The 83rd Academy Awards

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It seems I skipped much of last year’s Awards.  Avatar will do that.

I watched much of this year’s awards, however, and… Meh.  Some perhaps found host Anne Hathaway over-the-top and cloying.  Personally, I could probably watch her do about anything (nice spin move, by the way).  More to the point, she had to carry a lot of dead weight, namely her co-host James Franco.  Sure, he was nominated for Best Actor, but… say, how does one become qualified to host the Oscars?  I mean, besides being a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild?  I’m sure the engineering “nerds” who work his next movie will remember the slight.  DOA.

In a regrettable decision for both, someone laid too great a trap by inviting Billy Crystal to present an award.  Ten words in, the 83rd Academy Awards were a pale comparison to what they had been.  And everyone knew it, thus the spontaneous and enthusiastic standing O.

Let’s see, what else did I learn…  I didn’t take notes, but the following come to mind.

1) It’s unfair that superlative actors can also sing so well.  Fairness demands that they be gifted with one or the other, but not both.  I give Hathaway credit not only passably managing to carry a tune but actually distancing any thoughts of an embarrassing performance.  Also, I had no idea, and otherwise no reason to suspect, that Zachary Levi (Chuck, one of my favorite shows) could sing.  On the other hand, I’m pretty certain that I heard collective weeping from Nashville for all the artists that could have sung “Coming Home” better than Gwyneth Paltrow.   She’s no Sissy Spacek.  Or Reese Witherspoon.

2) Some actors can speak.  Well, certainly they could memorize their acceptance lines, but it seems most (come on, Natalie Portman…) choose not to do so.  Colin Firth, nicely done.  Good humor and very eloquent.  As actors are paid to deliver lines on screen, perhaps there’s some irony that The King’s Speech director, Tom Hooper, commanded the stage with more presence than most.

3) On the subject of command of speech, Kevin Spacey is long overdue to return to the screen in a worthy role and in a story that people actually want to see.

4) So what if I didn’t see the other nominated actresses?  My vote would have gone to Hailee Stanfield, who made True Grit her own, rendering pointless any comparison between Jeff Bridges’ exaggerated Dudeness with the classic Duke’s  Cogburn.

5) Want a shorter Academy Awards?  I do.  The length has little to do with the awards that no one cares about.  It has more to do with lengthy commercial breaks between each award or two.  Instead of bowing to the mercenary nature of television, wouldn’t it be better for the awards to be presented with upcoming movie previews and then shown in its entirety?  Like, you know, at the movies?

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The Decemberists – The King is Dead

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I should have been a big fan of The Decemberists by now.  I like progressive rock elements in music.  I like odd time changes and the unexpected introduction of instruments.  I even favor 18th and 19th century fiction authors, whose fanciful or Elizabethan character sets meld nicely with the lyrics of songwriter Colin Meloy.

Well, I tried.  I listened to The Crane Wife and Picaresque, both highly regarded by their fans.  Maybe it was the tinny vocals of Meloy, or perhaps it was the wordiness of the lyrics, but it just didn’t connect.  By the same logic, I should be put off with Peter Gabriel’s shortness of breath and the verbosity of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, but… I like that one a lot (especially the first half).  I actually like concept albums, whether from Genesis or Frank Sinatra.  Which leads to the conclusion that although the band’s music is complex in many ways, it just hasn’t satisfied.  The vocals, the lyrics, the music… too precocious for my tastes.

So why am I listening to their new release, The King is Dead?

Others’ reviews, of course.  “A breezy, country-folk record with no discernable narrative” (Pitchfork).  “Ten crisp roots-rock tunes in a mere 40 minutes” (Spin).  “… taut, disciplined, melodic guitar pop” (Guardian).  Well, the $7.99 price at Best Buy helped.

The CD begins with “Don’t Carry it All,” which bring to mind a Death Cab for Cutie song crossed with Tom Petty.  Then there’s “Calamity Song,” which struck me as REM before I realized that Peter Buck plays on three tracks on this CD.  It’s a good tune.   Up next is “Rise to Me,” which recalls Gibbard and Ferrar’s Big Sur.  And so the inspirations continue.

