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.

The Rat, The Ox, The Fish and Me

Saturday afternoon I concluded, rightfully and formally, if not a bit hurriedly, a forty year journey. I played bass, on a stage, in a club, with a small band. Never mind that my guitar player and drummer are teachers where I take lessons and that the stage setting was that of a the year-end recital. I took “play in a band” off the bucket list.

Deep, networked appreciation of the journey of 10,000 musical missteps begins, as it should, with a piano lesson. It’s 1970, the Mets had won the World Series early in the school year, and I’m taking piano lessons from our next door neighbor. I barely made it a year, because I didn’t practice, and that’s probably why I still harbor a mild fear of the bass clef. Years later, her son would be something of an inspiration, gently letting me know it was acceptable to bury myself in the rhythmic and modal vagaries of British prog rock. Thanks, Mrs. Millering and Brett, for helping me identify with Chris Squire, my first bass hero, and essentially the root cause of what was to follow.

Fast forward seven more years, to private clarinet lessons at Caiazzo Music in Freehold. Caiazzo’s most famous customer was one Bruce Springsteen, and despite never seeing him come up those few steps from South Street, I vividly remember a hand-printed sign on the cash register that read “When the bank sells guitars Caiazzo will cash checks.” A leading indicator about musicians, across multiple economic cycles. On either end of my 30 minutes with classical etudes, I explored the guitars and basses hung on the walls, a mosaic of colors and inlays and pickguards that awed me. Standalone, they made a tinny, tiny sound, but plugged into an amplifier the sound leaped out of them. For years I tried to decipher how an instrument with no power source other than a fast picking hand could generate a signal (more on this later).

Middle school concert band. One of the most dedicated music teachers ever — Ben Webb, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Zoot the Muppet — and my first taste of public performance. What I remember more from the halls of Clifton T Barkalow, though, was a conversation at a lunch table one day about The Who. One of the cool kids — currently a performing guitar player, and a genuinely good guy — was in a heated debate about whether the Who were relevant. Someone asked me if I knew the Who. I did, and provided a reference (likely the fact that “Boris the Spider” was the B-side of “Pinball Wizard” on 45), and my 40-year admiration for The Who’s John Entwistle was cemented in the scree of Ron Howard movies.

High school was clarinet, saxophone, concert band, jazz band, pit orchestra for school musicals, and a few years of marching band. During one particularly long rehearsal the pit orchestra broke into an extended jam, completely spontaneously, right out of the lunchroom scene in “Fame.” For six minutes, until the drama teacher coerced everyone back into whatever real life scene wasn’t working, it was the most fun I had had playing an instrument. By the early summer, I played my last high school concert, took a perfunctory saxophone solo with the jazz band, and effectively didn’t play “real music” again. Didn’t make the Princeton Jazz Band, didn’t want to march in the band again, had neither skill nor interest in concert band. But thank you Nick Santoro, and Jettie June, and several dozen band mates, for putting the performance bug in me.

I met another crazy Springsteen fan from NJ, who was an amazing piano player, and he invited me to bring my saxophone over to the common room one night to jam. At one point he said “Listen to Bruce’s songs, Clarence is always playing something, but you don’t hear it up front, you have to listen.” Best advice ever about playing in a band. Thanks, Steve B (and Hillary who listened, politely, to the whole train wreck of staves and notes).

Home on a break from Princeton, and after my first bit of delayed rebellion (I bought hockey skates and insisted on taking them on our annual winter vacation) I drove myself to Caiazzo and picked a Fender Squire bass off the wall, tobacco burst color, for just under $200. I didn’t buy an amp, deciding instead to use the Rube Goldberg sound chain: bass connected to Radio Shack cassette player with a 1/4″ to 1/8″ cable, putting the cassette deck into “record” mode to use it as a notoriously noisy pre-amplifier, 1/8″ to mono RCA cable to connect cassette player output jack to tape deck input (with correct impedance and level matching!) on my stereo amplifier and voila! Bass sounds came out of my component stereo system, the “adult purchase” of the previous break. I bought a fedora (because, you know, the cover of Weather Report’s “Heavy Weather” had one) and had no idea what I was doing, until some sophomores from nearby Wilson College heard my thrashing about and invited me to sit outside and play with them. Not only did I not know how to find the roots on the bass, when they mentioned Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll” or “Sweet Jane” I had no idea who Lou Reed was. Thank you, Steve “Rat” for opening my ears and teaching me the first song I played (truly horribly) on bass. Every single time I hear “Rock and Roll” I think of that afternoon on the steps outside of Wilson Hall.

