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holy crap.

I had no idea what a big freaking deal the Bassmaster Classic would be, and as a result I spent the entire weekend marveling at the spectacle. The picture here, snapped by The Wife on Sunday, is of Kevin VanDam, the dude who ended up winning the tournament and the $200,000 check that goes with the top spot. This was taken while KVD, as he is known, took a victory lap around the Civic Arena, where 14,000 people watched the final weigh-in on Sunday. We’ll come back to that.

Unless you have access to a boat — which Uncle Crappy definitely does not — you don’t really watch any of the actual fishing. Instead, you go to the fishing and outdoors show at the Convention Center and look at fishing stuff. And, you collect the freebies that are handed out at many of the booths. My favorite freebie was a shot of Evan Williams single barrel bourbon, which was being given away at a booth towards the beginning of our tour of the convention center. There were also free fishing hooks, hats, shirts, lures, beer, keychains, maps, pork rinds, energy bars (Hooah bars, developed by the military for the military — the wife tasted one and said biological warfare would be a better application). You could meet pro fishermen — in our case only the ones who didn’t qualify for the classic, because they were all, you know, fishing — survivors (Rupert, the hippie guy) and hucksters of all varieties. Trade shows like this tend to be a little overwhelming because there’s so much stuff, and this one was no exception.

Except that at about 2 p.m. every day the convention center cleared out as people made their way up to the Civic Arena to get seats for the weigh-in. This, boys and girls, is where the unsuspecting and uninitiated get a real look at what bass fishing is about. What I would easily recognize as the home of the Pittsburgh Penguins under any other circumstances had been transformed with a huge stage set, video boards, lights, a kick-ass sound system — oh, and thousands of fishing fans. I watched Saturday’s weigh-in from the floor, after my mother in law and her husband scored passes at Friday’s kickoff. The noise, the lights, the screaming … think pro wrestling with a vague smell of river water.

Each guy rides into the arena on his boat, and hauls a bag o’ bass out of the live well to be weighed. If he has a couple of impressive fish in the bag, he holds them up for crowd, which shouts its approval. (The funny thing about this tradition is that instead of holding up real monsters, like the ones they catch in the south where it’s warm enough that the fish grow nearly all the time, they’re holding up what passed for huge bass in Pittsburgh, not a single one over three pounds. I’m told that’s tiny. And I know some of the contestants looked totally sheepish to be waving these skinny little fish around for the audience.) And the guy who tallied the highest total weight over the three days — this weekend, it was Kevin VanDam — takes home the big check.

I was at work for the final weigh-in, but I got to watch the whole thing on ESPN. And it was just nuts. When the final guy weighed in — and failed to reach KVD’s total — the arena erupted, there were fireworks, exploding streamers, the victory lap. Wow.

While all that was going on Saturday, there were another 70,000 people getting ready for a concert by chinless Jimmy Buffett wannabe Kenny Chesney at Heinz Field that evening. Pittsburgh reached Redneck Critical Mass this weekend, and seemed to survive the experience. And, apparently, we did as well.

something fishy.

This weekend is going to be interesting. My mother-in-law and her husband arrive in Pittsburgh Thursday for a visit. They haven’t been up from their home in Texas for a while, but this trip isn’t just social — there really isn’t much social to it at all, in fact.

They’re coming to watch a fishing tournament.

Let me be more specific: They’re coming to watch THE fishing tournament. The 2005 Citgo Bassmaster Classic, the Super Bowl of bass fishing, as we’ve been told. $200,000 for the guy who catches the biggest fish over three days.

Look. I’m one of those guys who either laughs or bitches when the fishing shows are taking up time on ESPN that could be devoted to college football. But this apparently is a huge freaking deal — a multi-million boon to Pittsburgh’s economy, something that’s going to bring thousands of fishing aficionados to somehow watch the tournament. It’s going to be on ESPN2 nearly non-stop this weekend. And The Wife’s mom — and her husband, both of whom fish in tournaments at home — are coming up for the fun.

I’m actually looking forward to this. I mean, I’m looking forward to seeing my MIL and her husband, but I’m also looking forward to the fishing stuff. All kinds of events are scheduled, and we’re going to hit up a bunch of them. There’s a huge outdoor gear show in the convention center. And the daily weigh-ins, held each afternoon of the three-day tournament, typically fill arenas with screaming fishing fans.

Yes. I did just write that. And yes, I really am looking forward to the whole deal.

I haven’t done any actual fishing for years. Dr. History and I used to try when I spent summers with his family in northern Wisconsin. Over several summers, I caught a total of probably a dozen fish, most of them not worth keeping. Or even mentioning, for that matter. But I mention them proudly, mostly because I wouldn’t want it to seem like we were incompetent. Even though we were. We set out one day in two separate boats, intent on holding our own two-man tournament. We switched locations, we worked the structure, we changed up lures so we were fishing with the appropriate stuff at the appropriate times and places.

And neither of us caught a goddamn thing. Very nice. We were ridiculed for the rest of the summer.