“Rox in the Box” – The Waterboys or any other Irish inspired folk.  “January Hymn” – Perhaps a James Taylor vocal would sound at home. “Down by the River” – REM with Neil Young on harmonica?  “All arise” – a duet that might be interesting with Levon Helm and Delbert McClinton.  “June Hymn” – a simple acoustic ballad leaning towards early Simon/Garfunkel or Neil Young with Gillian Welch on vocals?  Well, yes, the Americana genre ace actually does backup duty here and elsewhere.   “This is Why We Fight” – an admitted nod to The Smiths.  “Dear Avery” – perhaps Damien Rice.

Sure, it’s fun to point to imagine or reimagine, but there’s really no need.  The entire set is a fairly compact, straightforward and lyrically succinct endeavor.  But that’s not to say that this is a musically simplistic work.  Instruments abound in diversity (cello, electric piano, fiddle, banjo, bouzouki, the dreaded pedal steel, violin, etc.). 

And it shouldn’t be implied that Meloy confines his word-smithing to a “write a song in 3 easy steps” approach.  The lyrics are a combination of prose and poetry, and the rhyming is inventive.  In fact, it’s rather amazing to read how Meloy sneaks such depth into songs that quickly flitter by.  That said, i-Listeners should take note that some albums, such as this, work better as a whole rather than choosing a few choice parts. 

Recommended Songs: “Calamity Song,” “Down by the Water”

4 of 5 STARS

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Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots

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Somewhere amongst a bias or other prejudgment, I found myself expecting this new release from DBT to fall somewhere within the upper and lower boundaries of mediocrity.  As mediocre Truckers still merit attention, this isn’t as cynical a view as it may sound. Still, to my ears, after 2004’s The Dirty South, they’ve produced an uneven, if not declining, quality product.

Sadly, I was right.

The first track, “I Do Believe,” is another solid if unspectacular opener.  For whatever reason, the band rarely starts off a CD with an ace.  Hopes are immediately encouraged at the title track, “Go-Go Boots,” which opens with a cutting slide guitar.  The band is all over this track, providing a loose but energetic framework for lead singer/songwriter Patterson Hood’s sharp vocal delivery. 

Bassist Shonna Tucker sings the next song, “Dancin’ Ricky,” which she wrote and, later, “Where’s Eddie” which is a cover.  Tucker has contributed to both of their last two albums, with generally the same result.  Her songs neither add nor subtract from the CD, but stylistically her voice and the sparser musical treatment disrupt the vibe of the rest of the songs.  While she’s not the greatest singer, neither are her band mates, not that it matters. 

Songwriter/guitarist Mike Cooley used to write songs that paired nicely with Hood’s, forming an aggressive, belligerent rock attitude for the whole.  Tucker’s songs stand out less, because Cooley has apparently given up Rock and Roll for straight up Country & Western, the type that no one plays anymore.  It could be said that his lyrics fit the “She wrecked my truck so I slept with her best friend” songs of yesteryear, but his strength has always been in clever lyrics.  Here, he offers up “Cartoon Gold” and “The Weakest Man,” both of which contain his trademark humor, but which also suffer from a dulling sameness to his other recent songs.  He keeps to a formula, and the band sounds stuck in “just throw a tune at it” mode.  A much better result can be found in “Pulaski,” which sounds like all were more interested in elevating their craft that day.

This leaves a heavy weight on Patterson Hood to carry, if not lift, a full CD, which he has yet to prove. 

“Ray’s Automatic Weapon,” the fifth song in the set, is fairly representative of Hood’s recent contributions to the band.  Hood can write great narratives that slice and dice the Southern life that wise men seek to avoid, but they’ve been a hit or miss effort in large part because he’s never had a particular preoccupation with meter.  Like Cooley, Hood has tendencies which are beginning to sound all too familiar, with the lyrics either forced into a tune or, more commonly, presented without a memorable refrain or melody. 

Similarly, “The Fireplace Poker,” “The Thanksgiving Filter,” and “Mercy Buckets” each points toward a concerted effort at writing a good story, but musically, they’re forgettable songs.  It’s difficult to understand why, despite some excellent guitar work throughout the CD, DBT seems to be avoiding strong guitar leads or actual riffs, the very things that propel their concerts and earlier work.

