Music News & Reviews

Oktoberfest's lineup includes R.E.M. and Dream Syndicate vets

The late-night lineup Friday at the annual Christ the King Oktoberfest suggests something of a triple play.

Leading off will be The Minus 5, the revolving-door pop collective fronted by guitarist, songsmith and part time R.E.M.-er Scott Mc Caughey. Then we have The Baseball Project, a unique rock enterprise that designs original songs about the great American pastime. Rounding out the roster will be The Steve Wynn IV, a band that brings Dream Syndicate maestro and longtime solo artist Wynn to Lexington for the first time.

That's quite a team for 10 p.m. at a church.

Ah, but there is an appealing catch that should streamline the bill. All three bands are the same band. McCaughey's Minus 5 — still with R.E.M. mainstay Peter Buck on guitar and bass — will double as The Steve Wynn IV and triple as The Baseball Project, a band spearheaded equally by McCaughey and Wynn. Longtime Wynn percussionist and drummer Linda Pitmon rounds out all three units.

"As a musician and also as a music fan, I like being in a situation where things change constantly, where it's not just a whole lot of one thing and then the curtain drops," Wynn said. "I like surprise. I like the random element. And there will be plenty of both in this show."

All four players in the three bands have collaborated and crossed musical paths numerous times. McCaughey, an auxiliary member of R.E.M. since the mid-'90s, and Buck, one of R.E.M.'s founders, have been pals for years. In addition to R.E.M. and The Minus 5, they perform with British pop stylist Robyn Hitchcock, while McCaughey is also a co-founder of the 28-year-old Seattle-bred pop band The Young Fresh Fellows. McCaughey and Buck also played Oktoberfest as a duo in 2007.

Wynn's career has revolved around a series of critically lauded pop-, rock- and psychedelic folk-flavored solo albums and band projects, many of which included Pitmon. But his music took root in the early '80s with The Dream Syndicate, a band at the forefront of the West Coast's so-called "Paisley Underground" pop movement. That was roughly the same time that Buck and R.E.M. broke through to international acclaim.

"The Dream Syndicate actually toured with R.E.M. in 1984," McCaughey said. "That was the first time I ever saw R.E.M. Even then, Peter was known to get out onstage and plays songs with Steve. They've even played a few of those songs on this trip." McCaughey and Wynn both have new albums to showcase during Friday night's "three-bands-in-one" performance. McCaughey's newest Minus 5 record, Killingsworth, downplays the electric pop accents of past recordings in favor of heavily acoustic Americana tunes with undercurrents of pedal steel guitar that color the alert though overcast story lines of his songs.

As with most Minus 5 records, McCaughey enlists his friends for Killingsworth. Along with Buck, the guest list includes musicians from McCaughey's newly adopted hometown of Portland, Ore., including the entire lineup of The Decemberists.

"I wanted the record to be really stripped down and fairly acoustic," McCaughey said. "There's barely an electric guitar on the record — just lots of acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo, accordion and, of course, the ubiquitous pedal steel guitar."

While McCaughey was whittling down his sound, Wynn was building his. His 2008 album, Crossing Dragon Bridge, departs from the double guitar/bass/drums sound of the Paisley Underground days and embraces orchestral pop with strings underscoring spacious and surprisingly personal narratives.

"These songs have room for variety," Wynn said. "But the sound we gave them ... that's something I've wanted to do, really, for my whole career — just that big Technicolor, wide screen, evocative type sound."

But the band that levels the playing field for Wynn and McCaughey is The Baseball Project. Its debut album, Vol. 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, cut as a quartet record with Buck and Pitmon, blends yarns about such baseball icons as Ted Williams, Satchel Paige and Willie Mays with immensely infectious pop and rock melodies.

Among the highlights is Wynn's Jackie's Lament, a spiritual, bittersweet and quite moving meditation on Jackie Robinson. On the flip side of such ballpark faith, we have McCaughey's The Yankee Flipper, the story of music- loving New York Yankee pitcher Black Jack McDowell and the infamous hand gesture he awarded a home crowd after being booed off the field in 1995.

"It's not a gratuitous type of record," Wynn said. "We're fans. You can hear that in the songs. Hopefully we found that fine line between knowing what we're talking about and being absolute baseball geeks."

One Baseball Project tune that should earn a vocal Lexington reception is Wynn's Harvey Haddix. Its verses include a checklist of players who pitched perfect games, which Haddix fell just short of, after losing in 13 innings in 1959. Among the champs mentioned is Jim Bunning. Wynn and McCaughey know all about Bunning's current tenure as a two-term U.S. senator from Kentucky and the turbulence within the Republican Party that recently caused Bunning not to seek a third term.

"Man, he was a great pitcher," McCaughey said. "But I have to admit I got sort of a perverse joy out of watching him be a bit of a pain to his fellow Republicans."

"I admired what Jim Bunning did on the field," Wynn added. "Let's just leave it at that."