Later that academic year, deep in the throes of Physics 106, I had an epiphany. I figured out how electric guitars work — the magic of pickups and inducted current and moving magnetic fields. It didn’t help my playing one iota but it convinced me that maybe there was something to my tone chain that didn’t result in electrocution. Some introductory electrical engineering, discovery of WPRB-FM, and new friends with diverse musical tastes. But my performing days — with an instrument, not just a voice — were done. I played other people’s music and told stories about and around the songs, a trend that lasted until 2015. I sold my bass to a fellow WPRB DJ, never playing more than one song on it. But thank you Matteo Cavelli-Sforza, Supersonic Surber, Bill, Alan, Brita, Chuck, Mark, Steve, Jordan, and Ray.

After watching our son turn into an accomplished bass player, and applying that moldering but still useful electrical engineering knowledge to building guitar effects pedals, I decided it was time to really, truly, certainly learn to play the bass. Having won a month of lessons in a tricky tray auction (which I bid on only after discovering the offering new music school — So.I.Heard in Millburn — via a search for a pedal retailer), I bought my second bass — another Fender Squire, this time in Lake Placid blue, for only slightly more than I paid in 1980. Thank you, Ben, for being patient with me, teaching me about strings and tone and setups and technique and making sure my left hand was at least in the vicinity of correct position.

Here’s the hard thing about picking up anything new after age 50: it’s really hard. Your brain isn’t as plastic, your reflexes aren’t as good, and new motions tend to tweak anything that was bordering on the arthritic. But patient, fun teachers with similar musical tastes produced a bit of deja vu all over again this spring: When Max suggested some recital pieces, he asked “What’s the best Who song with a bass solo” and my first thought was “Boris the Spider” (revisited, 42 years after 7th grade lunch table). He was aiming for the Ox signature piece, “My Generation”, 16 bars of bass solo recognized by anyone who has listened to a radio. And so my recital piece was selected. That was the easy part.

Entwistle got that demanding tone out of his bass through pure physical effort. He played hard, he played dangerously loudly, and he was technically on another large-handed planet. Listen to the bass lines on “The Real Me” and you hear a jet engine, a blues scale, and a working class cry. Most of Entwistle’s lines are, it turns out, based on fairly simple blues progressions. Playing them isn’t nearly as easy, but that was my lesson in recital prep: play what you feel, play the song the way you want to perform it, and worry less about the notes and more about making music. My Caiazzo clarinet teacher, who later also taught me saxophone, used to describe a good solo as “Not a lot of notes, but the right ones.” Right is a many valued thing, always in the moment, but better when louder.

Two days before the recital I was convinced I wouldn’t ever master enough of the song to avoid sounding like the punch line to every bass player joke on the internet. And Max and Fabian just had us trade four bar solos around the practice room, truly an etude in G, until I felt that I could play with confidence. If you want to know the difference between music education of the 1970s and the 2010s, it’s that – developing the confidence to own my own notes. Thank you Max, Fabian, and Sam.

And so 37 years after stepping off of the Freehold Township High School stage, I strapped on the blue bass, turned up the volume (after plugging into the correct amp on the second try) and plucked out “My Generation”. I was, for two minutes, back in the pit jamming away, and it was insanely fun. Mike Gordon has nothing to worry about, and I’m more inspired than ever to lose another 20 pounds so it’s easier to see the frets when I play standing up, but I now feel like the story that began in Caiazzo Music (now, sadly, a condo building) has hit the dramatic climax. And no drummers exploded along the way…..

Tour Bag

I’m a big fan of “what’s in my bag” posts, usually checking out how highly productive road warriors like Cory Doctorow (boingboing.net, writer, speaker) and Matt Mullenweg (of WordPress and Automattic fame) literally keep their kits together over the course of a few million miles. Years ago Cory pointed readers at CountyComm Government Products where I’ve picked up airplane safe multi-tools and my latest favorite – the tour bag.