I came close, a couple of times, to what would have counted as impressive catch. Once, Dr. History’s sister had hooked a sunfish off of their pier, and the little guy swallowed the hook. While she ran up to the garage to get a pair of pliers, I knelt on the dock, swishing the fish back and forth in the water. Just before she got back to the dock, I saw a long, striped fish swoop from under the pier and swallow the sunfish whole. That was a good-sized muskie, the big fishing prize in that part of the country. Lots of big pointy teeth on those fuckers, and those teeth were about 10 inches from my hand, which was left holding nothing but the nylon line.

My other encounter with a muskie was a little closer to an actual fishing triumph. Dr. History and I got up early and headed to a little bay in Lake Tomahawk to find us some bass. We didn’t find any bass — I never found any bass up there, despite claims by otherwise reliable people who insisted they were present. So just before we were set to bag the fishing in favor of the water skiing and, later, the drinking, I started casting into the opening of the bay, and almost immediately hooked a muskie that was clearly long enough — 32 inches was the standard, I think — to be a keeper. I wasn’t using a leader — a length of wire connecting the lure to the line — because we had been fishing for fish without substantial teeth, and I was concerned that the muskie, which, as I stated earlier, definitely has teeth, would bite through my line, so I decided to try to get it in the boat as quickly as I could.

And it worked. I reeled the fish up next to the boat while the doctor scrambled to get the net. The cotton-cord net, probably as old as we were at the time. The net, which as the doctor scooped up my greatest fishing triumph, that broke, dropping my trophy, which had just chomped through my line, back into the water.

The pros won’t have that problem this weekend, largely because A) I imagine they have better equipment than we did back then, and B) I’m certain they know what they’re doing. But I would get a kick out of seeing at least one of the pros step up during the weigh-in, smile and shrug his shoulders: “Fish? Hell, there aren’t any fish in those rivers…”

big city blinking.

There are plenty of reasons why Pittsburgh is a cool town in the summertime, not the least of which is the ridiculous amount of really good free music. Allegheny County Parks hosts free shows at two parks every Friday and Sunday, and the Three Rivers Arts Festival hosts an unbelievable lineup for the duration of the two-week show.

Which brings me to the Wilco show I saw last night at the Point. I discovered Uncle Tupelo late, after the band was done, and I immediately aligned myself with the Jay Farrar camp — I found Son Volt to be closer to whatever Ideal I had in mind. I don’t regret that; the first two Son Volt records are classics and the third has a ton of just staggering moments … Even Farrar’s solo records, though more challenging, include plenty of stuff to dig into.

After discovering Uncle Tupelo, I also bought copies of Wilco’s AM and Being There. Cool records both, but I found Wilco — and Jeff Tweedy — to be a little bit too pop for my tastes. I never heard more than a song or two from Summerteeth, and while I loved the Mermaid Avenue records, I didn’t think they were especially representative of what Wilco was about.

Even after reading everything about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I didn’t bother to pick up a copy until about a week ago, to prepare for this show. That’s when I first had an inkling: I could have been horribly wrong about this.

And then last night, Tweedy might just as well have kicked me in the head when Wilco came on stage: “Pay attention. We’re going to take everything you think you know, run it through a lap steel and a fuzztone guitar and leave you crying like a baby.”

And he would have been right.

The pop sensibilities are still there. After hearing a couple of the tunes from the upcoming A Ghost is Born, the wife turned to me and asked if I was hearing the Beatles as well. Yep. Bouncy piano, nicely layered, two guitar thickness … these could be Sgt. Pepper outtakes.

But that’s just a tiny portion of the repertoire. Ten songs from Ghost, and most share, at least on stage, the sound of YHF: Distortion, the aforementioned fuzztone, feedback that reminds me of the Sonic Youth show I saw at the Point a year ago and big hairy monster riffs that seem to propel each tune to a life of its own. The hooks are still there, but they’re not easy to find sometimes.

That makes the reward that much sweeter.

Since last night, I’ve been stuck on the song “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” from YHF. On the record, the buildup is cleaner, fading in, alarm clocks ala Dark Side of the Moon, looking for the melody and then finding it, suddenly, as Tweedy starts to sing… Live, it starts to build in the same way, but it keeps building, past the subtlety of the studio version … huge noise, without sacrificing beauty, concerned parents looking around. It came up in the setlist right after “Heavy Metal Drummer,” the poppiest song on YHF, and provided a nice counterpoint to the closest thing to a singalong all night.

Here’s a setlist; thanks to the folks posting at ViaChicago, the band’s online community page:

Company in my Back/Hummingbird/Ashes of American Flags/Heavy Metal Drummer/I Am Trying to Break Your Heart/War on War/I’m Always in Love/Shot in the Arm/Hell is Chrome/Theologians/At Least That’s What You Said/Muzzle of Bees/Poor Places/I’m the Man Who Loves You/The Late Greats

encore one: When the Roses Bloom Again/One by One/Sunken Treasure/Handshake Drugs/California Stars

encore two: Spiders (kidsmoke)/I’m a Wheel

Wilco’s a great band. They’re even better live (and a live album would bear this out…). As soon as I’m done with this, I’ll be sending an email to Jay, a taper who said he’d get me copies when he got the chance. Not-very-patiently waiting, for those, and for Ghost, which is released two weeks from tomorrow.

Anyone know to get that ringing fuzztone out of your head?