Tag Archives: yes

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.

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.

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.

2015: Change, Change We Must

2015 was a year of very high dynamic range, in all possible senses and interpretations. In addition to well-defined highs, there were some definite lows, and significant reflection around the midpoint.

Our daughter kicked the year off with a law school acceptance – and we somewhat stupidly decided to drive home from her celebratory dinner in what would be the first major snow storm of January. She wrapped up her undergrad career with a spectacular graduation that included large and small ceremonies, dinners with friends, and all of the pomp and circumstance you’d expect. Random highlight: the procession to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Procession of the Nobles” which was a high school band favorite.

After more than 30 years of discussion, gentle handling of basses in various music stores, and watching our son play upright and electric bass in venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to McGann’s in Boston, I decided to take formal lessons. Hat tip to Max at So.I.Heard music studio in Millburn, for both having the patience for an (older) adult student as well as finding the right mix of 70s classic rock and Phish songs to stimulate both long- and short-term musical muscle memory. I still suck, but at least I can do more than pluck open strings when I find myself staring at a wall of basses that plead “Play Us”.

Despite horrible ticket lottery luck, and random travel schedules, I was able to see Phish twice at the Mann Center, including one of the best all-time sets I’ve heard them play in a dozen shows. Got shut out of the Grateful Dead “Fare Thee Well” tour despite hand-decorating an envelope, but the Mann twinbill made up for that miss. There is nothing quite like seeing an intense show with old friends and a regular crew for the pre-game. This could become a tradition.

On other other end of the musical spectrum, we lost BB King and Chris Squire. Squire’s death was my personal equivalent of a lifelong Yankee fan experiencing Micky Mantle’s sudden and too-young death. It was the first bookend of music related events that made me realize, yes, my icons are aging, and the windows in which to see them live are closing or have closed. The other happy-but-sad event took place in Vegas, with the Bubba, as we caught one of the last large-arena Rush shows on their (effective) retirement tour. Seeing a band you love with your own kids, singing along as loudly as you are, enjoying the music in the moment, captures the wonder and pageantry and energy of live music in the best way possible. Like our daughter’s graduation, it marked a “last” that will endure in memory.

More personally, we said farewell to my uncle who had encouraged me in my more random engineering pursuits, and who epitomized the “do the right things” school of design. Despite his employer (at the time) insisting that there wasn’t that much value in the idea, he filed a patent for a radio frequency tag device which we recognize on the highways as EZPass. This Thanksgiving, our combined families celebrated the first “reunion turkey tour” in more than twenty years. Turns out we had four bass players at the dinner table. Loudness of all types ensued, and it was a wonderful celebration of the season.

By the time the ball drops on Times Square I will have read close to 50 books, including way too much science fiction and musical history, and a surfeit of trilogies with dystopian or apocalyptic under- and overtones. I do believe, as Neal Stephenson points out in the introduction to “Hieroglyph,” that science fiction drives science forward; it gives us the mechanism and meter to describe the future we wish to create. I got to use that line with Merck’s CEO, Ken Frazier, when he asked me why we (and by inference, he and the board) were hosting an internal hackathon, and he at least tacitly agreed (my badge still worked the next day). I had reviews of books retweeted or favorited by the relevant authors (Hannu Rajaniemi and Ted Kosmatka, both featured prominently in this year’s reading list). I learned quite a bit about the Grateful Dead, and relived some of my fascination with KISS (which introduced me to the wonders of live music, which of course fueled so much of this summer’s ups and downs).

So 2015 had its moments, good and bad, like all years. It brought changes in things to anticipate and appreciate; it reinforced the value of family and friends; it made me consider that change is good if it creates new opportunity and doesn’t forget, forgo or eclipse the path to its development.

2016 is going to be an interesting year, for all values of “interesting”.

Church of The Subwoofer

[ed note: This was originally posted as a page, but wasn’t getting any traction, and in an effort to clean up the site a bit I’m moving the content into the mainline. Plus I’ve been trying to squeeze ever lower frequencies out of my Sonos sub, using the TruePlay software to offset the minor dropped ceiling rattle it sometimes induces.]

Subwoofers are snarky audio components: feed them the wrong audio, with the wrong level settings, and you feel like you’re in a subterranean basement that’s all low echo and no daylight. But gently place one in your listening room, set the levels to not overpower your over-200 Hz drivers, and listen to some tracks with pronounced bass, and you’re in heaven. There’s an indescribable feeling of being at a live show, with the bass pouring over you, undulating your shorts or shirt sleeves, and for a moment you not only hear the music but feel it, in phase, and it’s nothing short of catching a bit of ocean spray as you hear the wave crash and smell the salt.

