarists Peter Buck and Scott McGaughey (who has yet to be designated an official member because management, a la Chuck Leavell with the Rolling Stones, stubbornly recognizes only the originals.)
Anyhoo, Wynn and his drummer/wife just released the second Baseball Project album (CD? record? collection of downloadable songs?) even as R.E.M. just unveiled theirs.
Instead of touring with Michael Stipe in large arenas, Buck and McGaughey are doing claustrophobic clubs with the vastly unerappreciated Wynn, who can string together basic chords like nobody's business.
Better yet, the songs spin narratives of real baseball happenings, from the recent to the distant past. They are rich in detail, often funny, always interesting. (One catchy number is "Ted F*@*ing Williams").
And ya gotta love a chick pounding the tom-tom and singing about the Minnesota Twins.
Oh, yeah, the reference to three-fifths. On the edge of the stage, hunched over a keyboard, was guest performer Mike Mills, an Atlantan who dropped by to see his pals and lend a valuable sound to the mix. (Confused? Understandable. With R.E.M., Mills plays bass, a duty that Buck has adopted with The Baseball Project).
The night delivered a batch of songs that brought smiles and tapping toes, not to mention lasting visual memories of a majority of the incomparable band from Athens spreading their wings.
The Baseball Project may be coming to a town near you -- in more spacious venues, to be sure, than the Star Bar. They are worth hearing, if not seeing.