Category Archives: Sounds

What I’m listening to, concerts, downloads, instruments, and sometimes all of those things at the same time. I always wanted to be Gene Simmons of KISS (Jewish bass player who can breathe fire – that would have made my Bar Mitzvah more interesting), and now I just want to be a luthier, sound man and roadie when I grow up.

Plate o Shrimp Musical Hat Trick

Yesterday was Record Store Day, Earth Day and the Science Marches – a hat trick of espousing our preferences for the natural sciences and their appeal to our emotional states. Wrapped inside of my semi-annual pilgrimage to the Princeton Record Exchange was another hat trick of musical plates o shrimp, those casual references that seem to be threaded together, perhaps because we’re looking for them or perhaps because they are the warps (in every sense) of the fabric of our social lives.

I wandered over to the Record Exchange counter to inquire about a vinyl copy of Regressive Aid’s two I’ve been in a mathcore/industrial rock groove (in 7/4) lately and it seemed like a good artifact; while there were none in stock I found out that (a) one of the guys at the counter used to room with RA’s bass player (b) Sim Cain, RA’s drummer (who also played with an early incarnation of Ween), would be sitting in with the Chris Harford band that evening and (c) the 1980s Princeton/Hopewell music scene has persisted and matured and while it’s not same magnitude as the impact of Seattle on grunge, it’s a nice confluence of folk, ska, reggae, rock, and progressive. Does it count as a plate o shrimp if the term was just entering the vernacular at the point of origin?

Browsing through the vinyl that was haphazardly placed into the “new arrival” bins, I got to relive some of those 1980s musical journeys, remembering the time, place, context and to quote Marti DiBergi “the smells” of each of those albums. A preponderance of early Traffic albums had me thinking about Steve Winwood, nearly failing freshman physics and how the sound of mandolins makes me immediately think of grad/curl/div vector fields. A few hours later I got a text from a friend who was at the Winwood show in Philadelphia, depicting the ex-Traffic frontman with — what else — a mandolin. Complete and total plate o shrimp, down to the resonating surfaces.

Wrapping up in Princeton, I wandered over to the jazz section, a nice mix of bebop and fusion and big bands that has the equivalent scattered yet somehow organized feel of the rock vinyl bins. A neat Dave Brubeck boxed set also had me thinking in odd time signatures, carrying me over til dinner at Shanghai Jazz in Madison where the Eric Mintel trio channeled Brubeck classics. You can’t make this stuff up, although sometimes I wonder if we find these weird connections and themes when we’re looking for them.

Hall Of Fame Lifecycle

In the span of 24 hours I revisited forty years of parenting, music and sports.

Friday night we attended the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction at the Barlcays Center in Brooklyn, mostly to see two-thirds of Rush (inducted a few years ago) do the honors for Yes, my all-time favorite band and the core of so much of my love of music. Saturday took us to the other new hockey arena in the tri-state area, this time to see Patrik Elias take one final pre-game lap as he has announced his retirement from the NHL. Elias cemented us as Devils fans, not just for bringing home two Stanley Cups (and two more Finals appearances) but for his loyalty, work ethic, and popular presence in the local area. His number will be retired by the Devils in 2017-18, and he is a likely NHL Hall of Fame candidate. Over the course of two nights in two big rinks, we saw the past, present and future of various testaments to craft well plied, through the lens of our past, present and future love of music and sports.

The similarities between the two nights were subtle but present: Playing — sports or music — is critical to our enjoyment. Seeing something live gives you context and texture and experience that you can’t get from recorded or televised events. Our heroes, whether known to us personally or just from the backs of their sports cards and record sleeves, influence our approach and goals and style. Our greatest moments of joy are often theirs as well.

