Monday, January 31, 2011

Holding Steady

As if reciting her lines from a Noah Baumbach script, the twenty-something brunette gal behind the bar at Spike Hill, the Irish pub on Bedford in Williamsburg, informed me that she hadn't owned a television in, like, four years when I asked her if we could tune the television in the corner of the bar to the in-progress Knicks game. I told her that me and my brother would like to watch the game all the same and, after restating her lack of television understanding, loudly, for the sake of the waifish, western-shirt wearing couple at the end of the bar, she handed me the remote. Thankfully, the bar has DirecTV. Which meant that we had to look no further than channel 634.

While I have been known to pilot a ramshackle, co-ed fast break on blacktop in Greenpoint during the summer, I don't make a habit of traveling to Kings County to watch hoops. And I wasn't really there last night for basketball. I had traversed two rivers to catch The Hold Steady in concert. The Brooklyn-based (but not raised) band was playing two sold-out shows at the cozy Music Hall of Williamsburg (which was called Northsix back when the band first played there several years ago) as a warm-up before crossing the Atlantic for a run of UK shows before then heading down to Australia to feature prominently in some large festivals.

When the boys return from abroad they'll be playing at the much larger Terminal 5 in Manhattan. From there, one only imagines that they continue on to larger and larger venues until calling it quits. For all people not actively meh-ing everything in the comments section over at Brooklynvegan.com, these MHOW shows were a big deal. They smelled of rich mahogany and sold out within a matter of minutes. Me and one of my brothers were lucky enough to have a pair of tickets. Which is what brought us to Hipster HQ in the first place.

According to our tickets, the doors to the venue opened at 8 pm, which was approximately the time that we embedded parked the car in a snow bank on N. 5th Street between Bedford and Driggs. It was nearly halftime when we ordered our first round of PBR tallboys (when in Rome...) at the bar. Having no interest in seeing the opening band, we ordered dinner and another round of drinks as Charlie Villanueva staked the Pistons to a two-point lead heading into halftime at the Garden.

"Let's just see the score at the end of the third quarter," I said as the second half of the Knicks-Pistons game got underway and the second round of PBRs gave way to the third. "As long as we get to the show by 9:30 then everything should be fine."

Based on several memories and on zero research, it feels like the Knicks have hosted the Pistons on a Sunday thrice per season each season ad infinitum; and that most of those games were matinees in which the Knicks beat (or at least covered the spread against) superior but lackadaisical Detroit clubs who looked like they'd spent the night enjoying New York's many clubs. For years, Rasheed Wallace was prominently involved in this tradition. In fact, I even took my mom to see just one such game on her birthday a few years ago. Yeah, I'm a selfish wretch with a railroad mind. Let's just move on.

Unlike those half-remembered games from seasons past, the Pistons didn't come into the Garden to observe the Sabbath meekly. These lower-level Pistons knew they could win this trap game (Knicks were coming off Miami and Atlanta and perhaps looking ahead to Dallas). Familiar nemesis Ben Gordon was shooting from distance, Tayshaun Prince was still marauding from midrange and even Tracy McGrady was displaying functional court vision. Just a few weeks ago, the Knicks lost this exact game to the Sacramento Kings. But last night Amar'e Stoudemire and Danilo Gallinari fought to hold the line. The teams entered the fourth quarter even thanks to a STAT put-back flush just before the buzzer.

"Alright, let's just see how the first few minutes of the fourth quarter go, I said after 9:30 had come and gone. If either team gets out ahead then we'll hustle over there. It's possible that the opener is still on stage."

Gallinari outscored the Pistons 10-5 in the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, and it looked like the Knicks had taken control of the game. And when you add in the additional six points that Gallo's teammates scored during that same stretch, it really, really looked like this one was in the books. But then Prince and Gordon drained a few quick threes to keep the game within reach heading into the last five minutes.

"It's still a ballgame if Gordon is shooting like this. Remember that buzzer beater he hit against us on MLK Day when he was with Chicago?" I asked my brother was we ordered our last round of beers and asked for the check. "They don't call him "Madison Square Gordon" for nothing. We might as well stay 'til the end. Right?"

At this point, there was no arguing. The concert was running a distant second to the Knicks. Sort of like the Pistons. Had we been out at a bar in Brighton Beach when Mozgov sank a baseline jumper for the final bucket of the game, I'd imagine the Ruskie ex-pat patrons would be hooting and браво-ing over their ice-cold vodka and steaming hot pelmeni. But we weren't and nobody at Spike Hill noticed but the two of us as we were slipping arms into coats and wrapping scarves around our necks. We didn't leave our table until the final buzzer, and waltzed up to MHOW at nearly a quarter after 10. The flyer on the ticket window indicated that The Hold Steady was scheduled to have already started their set. Oh well.

Although Mozgov's 23-point, 14-rebound explosion was the take-away from the game for most, it was more a "man bites dog" headline for me. I thought the real story was about Stoudemire entering the game with a sore knee, going down in a heap while the game was still in doubt and gutting his way to a stellar 33 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal and 1 block with just 2 turnovers. Likewise, Gallinari came through with 29 points on just 12 field goal attempts. He hit big shots all night long and was aggressive, getting to the line for 11 free throw attempts (and sinking all of them).

With Dallas coming to town at midweek and then what should be a tense home-and-home series with the 76ers looming at the weekend, this is the sort of "meaningless" game - in terms of hype and ratings and national appeal - that means everything when you look back at the end of a season. Had the Knicks dropped this and and then gone on to lose a hard-fought game to Dallas then they're quickly mired in another losing streak. Had they dropped this and then lost to Dallas and split with Philly then they'd have dropped 10 of their last 15.

With 25 wins before the All-Star break, these Knickerbockers just need to keep coming. Keeping moving forward a quarter at a time and lock up the wins when they are available. Just get to 40 wins, somehow, and we should get to attend a home playoff game for the first time since Tim Thomas seemed a useful rotation player. Last night the Knicks did those things with gritty, relentless efforts from STAT and Gallo. And some unexpected help from the Moz, who, to his credit, was everything that any of us could have hoped he would be when he was signed by Donnie Walsh. For one night. Despite the frigid temperatures gripping the region, his hands seems to have miraculously thawed out after appearing to be rock-solid frozen since his arrival in the New World.

When we emerged onto the balcony at MHOW, the stage was clear and the houselights were still up. Maybe the band had also been watching the Knicks game. They did sing the national anthem at a Twins game once, so it's very possible that at least one of them fiends for hoops the way that so many of the characters in their songs fiend for various pharmaceuticals. When they took the stage a few minutes after our arrival, there was no keyboard or keyboardist to be seen. For some, the big story about these two intimate shows was that the band was officially and irrevocably without pianist, keyboardist and mustache wax connoisseur Franz Nicolay, who had moved on to pursue his many other musical and artistic ventures. Having cited the Muppets and the Band among his key influences, he's not someone whose departure should be taken lightly. His boozy but earnest barroom piano is largely responsible for the group's E Street majesty and Bandesque rusticity. In a moderately bold move, The Hold Steady opened the show with Stuck Between Stations, an anthemic rabble rouser with one Nicolay's signature piano lines. The guitars came roaring in like whatever hemi-powered hotrod Springsteen was driving in "Born to Run;" lead singer Craig Finn started singing about Sal Paradise and began his manic, surprisingly dandy-ish, stage antics; and the crowd became one roving blissful blackout, noisy, drunk and flailing. Yeah,it seemed like these guys would be just fine.

Monday Mudita