Curiously, due to a sentiment that may become a crowd favorite, “A**holes,” (edited by my preference), has a lyric that begs for power chords and an all out Rock assault.  The title certainly suggests Hood is searching for an edginess that has been a trademark to much of DBT’s work; it’s surprising that the band doesn’t rise to the bait.

Two good things remain.  One is a cover of “Everybody Needs Love,” written by Muscle Shoals session musician Eddie Hinton.  The stylistic contrast here is much like John Lennon’s cover of “Stand by Me” if placed on Plastic Ono Band.  Well, okay, maybe that is overstated, but the song has a similar crisp uplifting pop sensibility that isn’t shared with the rest of the CD.  It’s enjoyable for what it is, but it doesn’t sound like the Truckers.  If the band is up for a stylistic change of pace, they only have to look to keyboardist Jay Gonzalez, who remains unappreciated throughout the CD’s mix.

The other good thing is a really good thing, “Used to Be a Cop.”  This has another lengthy narrative, but the story maintains interest.  More importantly, the phrasing allows Hood to work a vocal groove, and the band chimes in with ample electric and slide guitars.  If there were a couple female background singers and Mick Jagger at the helm, this track would qualify as Exile-era Rolling Stones.  Good stuff.

I’ll happily load the below onto my i-Devices, but otherwise… I’m done with this CD.

Recommended Songs: “Used to Be a Cop,” “Go-Go Boots,” “Everybody Needs Love”

2 of 5 STARS


Footnote: Five Stars for the cover and booklet artwork.

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Zen and the Art of Dealership Repairs

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Tinnitus is not my friend.  Sure, I don’t do my ears any favors by going to rock concerts, but truth be known, I hear pretty well.  That doesn’t necessarily equate to listening, which may have selective settings.

I can’t help, though, but listen to my car.  I’m kind of particular about my car.  I don’t have personify it as a “he” or a “she.”  It’s an it.  But I like it.  And when it’s not quite right, I’m not quite right.  I like the car less because it aggravates me.  It’s not in its proper state of rightness.

If you’ve driven for any length of time, you may feel the same.  Sure, it was a smooth ride when you purchased it, but, over time, your mobile residence takes on various squeaks, rattles, or pings.  Mine has a brake pedal with a spring that sounds like a goose squawking.  Then there’s a rattle inside the driver door that comes to life only in cold months.  It has something to do with the window retracting, because either a solid nudge from my elbow or a down/up with the window fixes it… for a mile or two. 

But these oddities are part of living in your environment.  Some sounds settle; some don’t.

Such as that odd chirping.  Now, where did that come from?  Or, is it a pinging?  And is it getting louder?  How long can I wait until I really  get paranoid that something is going to blow?  Agh. Is it an exhaust system issue?  Is it mechanical?  By either system, it’s the sound of entropy, and it’s not welcome in my car.

And then there’s that other aggravation.  When I purchased my car 4 years ago, the wipers liberated the windshield glass from water and grime the likes of which I had never seen.  There wasn’t a streak in sight.  The windshield was a beautiful gateway to whatever was before me come whatever elements there may be.

That was then; this is now.

Sure, I changed the blades, but… there it is.  A very unpleasant 5” wide swatch of streakiness planted right in front of my sightline.  What’s up with that?  Yes, I wiped the blades, and, yes, I tried bending the wiper frame to reorient the whole to perfect harmony, but no.

So, I’ve lived with it.  And I’ve been increasingly agitated with the car I once really, really liked.

I once attempted during a summer in High School to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  I was probably a deep thinker back then, but only until something else of interest came up.  Or something less challenging.  I didn’t finish the book.  What little I “discovered” was that it made sense for someone to know how to fix whatever needs fixing.  Great in theory; difficult in practice. 

Logic only gets you so far when you have no clue how to work on your car.  I’m perfectly able to describe a problem, but I usually have no clue how to fix it.  Well… car headlights or interior bulbs… sure, I’m all over that.  But otherwise…

If I were to imagine that I knew someone who actually had the skills to fix a car, and I were to learn how to fix it, would it really matter?  I’d forget by the time I needed that skill again, or, the car model would change and what little I knew would be as outdated as Windows 3.1.  In other words, these excuses lend tribute to my aforementioned exit from Zen:  I’d take an interest only until I found something else of interest or less challenging to do. 