Hearing Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson describe the influence Yes had on them as teenage musicians was priceless; it was a peek past the close of the “R40” tour that wrapped all the way around to the beginning of Rush time. Devin Harrison connecting Jeff Lynne’s ELO to his late father, and Geddy Lee invoking the awesome power of Chris Squire’s bass lines by sitting in with Yes on “Roundabout” made it feel as if both musical icons were smiling from on high. From past to present to future – Elias was greeted at center ice for the ceremonial face off by his wife and daughters, a surprise that made all in attendance (including Patrik himself) tear up; they are the influences on his future life.

Time Stand Still: The Rush Movie

I went to the big screen premier of Time Stand Still [Blu-ray], the Rush documentary that tracks the band through the spiral of their final R40 tour. I went in with the usual assortment of bittersweet thoughts and linkages: “Time Stand Still” is one my favorite Rush songs, dating from my first show; it was the first Rush event in years that I was not attending side by side with my son, to whom I’ve passed the Rush fandom baton; it would re-open the grievous and grieving mood I was in after attending the Las Vegas show last summer, knowing it was likely the last time I’d see the three magicians of prog rock on stage.

I loved the movie. It wasn’t melancholy or upsetting or even maudlin; it was a celebration of being a misfit Rush fan and knowing that for as long as people listen to “2112” or “Hemispheres” with awe and air drumming, we will all share a bit of a common club culture. What I took away was that live performance is hard, which I knew from reading Peart’s books, but that it’s physicall and emotionally hard on all three members of the band, and that if they cannot, consistently, completely and confidently, execute their music at the top of the abilities, they’ll stop playing live.

At once, the movie captured the how and why of being indoctrinated into this strange club (certainly I was a fan before 1990 when I went to the “Hold Your Fire” tour in Worcester and was suddenly on another plane); it explained the incongruity of a band that’s ranked third in album sales, that has effectively no Top 40 hits, and yet sells out major arenas for an entire summer at $100 a ducat. It was a directional indicator of the future of the music business: live shows, solid fan interaction, producing music that you believe in.

Having now seen some of my favorite bands in the later parts of their career arcs, and constantly comparing them to previous shows, it’s safe to say I agree that the last 3-4 Rush shows I saw were the best — not just the best Rush shows, but among the singular best rock concerts I’ve attended in forty years. And so a funny, touching, “behind the scenes” look (Spoiler: Alex Lifeson doing a soundcheck of “Subdivisions” in screamo style is still cracking me up a week later) at the band as they finished touring on their terms, with their instruments held high, was not sad — it was a re-affirmation of why I took Ben to see them when he was four years old.

Ben and I, along with millions of other Rush fans, are much richer for the experiences.

Watch the movie, especially if you don’t get the Dirk, Pratt and Lerxst references, because you might just understand. Or at least I Love You, Man will make sense.

Six Years In The Family

Six years ago (ok, six years and a day) I attended my first Phish show – a momentous and auspicious one, looking back with a bit of history and perspective. Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, first night of a Halloween run and the first time playing the hall, only the second year into the third arc of the band’s history. Accompanied by a pair of Davids (one brother in law, one music industry executive) and meeting up with my now regular Phish crew leader post-show, it was the day that I “got it” — not just hearing the live jams, but really experiencing a full-on, two-set, jammed out Phish performance.

It was a good show – some great covers (including Traffic’s “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone”) and the Talking Heads’ “Cities” which featured a superb jam. “Slave” and “Fluffhead” made an appearance, and the “Slave” jam was the denouement of a great, staggering second set, gently returning the crowd to a level set only to slide into “Fluffhead”. “Corinna” and “Carini” (which may be the only time that happened?). Despite knowing maybe a quarter of the band’s canon at the time, each song seemed familiar, close, and yet intricate and requiring careful listening — which is, at its heart, why you go to multiple Phish shows to begin with.

I could yammer on in Phish-speak for paragraphs. Bottom line: live music is still one of the great joys of life. For years I had missed out on the adventure that is Phish, and six years ago I became a believer in the Churches of Big Red, Rage Side, Cactus and the Donut Dress. One of the multiple cool things about phish.net is your personal show history, which includes reminders about personal milestones like your first show. As suggested, I marked the date with a donation to the Mockingbird Foundation the non-profit run by Phish acolytes to support music education. How else to spread the foundation for future fans?