Tour Bag, 2017 edition

After years of going to outdoor shows where I’ve had rain gear, water bottles, concert merch, and winter shows where I’ve wanted to ditch my sweatshirt after a 40 degree temperature differential, I decided I needed a bag that was lightweight, tough, sported multiple pockets and is easier to sling over my shoulder. CountyComm to the rescue with a military satellite bag.

A few tour patches, some embroidery I’ve collected over the years, my tiger tail zipper pull, and I broke the bag in at Princeton Reunions with an umbrella, spare shirt, and a six pack that I later unloaded into a bag of ice. It’s comfortable – not that I can imagine lugging an antenna and a few hundred feet of coax up a hill, but this works for my purposes.

With five weeks to go to Chicago – let’s get this show on the road.

Man Your Own Jackhammers

Over the years I’ve had to explain the appeal of Yes, Rush and Phish to various music fans, not always from the stance of an apologist but usually in answer to “Why do you listen to that?” When I mention Coheed and Cambria, add in “Who are they?”

The answers flow freely from a mix of outstanding musicianship, intense live performances, creative composition that breaks out of the 1-2-3-4 rock box, and a near Talmudic scholar depth to lyrical interpretation. To be fair, it took me about three months to truly appreciate Coheed and Cambria’s catalog, having found a seat on the fence (sorry) just as their fifth and subject-of-debate album, “Year of the Black Rainbow” was released. Coheed’s canon (first five, and first seven if you count the pre-prequel “Afterman” albums) convey a Herbert-detail level space opera with killer viruses, intergalactic despots, robots, love, betrayal, redemption, and battle. Set it all to insanely complex composition and that’s Coheed in a nutshell.

Disassemble it a bit and you’ll find traces of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” books, “Star Wars,” Greg Bear, Robert Heinlein, and La Boheme. Were I to teach a college course in operatic sci-fi, the background reading would be John Scalzi’s “Redshirts” (ref: The Writing Writer in Good Apollo), Greg Bear’s “Darwin’s Radio” (ref: Monstar virus and a visceral background for “The Broken”), Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” (ref: trust and relationships, the Jesse character in the Amory Wars), Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” (ref: recycled personalities in times of crisis, Coheed and Cambria themselves), and Frank Herbert’s original “Dune” (ref: loyalty, fealty, assassination under duress — Dr Uwe in Dune, the creation of the Monstar virus and eventually “Pearl of the Stars”). When I hear the “Man your own jackhammers” chorus of “In Keeping Secrets,” my mind goes to the Fremen/House Harkonnen battle in “Dune”, where the desert army reclaims their stronghold with primitive yet functional weapons.

It’s that chorus, the quintessential bit of obscure lyricism coupled with outrageous riff, that captures why I love Coheed and Cambria: seeing them live. You will never find a more intense and informed group of fans who are equally rocking out yet respectful of their fellow concert goers. Despite being packed three thousand deep on the floor of Terminal 5, there was absolutely no bad behavior – no elbows, no shoving, no copious quantities of spilled beer or anything else gnarly – just lots of what Claudio Sanchez called “Coheed karaoke.” When you look slightly left, catch the eye of someone 30 years your junior whose first thought is likely “What’s the old guy doing here” followed by “Oh, he knows the song” and you both go back to belting out the chorus, you’re inflated by the same feeling as seeing a touchdown in the Super Bowl or a goal in the Stanley Cup Finals. These are your unnamed yet contextually well known friends, the world’s best seat mates for the few hour journey that stimulates whatever deep visual, aural and olfactory memories you associate with the music.

Each Coheed show is slightly different; each solo, each interpretation, each choice of when to let the audience sing or to lead from the front of stage. At the break between the “album part” of the show and the encores, front man Claudio Sanchez offered two sincere explanations – first, that the entire band was sick (you wouldn’t know from the previous 90 minutes of music, another testament to their work ethic and musicianship) and second, that the voice of the little girl on “Good Apollo” was his (then) three year old niece, at a time when he was far from fatherhood himself. Ten years later, his niece was on the stage side, enjoying the show, Claudio talked about life on the road and missing his own son, and the show resonated with any number of us in any number of new ways. This is the future of music: outstanding performance and authentic presence.

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.

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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.