It’s nice that mid-life reflects such an awesome measure of growth and maturity.  Sucks to be me.

Rather, it’s expensive to be me.  $323.58 later, the chirp is gone and my windshield is now miraculously clear.  Sure, there were some extras thrown in for added service department profit (severely cracked belts are bad, right?).  And if the offending oil cooler o-ring was only a $15.00 part, so what?  I’m at peace again with my car.  That’s Zen enough for me. 

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Robert Plant & The Band of Joy–Live @ The Fox

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A concert at Atlanta’s Fabulous Fox also provided an opportunity for my concert buddy and I to revisit The Book House Pub pre-show.  This a little treasure of a bar, with only one TV screen (usually tuned to a movie), a lengthy bar, a wide variety of bottled and draught beers, a knowledgeable staff, and great food.  This is the perfect bar for food, beverage variety, and audible conversation. 

Greeted and assisted in an easy, welcoming manner by Cassie, I shortly enjoyed a Great Divide Claymore Scotch Ale and a burger topped with pimento cheese.  Their burgers aren’t simply reliable; they qualify as “shouldn’t be missed.”  Other than being far from my usual commute, I don’t know why I don’t go to The Book House Pub more often.  (Tip: Don’t judge a book by its cover. Ignore the cracked parking lot and the rather derelict outward appearance.  It’s nice inside).

On to the show, at Atlanta’s Fabulous Fox Theater.  The opening act, the North Mississippi All-Star DUO, wasn’t quite what I expected.  I’d seen them some years ago also opening for another act, and they had left an impression of “Wow.”  For one, they were a more complete band with bassist and “marching fifes,” but their performance was fresh, raw, and interactive.  Lead singer/guitarist Luther Dickinson has an okay blues voice, but he spoke even more loudly with his exceptional “it looks so easy everyone should be able to do that” slide guitar work.  It was a great introduction to the band.

Here, with only brother (and drummer) Cody in tow, they still created an energetic set. Luther’s hands roamed the frets filling in any sonic voids that might have occurred without band mates.  But, the songs they chose felt hurried and didn’t quite connect, even though the guitar work was, as expected, very good.  This many years into their music, I would have expected a set of songs aimed at quickly making new fans.  Still, there are tons of worse opening acts, as NMA qualified as an extra value to the ticket.

And that ticket was for Robert Plant and the Band of Joy.

Best known, and hopefully obviously best known to the reader, as the singer for Led Zeppelin, I’ve followed his solo career more closely over the past 10 years.  His work has been more interesting as he has foregone work that might receive airplay to music which either influenced him or inspires him now.  Recently, Plant has moved towards reinterpreting older American music, as evidenced by Raising Sand, his collaboration with Alison Krauss, and his most recent release, Band of Joy

It can be said that Robert Plant enters the stage with a towering presence.  For one, he’s not just taller than his band mates, he’s tall.  His lengthy curled hair is no longer golden, but even the darker shades speak of authentic Rock legend.  He commands the stage easily, inviting audience participation with simple gestures.  While other IMG_4170stars of his generation may pause to legitimately soak up a crowd’s celebrity acclaim (McCartney, for example), Plant clearly prefers living in the present and performing the music that his band is playing.  It’s impossible not to be aware of the history he brings, as he continues to sing with his familiar cross-legged delivery while grasping the entire microphone stand. 

That’s not to say the he doesn’t give more obvious tribute to the past.  The opener, Led Zep’s “Black Dog,” let it be known that the band may be from Nashville, but Plant requires that they understand a rock attitude is possible, and not just in his back catalog. 

For those looking for them, there were a surprising number of Zeppelin songs, and while they clearly measured as crowd favorites, the band didn’t get suckered into replaying them as they have been so often heard.  Instead, they created a mood and tone around each song that fit in with most of the other songs of the evening.   The most reminiscent was “Ramble On,” which delivered Plant’s full throated delivery, but the band gave it their own sound, with a pedal steel solo and guitarist Buddy Miller’s more tonal licks. 

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“Gallows Pole” and “Tangerine” are acoustic driven Led Zep songs that fit naturally into the overall mix of songs.  If anyone in the audience was unaware of their place in Zeppelin’s catalog, these songs might have been regarded as other unfamiliar treasures like others in the set.  They were crafted with care by the band and were certainly highlights of the evening.