Springsteen Stories

Received my copy of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography this week, and eager to read his own words about his own life (Peter Carlin’s “Bruce” was outstanding, and “Born To Run” holds even higher potential – and it’s sitting in the top slot in Amazon’s best seller list). One of the online groups in which I lurk has burst open with contemporaries sharing their own stories, his life as viewed through their words, and two of my own floated to the surface.

Attending Freehold Township High School (Bruce went to Freehold High School, later distinguished with the surname “Boro” once the Township school was opened), there was quite a bit of shared history with teachers and younger siblings who had some effective arm’s length human touch with Bruce. At least half a dozen people claimed to know the identity of “Wendy;” another half dozen laid claim to the “giant Exxon sign” in its exact location as their own turf. My favorite story, which I hold up as the stuff of teenage rebellion and not fact, goes like this: A certain teacher (who moved from Boro to Township) vaguely hinted that he had failed Bruce Springsteen and wouldn’t hesitate to fail you. The wordier version included Springsteen’s reply that “One day, I’ll be famous and you’ll still be here teaching the same class and driving the same car” — punctuated with the remark that after “Born to Run,” Springsteen proved himself correct with a visit. With a lot of hindsight, I find that incongruous; Springsteen has never been one to gloat or boast, and the thought of diminishing someone who had an impact, however random or tangential, is just counter to just about every theme in every Springsteen song.

The better stories are variations on this theme: Parents said “You better shape up or you’ll turn out like Bruce Springsteen” and then every one of us who laments the wilting of our salad days of musical talent wishes our parents had actually been more correct in their predictions.

My own (weakly remembered, but directionally correct) story sits in the Venn diagram intersection of those storyline mechanics. At the beginning of each school year, we’d get text books that looked like they’d been through the wringer and conveyor belts at the mercy of United’s baggage handlers, and the first act was to flip to the back inside cover and see who had been issued the book in previous years. The golden ticket was to find one with a scrawled “B Springsteen,” a feat that required a book in service for about a decade in a class that was still in the academic rotation. Sure enough, one day I found the magic signature, and yet never considered stealing the book for later collector value. Bruce entered our lives on an almost daily basis, there was no need to pay a $15 fine to prove evidence of our shared geographic heritage. “Born to Run” thundered from our FM clock radios, usually introduced by a WNEW DJ with nothing more than “Bruce” or “This” or some other Mark Rothko colored impact statement; that was sufficient to remind us Bruce Springsteen turned out alright even if his English book suffered the slings, arrows and lockers of time.

For the next six years, Bruce constructed and destructed much of my musical life. As a DJ at WPRB-FM, we were implicitly discouraged from playing Top 40, but his obscure and wonderfully textured songs found their way into my shows. I mailed in a check (via “special delivery!”) for the ticket lottery for his July 1981 shows at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, the first arena rock show I attended. After meeting amazing keyboardist (later turned drummer) Steve, another Springsteen fan, I realized that my saxophone playing wasn’t anywhere near what was required to play in a band; as Steve said “Clarence is always playing, but you don’t notice it; he just plays what needs to be played”. That stuck with me as a metaphor for a lot of things, but also made me take stock of my own ability to hear and contribute musically. Thirty-five years later, “New York City Serenade” is one of my favorite songs; “Darkness” is a desert island album; the opening chords of “Born To Run” still give me chills; and yet I haven’t given up the dream of playing since I picked up the bass two years ago — maybe we all still have the chance to turn out the way our parents eventually wanted — creatively happy.

“Born To Run” is next up on my reading list (provided I finish Annie Duke’s book before attending her charity poker ball next weekend) and I know it will fill in the facts of my own stories, not diminishing them but giving them color and connection and concreteness.