When one thinks of roots music or Americana music, there may be an expectation of relatively low volume, acoustic, and slow songs.  That was certainly not the case.  Though there were rockers in the mix, a rock edge was found in many of the other songs as well.  Even the spiritual songs were performed with a tonal weightiness about them.

That tonal influence is largely from the contributions of guitarist Buddy Miller.  He is known as an alt-country musician, playing music that sounds traditional or timeless but doesn’t quite fit into commercial categories.   Even when not playing the lead, his hands usually stayed low on the neck of the guitar, extending up to the middle during most of the solos.  Other guitarists may have sought an emotional peak for the expected rock crescendos, but he kept the guitar to a lower, darker tone that was pervasive in most of the songs.

This isn’t to say that his guitar work was predictable or lacking in variety.  Aside from a variety in guitars, he also doesn’t limit himself to just a few guitar pedals.  I would suspect that playing with Robert Plant was a stylistic challenge based on his past solo and session work, and it’s one that paid off.  Like all the other musicians here, he sings well, and I’d definitely catch one of his solo shows should he pass through.

Darrell Scott played acoustic and electric guitars, pedal steel, and mandolin, lending much of the “roots music” feel to the evening.  Adding a welcome blend to the vocals and the overall sound, singer Patty Griffin gave ample support of the roots genre, either while in backing or lead parts. 

Plant is also a very accommodating band leader.  In addition to letting three band mates sing lead vocals, he steps to the rear, singing backup, or on “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go,” adding a driving harmonica.

The set list varies each night to some extent.  Based on others I’ve seen, most of the variety comes from the songs they choose from their most recent CD.  The only misfire to my ears was “In the Mood,” one of his 80’s radio “hits” that didn’t lend itself well to the current band.  Amongst all  available songs (of Plant’s or unknown to me), it was a disappointment.  If keeping with a song from his solo releases, “Darkness, Darkness” would have been a stellar insertion.

Lastly, for wondering about Plant’s vocal quality, he’s definitely worth seeing.  At 63, his voice has aged, but he plies it to each song with nuances and affection that he either lacked or didn’t find necessary all those years ago.  The result is that many of the songs connect because of the intimacy of his somewhat raspier voice.   He’s an phenomenal performer, an experienced interpreter of music, and a distinctive voice in music.

4 of 5 STARS

 

 

Set List:

Black Dog

Down to the Sea (much improved over original version)

Angel Dance

Houses of the Holy

Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down

Move Up (sung by Patty Griffin)

Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday

Life Has It’s Little Ups and Downs

Twelve Gates to the City/Wade in the Water/In My Time of Dying

Satisfied Mind (sung by Darrell Scott)

Tangerine

House of Cards

Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go (sung by Buddy Miller)

Monkey

You Can’t Buy My Love

Ramble On

Tall Cool One

Gallows Pole

Encores:

In the Mood

Rock & Roll

And We Bid You Goodnight (a cappella)

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Super Bowl Saturday

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This certainly is not a particularly inspired topic.  But, what the heck. The subject annoys me, it’s timely, and it’s a blog post.  That last isn’t important, but I try to post something twice a week, and I’m honest when I insert filler.  So, maybe this is Filler Lite.

In High School, I very much enjoyed Super Bowl Sunday.  Friends would gather in the basement at a friend’s house, and… we’d mostly watch the game.  And eat.  And play games. And eat.  The world was shiny and new, and I woke with abundant energy the next day.

My, how the times have changed.

I’m older.  I get tired.  I need rest.  I’m a grumpy middle aged man.

In the great scheme of TV programming, I’m certain that the East coast gets priority in scheduling.  If it suits the East coast, those in the west will still be up.  If planned for the West coast,the eastern population centers would be left out.  Advertising having the clout that it does, we won’t be left out.  Marketing aside, the timing of the Super Bowl is wholly inadequate for those on the East coast.  The timing sucks, pardon my French.

Pacific Standard Time Zone watcher:  “What’s the big deal?  The game starts at 3:30!  I can watch the game, munch on avocado and sprouts, and still have time to get to my yoga class.”

Yes, well, lucky you.

I, however, suffer from Eastern Standard Time Disease.  A main contributor to this disease is that the timing of our days, particularly in winter, allow for work, dinner, and possibly one hour of entertainment or other diversion.   After that, we’re faced with choices that suffer from diminishing returns along the lines of “I want to do xyz but I’d rather go to sleep.”

The Super Bowl starts at 6:30 p.m. here. Given numerous commercial breaks and a halftime extravaganza that usually takes you back 30 years while aging you as you watch, the game might possibly end at 10:30 p.m.  If you want to watch the Lombardi trophy presentation and interviews, well, your night just got longer.

That may not seem like a big deal, but it is.  We do like to have parties.  The Super Bowl is modern era ringing of the church bell, of sorts.  In groups small or large, the event calls people to gather.   It’s a social endeavor, and one that makes for a  busy day.  Hosts operate on the business principle of “just in time,” and the house and appetizers are prepared under that model, delivering a splendid atmosphere after hours of rushed preparation.  Translated: Hosts are already tired before the party begins, because, well, it’s already been a full weekend, it’s now evening, and we’re used to be tired at that time of day.

And after the game, well… whoever hosts a party is going to feel some anxiety about the cups, chip trays, empty beer bottles, leftover food, dirty dishes, accumulated trash, and other residuals left in the wake of departing guests.  Hey, they gotta clean some of it up before bed.  It makes for a late night.

And not just for those who open their homes, no sir (or ma’am).  The first half, not necessarily including the quality of the game, is great.  People imbibe, snack, chat.  Wonderful.  It’s why they came.

Then there’s the halftime show, and many yawn in a collective realization of “Can’t they get better entertainment?” which is followed by, “Oh, and look how late it is!”   

Sad, but true.  Then, in mass quantities, the guests wave goodbye.  They’re not happy about it. They’re missing the 3rd quarter.  No one wants to miss any part of the game.  But it’s Sunday night!  The host isn’t pleased either, because there’s always one or two that remain who must be entertained until the end of the game because they don’t realize that the party literally ended almost two hours earlier. 

What’s up with this annual rite of disappointment?  Hosts and guests should be enthused about the big game for the entire duration of the event, not just during the first half.

Eastern Time Zone Disease sucks (Again, with my bad language).

Super Bowl Sunday.  That’s not bad just because the next day is Monday.  It’s bad because it’s Sunday night.  People have things to do the next day.  They can’t keep drinking their adult beverages because they have to be at work the next morning with clear heads.  They may have to drive a fair distance to get home, so they leave early in order to be able to go to bed on time.  Or, maybe they have to get a few things ready before work the next day.  Perhaps they have to make sure the kids bathed and did their homework.  Maybe they left early because it was the only way to find a babysitter that would say “yes.”

Obviously, Sunday works for most people.  It’s traditional.  The NFL reigns on Sundays while colleges canvas Saturdays from noon until midnight (EST).  The Super Bowl is the most watched sporting event (106 Million People in 2010) in the world.  With commercials expected to command $3M for a 30 second spot, it’s obvious that people make time to watch the Super Bowl.  Sunday profits the NFL and the network handsomely.  But is it so popular because the game is on Sunday?

No. 

People will make time for what they want to do, and they want to see the Super Bowl.  All of it.  And they want to enjoy themselves doing so, whether or not alcohol, chips and dip, or chocolate cake are included. 

Super Bowl Saturday would allow sports bars and clubs to do more business.  Liquor stores would likely increase their sales as many States still have Blue laws.   Grocery stores would sell more also, because hosts and the guests would need to buy greater quantity of supplies as everyone would be staying for the entire game. Also, the corporate cash cow that migrates to the hosting City would enlarge as well, as visitors would stay for a long weekend rather than feeling rushed to return to, you know… work.  

Traditions should be honored, certainly.  The Super Bowl has always been played on a Sunday.  Also, granted that “Super Bowl Saturday” doesn’t quite have the ring as (insert a heavenly chorus) “Super Bowl Sunday,” but… if the college BCS game can be played a month and half after the final regular season game, it wouldn’t be such a big deal to move the big game forward a single day to Saturday.  Of course, some would argue that they would rather recover from their celebrations on company time rather than on the weekend, but this is hardly a compelling sales point for an industry that feeds on disposable income – an income which must be earned.

So spread the socializing wealth, NFL.  Move it.

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