Summer Without Drums

Labor Day in the Stern family is typically framed by melancholy: end of the summer, return from the beach, re-instatement of the rules of school and work and schedules, and a careful consideration of the warm weather soundtrack.

Summer 2016 ends without drums, but ends well this Labor Day.

I am somewhat surprised, but shouldn’t be, by the synchronicity and short-radix connectedness of life in New Jersey, the last two weeks of which have revolved around a drum set. Seven years ago, eager to cement our house’s foundation as the practice home of our son’s band, I bought a gently used drum set from a work friend. One of the best conversations of my marriage went something like this: “Where are you?” “On my way to Mount Olive to get the drum set” (pause) “Where will it go?” “In the basement studio, so the boys can practice there without having to move a drum set around” (pause) “Good idea.” And so, over Labor Day weekend, a Pearl Forum drum set came to rest in our basement, and with a few purchases from pre-overt-creepy Craigslist we added cymbals, cymbal stands, a hi hat clutch and some new heads. And the world’s most hideous carpet remnant that sat under the whole trap (as I’ve learned, a diminutive of “contraption” which most delicately describes our kit).

The last load out for our beloved Pearl Forum kit

The last load out for our beloved Pearl Forum kit

Over the course of the next seven years, that Pearl of an impulse purchase powered many band practices (including the recording of the never released “Out Of The Basement”), a college application supplemental submission, and one of my furtive attempts to discover skills beyond technology management in my post-Oracle pre-Juniper days (Yes, I took drum lessons that I won at a silent auction, and no, my inner Neil Peart failed to materialize). Despite a few reconfigurations, the drums have sat largely unplayed for the better part of four years.

Last week a high school friend asked if anyone had a beginner’s drum set for sale to one of his students; it seemed coincidental that I’ve been considering how to clean up the basement lately and make more room for the overhang of our adult children’s lives. A suitable sales price and meeting location were agreed upon, and then this week I had the confluence of decidedly different but related thoughts and acts. Having finished season one of “Roadies” (highly recommended!), I fondly recounted my two attempts at being a roadie for the boys’ band, packing up the drum set, amps, and guitars into my car for a school gig. While “Roadies” made me wishful for a work life that intersected professional music a bit more, the drum set reminded me of the practicalities of that life. The drum set was broken down, shells stacked, stands arrayed as oversized silverware, cymbals still clamoring for attention through improper loading, and packed into the car one final time.

For the second time in consecutive summers, I found myself facing a musical coda, and I was equally unhappy about it, as if Labor Day was tweaking my nose in my mid-adult years to remind me that sometimes the calendar wins. The small trap kit arrayed on an ugly rug in a high school gym was the closing image of Rush’s R40 tour, the last shows of which the Bubba and I attended just last summer, leaving a void in our musical world that I still feel. And just yesterday, a copy of Neil Peart’s “Far and Wide: Bring That Horizon to Me!”, the tour travelogue and photographic yearbook of that R40 tour, arrived.

Having delivered the drums to their new owner — not too much younger than me, so elated to have a kit of his own, ready to take them on the roads up and down the Jersey shore, accompanied by promises of invitations to shows and gigs and inclusion once again in that broader musical world — I came home and cracked open Peart’s book. What he describes in the opening chapters is a rational and passionate explanation for his retirement, akin to that of a professional athlete, as a gentle staging to what comes next rather than any kind of failure or discord (or dischord). With just that bit of prose, I felt immensely better about selling the (nearly moss-covered) family drum kit. I’ve closed the book on my life as a roadie, drum tech, aging air drummer, and nearly a decade’s worth of summers with drums, leaving me with a distinct appreciation of the timekeeper’s craft.

The Heart Spoken Khatru

[Warning: set list spoilers ahead for the Yes “Album Tour”]

I had admittedly mild expectations for the Yes show in Atlantic City last night, between the revised band lineup retaining only Steve Howe as an original “core member” and the emphasis on playing two albums providing something of a rigid format. After taking in a run of Phish shows, I was looking forward to being in the younger part of the audience for once (including the option to sit through most of the show), but that’s hardly a good motivator for taking in a good show.

I was really, really wrong, and never have I been so glad to be so wrong.

If you are anything of a Yes fan, and spun your copy of “Yessongs” until the dynamic range on the grooves wore down, then go see one of these shows. Geoff Downes brings energy and some practicality to the keys (he’s not Wakeman, nobody is, so instead of muddling through he attacks the pieces where he can add his own unique color); Billy Sherwood has a big, swirly tone that will make you think Squire but again, he doesn’t try to fill in for the much-missed bassist. Jon Davison sounds scarily like Anderson, enough that your heart also skips that missing eighth note in the 15/8 sections. While I had feared I’d see Steve Howe fronting a tribute band that was trying hard to recreate Yes of the 1970s, what I got was a genuine Yes experience of the mid-2010s. And it was awesome.

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And speaking of Steve Howe: He had more fun on stage than in the twenty years I’ve been seeing Yes. Modulo the requisite peccadilloes that seem to annoy him during every show (a spotlight that missed the beginning of his solo, causing him to wave frantically, a mic that cut out during his introduction to a song, his guitar cable that seemed to keep catching on his shirt), he was jumping around, unleashing solo after solo that were true explorations of the pieces, and he even smiled. I was rapt and in awe and happier than I’ve been since pulling the plastic off of the copy of “Yessongs” I bought at Two Guys in Manalapan (for $11).

For the first time in a long time, I didn’t check out the setlist before hand; I wanted to be surprised by the “and other songs”. I’ve loved Drama for 35 years, and Tales grew on me as I listened to it in pieces (turning point: putting on the “Keys to Ascension” CD in the W hotel, in San Francisco, during one of the first JavaOne conferences; it seemed pretentious to have a CD player in my hotel room, so I put on something worthy of the artifact and really heard the intricate parts). Deep down, though, I have a few favorites, staples of my Yes experience and my gold standards for judging any audio system.

stevehowe2

Once again, the band didn’t disappoint. After a solid “Your Move/All Good People” (first time I’ve seen that one live!) Steve Howe strapped on a gorgeous walnut ES-335 and ripped into the opening chords of “Siberian Khatru”. Dean Budnick, editor of “Relix” magazine, posed the question in a recent masthead editorial asking “What was the album that did it for you?” For me, it was listening to WYSP, one summer night on Long Beach Island, as they tracked all of “Close to the Edge.” I’d only heard the live version on Yessongs, and hearing the perfectly executed studio version, concluding the best prog album of all time, send chills up my spine that obviated the need for air conditioning. Howe’s solo at the end of “Khatru” is one of the few places he can really interpret the song, take some liberties, mix chords with dazzling runs. A favorite music teacher once described a woodwind passage as “angels singing over the top of the orchestra” (in a pandering attempt to get us to stop butchering that passage), and in the pseudo-religious paen of “Khatru” (seriously: khatru is a made up word, and the song is full of oblique Christ imagery) Howe’s solo just sails over the top of a rather intense closing section. It is, was and always will be my most favorite song, and hearing it — in the moment, never to be played just like that again — was its own religious experience.

My comment to Bubba: This is as good as Rosh Hashanah for renewal and refresh.

In between tracks of “Tales” once again Steve Howe came out with a bench, an acoustic, and a smile. I was thinking “Mood for a Day” or perhaps “Clap” but what we got was the moving guitar solo from “The Ancient”, arranged the same way it’s on “Not Necessarily Acoustic”. Another experience thought I’d never hear live, and alone worth the price of admission. Despite Howe’s admonitions that he doesn’t see the point of playing “Roundabout” every show, it’s a moving encore and brought the crowd to its feet. Had the show ended then and there, I would have been sated, elated and (per Khatru-ism) expiated.

Until the swirling, head-rushing, all hands on all keyboards and frets and sticks opening of “Starship Trooper.” Not only is it the other bookend to “Yessongs” and concludes with another guitar solo with headroom to explore, it has some bass pedal work that is the standard for judging subwoofers. It’s the perfect vehicle for a band that’s been nearly perfect in its performance, its musicianship, and it’s ability to breathe life into their canon for nearly half a century. The vocal chord that concludes “Starship Trooper” was perfectly reflective: new voices, old voices, one band that continues to reveal the heart spoken khatru, not just for me but for another generation of fans.

And Then There Was One

Tomorrow night the Bubba and I are off to see Yes do their “album series” – all of “Drama” and the two popular sides of “Tales from Topographic Oceans” (Revealing Science of God and Ritual). Yes is now down to one core member — Steve Howe — from the Yessongs era band that lived on my Radio Shack turntable. After Chris Squire’s death last year, Wakeman’s replacement with Drama-era member Geoff Downes, Anderson’s multiple level replacement with tribute band vocalist Jon Davison, just two weeks ago long time drummer Alan White underwent back surgery that will put him on tour hiatus as well. Either prophetic or ironic, “Drama” was the first Yes album out of the “main sequence” without Anderson or Wakeman, but prominently featuring Howe and Geoff Downes exploring a bit further than “Tormato” or “Going For The One.” Life sometimes imitates art, as seen through the lens of band dynamics.

I also picked up a ticket to see Renaissance in mid-November, also down to one of the core members — vocalist Annie Haslam. If Howe is the guitar voice of Yes, then Haslam is the voice-turned-lead instrument of Renaissance. After Michael Dunford’s death, Jon Tout’s death, and bassist Jon Camp’s disappearance from public view, Haslam holds up the banner of 1970s prog memories with a competent touring band (including the insanely talented Tom Brislin and Rave Tesar).

Counting down to final surviving members is both maudlin and misses the point – despite calls for Yes to officially dis-band it is a privilege, and often a lifetime experience, to see and hear your musical heroes on stage. In an age of re-releases, concert vault soundboards, and boxed sets aggregated around any reasonable marketing principle, live music remains the best link between audience and artist. It’s increasingly the best way for musicians to make money, and it provides a unique experience for the casual or die-hard fan. I don’t begrudge Yes or Renaissance touring one semiquaver; whether they choose to bill as “Steve Howe and friends” or “Yes” is a marketing issue, not a musical one – you know what you’re getting, and you can look forward to it (as I have) for months. “Dead & Company” with Trey Anastasio was not the Grateful Dead, but the music was just as joyful and reached a quarter million people last summer. Names are for accountants and promoters; the music tells its own story whether its one or five composing members on stage to perform it live.

Each time I see Steve Howe perform, I’m shocked by his intensity, his proficiency and his flexibility; he’ll play half a dozen guitars with a dozen sounds and if you blink you miss the transitions. He is the one we want to see for as long as he’ll tour, not matter how he is billed.

“Going For The One” After 39 Years

The Yes album “Going For The One” turned 39 on Thursday (Do rock albums hit 39 and then stop counting? Or only mark the prime numbered anniversaries after that?). Released in the summer of 1977, it wasn’t until early in the fall of my sophomore year of high school that I heard the album and at least a year later when I finally bought a vinyl copy. It is perhaps my favorite Yes album, despite fierce competition from “Relayer” and “Yessongs,” but that distinction is earned through the emotional dynamic range the songs evoke, and the happy associations I have with my acquisition of my first ability to listen to it.

Middle and high school buddy Lewis and I shared some odd musical entanglements — we both liked Yes and were both into what passed for sound production (tape recorders, Radio Shack microphones, lots of low quality cables) in the 1970s. One day he handed me his brother’s copy of “Going For The One” with the instruction to make a tape of it so I could check it out. [Ed note: Yes, this is stealing music, and no, you shouldn’t do this, and yes, I eventually bought my own vinyl and CD copies and yes, I’ve spent so much money seeing Yes that I no longer feel guilty as charged]. It seemed scandalous, and it made me treasure every note of that album even more. After “Relayer” I really didn’t know what to expect (3 songs, and some crazy Patrick Moraz keyboards) — and “One” took me in a wonderful set of directions.

“Going For The One” – Steve Howe guitar riffs and outro solo. Perhaps the most rocking Yes song ever. Howe plays pedal steel on it all the way through, and it may be my favorite work of his on that guitar (even including “And You And I”).

“Parallels” – love the Squire bass riff on this, and if you listen carefully, the organ intro. Cold ending is a favorite, in whatever time warped time signature that is.

“Awaken” – a song with not one but two musical climaxes, the tension and release building around Wakeman’s keyboards (I am purposely avoiding make this more explicit than need be, but yeah, it’s a church organ solo that is mind blowing). Seeing “Awaken” live was a career concert highlight, with Squire on the triple neck bass.

“Turn Of The Century” – While I adore the version on the album, Steve Howe’s duet with Annie Haslam is mystical. After a period of not listening to much music (read: having two kids under the age of 4) I was sitting in my car outside the Showplace Ice Cream Shop in Beach Haven (RIP), with WYSP locked in as it was every summer on Long Beach Island, and I heard the Howe/Haslam version of this song, and it literally re-awakened my love of Yes and prog rock and listening to “my music” again. So the first album that I ripped also became the one to reconnect my disposable income with one of my favorite bands. Shortly after, our daughter heard me playing it (a common occurance) and asked if Roan’s wife was sick the way that her great-grandmother (for whom she is named) was sick, and I was in awe. Again.

Other random factoids: Cover by Hipgnosis, not Roger Dean. Scared me. I don’t like “Wondrous Stories,” never did, and it gets no nod above. The cover buildings are the Century Plaza in LA, which is about the least likely place to find any member of Yes.

I credit Lewis for getting me into “production” which eventually took me to WPRB in Princeton as a DJ, and later into building guitar pedals, and I’ll forever associate his smile with that rockabilly, rough house riff that opens the title track, even if it was coming through a 2 inch tape recorder speaker with more distortion than a Soundgarden show.

39 years of life lessons: buy music, support your artists, thank your friends and their older brothers who are generous with their recommendations, and sometimes those crazy ideas tied up in a rat’s nest of cables lead you to something fun later in life.

Six Nights, Five Shows, Four States, Three Crews and A Phish

Call it a midlife crisis, call it a case of good luck and logistics rewarding me after difficulty getting tickets in 2015, call it a bit of rejoicing in my 53rd year: I went to five consecutively scheduled Phish shows, in six nights, spending time in four states with three different concert crews in two time zones. I’m visibly exhausted, but mentally elated. I’ve learned my limits (2-3 shows per summer with at least a day off in between, ideally a day without work or travel).

Chicago: A raucous start to the Wrigley shows, with a blistering Chalkdust Torture and a super funky 2001, and a second night in the second city that included a near-perfect Fluffhead and a Piper->Steam jam that covered every modal, tonal and mental staff space available. Toss in a trip to the Chicago Music Exchange, some insanely good BBQ and Italian beef (on top of a sausage, should have been a Meatstick hint) and a ride on the “L” and it was a wonderful way to enjoy a dad-and-lad weekend with my favorite bass player (who also happens to be my recent college graduate son).

Deer Creek/Noblesville: Leaving Chicago at dawn was a hint; the venue is far from downtown; I just couldn’t get the right combination of food, water and rest to make it all click. But got to catch up with an old friend, shared a lot of stories, literally parked next to my cousin whom I’d been chasing all through the Windy City, and saw another impressive show.

Travel Day: I think I worked on Monday but I’m not sure what I did. By Tuesday morning I was repacked and en route to Philadelphia after a solid day of work.

Philadelphia: Shows at the Mann have become something of a summer centerpiece — the same crew pre-gaming, the trip into Philly that is full of anticipation, knowing that the band usually has family members in attendance and always seems to put in an extra effort. This year only raised the bar, with a “Crosseyed and Painless” that knocked my tie-dyed socks off, some new songs, and finally, after six years of chasing, wishing, listening and discussion, a “Meatstick” that was fun, goofy, funky and worthy of being played in a city that boasts of its pork stores and meat sticks.

So why, why, do I grind my knees for 4-5 hours at a show, walk up some insanely tortuous hills, smile when some happily dancing phans bounce off of me, give up sleep, proper hydration and perhaps a bit of hearing above 10 kHz? I think I get the same happy, I’m-glad-to-see-this-gang, sincerely aligned feeling that I used to get at Princeton Reunions; the summer is here and Phish is on tour and for a few hours, nothing else matters. It’s the set list, some jam explorations, some blistering solos, and the tension and release that continues not just intra-song, but through two sets of live music that get twelve to forty thousand people singing, dancing and cheering along for the ride.

Some more thoughts on my summer tour of the tour:

  • The musicians in Phish truly enjoy working with each other. If we all loved our co-workers, trusted them, and got wonderful, surprising and creative output from them each and every day, the DJIA would be at 30,000.

  • Those thirty seconds between the house lights cutting out and the first notes of a set opening song embrace and entangle the excitement and mystery of a first date, a surprise party, and seeing an old friend after an absence. You know the dynamic range of possibilities, but the approach and sound and fury are all there to get you by surprise.

  • After five shows and well over 100 songs, I only heard four songs repeated. Was rewarded with a few songs I had been “chasing,” collecting them the way numismatists look to fill that open circle in the album (Meatstick, Steam, and a Fishman vacuum solo). In any other concert, a drummer in a dress modulating the sucking sound of a vacuum into a microphone would border on the absurd; with Phish it’s just another silly counterbalance to the intensity of the well-craft composed pieces.

  • After the statue-still pause in “Divided Sky” (Wrigley night 2), I may have shed a tear. I’m in the middle of a musical adventure, in a new city (for me), standing in the upper deck of a storied baseball stadium looking out over a sea of people 20,000 leagues and stories deep, and one of my favorite bands is frolicking – no other word – through a lullaby inspired composed section before tearing off into an inspired bit of soloing. Being there, with my musically inclined (and talented) son, soaking in the summer night and sounds and fragrances (of all types), just hits you in the sentimental bone. “Divided Sky” has been on my “favorite song” ascent for years now. Add to that the fact that Ben and I have heard “Harry Hood” in a majority of our shows together, and it’s becoming a bonding experience — Philly has King of Prussia, Boston has the Hood milk jug in the Fort Point Channel.

  • I was thinking that the only song I wanted to hear (but didn’t) was “Cities” (more than made up for by the “Crosseyed and Painless” 2nd set Mann 2 opener), after some prompting from Ben I realized I would have also liked a “Ghost” and “David Bowie.” That said, I was so enamored of what I did hear, and how I heard it, that to wish for anything more would be gluttony at the musical buffet.

  • The mark of an insanely good show is that moment when you think you’ve hit a peak, and then the band pivots into something unexpected but even more wonderful. The mildly bluegrass “Oh Kee Pah” segues to “Suzy Greenburg” and then Fishman and Page are trading fours like jazz musicians in the solo section. “Slave to the Traffic Light” soars and meanders to a major and majorly good conclusion, only to give way to the opening arpeggios of “You Enjoy Myself.” (Mann 1) A near perfect “Fluffhead” comes out of a darkly complex “Tweezer”; the set concludes (you think) with “Harry Hood” but then eases into “Tweeprise.” (Wrigley 2).

    All told, it was a great week with great friends, old and new, and a set of shows I will listen to in the depth of winter when I miss the smell of grilled meats, greasy french fries, and spilled beer.