I also love “bass in front” music. So I’m biased. But after a few weak attempts to place a subwoofer and drive it well, I’ve fallen in love with my Sonos Sub – much less dependent on room placement and with the Sonos controller’s ability to level adjust, I can take 6 or 8 decibels off the top and keep the kitchen furniture from rattling.

If you’re wondering what the fuss is about, listen to the following with and without a well-matched sub, and see if the deeper bottom transports you to that spot on the musical beach:

  • Yes, “Wurm”, from the end of “Starship Trooper” on “Yessongs”. This is the gold standard, with Chris Squire working the Moog Taurus bass pedals into a frenzy.

  • Genesis, “Squonk,” from “Seconds Out”. More bass pedals, more prog, more Mike Rutherford! If you’ve ever heard progressive rock referred to as “arena rock”, you get the idea here – that sound could fill a football stadium (American or European).

  • Rush, “Subdivisions,” preferably from the live “Clockwork Angels” set, but even the studio version. More bass pedals, sitting under Geddy’s synth playing.

  • Phish, Mansfield MA show from July 1, 2014. There are a few “brown notes” in there, and listen to the second set closer “Harry Hood” around the 14:00 mark.

  • Chris Squire, Bass Player

    I am in shock at the passing of Chris Squire. When he announced he was battling acute leukemia in mid-May, my first thought was of my coaching buddy Chad, who faced — and won — a similar fight a year ago. The tall bass player, who had survived the 70s, four decades of touring, more than twenty studio recording sessions and any amount of internecine band warfare was going to win as well, to go back out on the road again, to continue to play amazing and intricate music. And on Sunday, suddenly, he was gone, and I felt a deep, personal sense of loss. Squire was central to my musical education, to my desire to play bass, to the love of live music I had tried to inculcate in my family, and to fundamental harmonics that underpinned a thousand nights of homework. I believe he taught all of his fans to listen to all things a bit more acutely and accurately.

    I met Chris Squire only once, five years ago, and so his death is not equivalent in impact or grief to that of a family member or friend; it’s more that a sense of order and consistency has been perturbed. A pillar of my musical universe has been harshly removed, and it is a stark reminder of my own mortality.

    I wanted to be Chris Squire after I devoured, in every sense, “Yessongs.” I probably was first exposed to Yes through a Philadelphia AOR station (WMMR or WYSP in the day), and “Roundabout” was a gateway to “Fragile” and to “Yessongs”. That one triple LP had an amazing profound an effect on my musical, engineering and social life, and Chris Squire’s bass playing was, and is, central to the story. My Yes fascination unfolds in typical nerdy fashion: During a summer in Harvey Cedars, our older, significantly cooler and more musically inclined downstairs neighbors revealed their Yes affiliations as well, and suddenly liking progressive music wasn’t as weird. I listened to “Yessongs” incessantly, and believe it spurred my love of live music, and desired to support artists through their tours. “Yessongs” wasn’t a perfect reproduction of the albums; it was something so much more, so definitive a performance, so characteristically Chris Squire leading with his bass. Two summers later, working on a math problem late on a Monday night (to be fair, before the internet and portable music players, you entertained yourself with TV, a book, puzzles/games, or by playing outside), I heard all of “Close to the Edge” tracked on WYSP, and found that combination of math and music abstraction intoxicating. I studied every picture, album cover, or poster I could find, and so wanted to be able to combine a cape, striped trousers, and a full-scale bass. Along with Geddy Lee and Jon Camp, Squire produced a wonderful, rich set of sounds out of his Rickenbacker bass, a guitar that became an unusual object of my affection for nearly forty years. When “Going For The One” was released, and high school buddy Lewis loaned it to me to record onto cassette tape, it was an experience like no other. To this day, the bass parts on “Awaken” and “Parallels” give me chills.

    Personally, Chris Squire’s legacy is preserved in vignettes: the first time Ben and I saw him at the Beacon Theater (my first live Yes show, after twenty-five years his deft mastery of, and range of sounds from, the triple-neck on “Awaken” (at the State Theater in New Brunswick); seeing Ben pick up a Rickenbacker bass at Sam Ash and pluck out “Heart of the Sunrise;” seeing Squire’s intense and yet simultaneous grinning countenance driving the band forward; a brief “hello” and handshake backstage at Bethel Woods five years ago; making sure that the Taurus pedals on “Starship Trooper” were the first thing to come out of my Sonos Sub; the outpouring of respect and sincere sadness from his musical peers.

    Here’s what I learned from his music: The interesting parts of life aren’t necessarily in 4/4 or even whole measures. Define your sound because it defines you. You decide when to play the melody and when to join the rhythm section. Intensity and precision are important but having fun is required.

    Thanks, Chris, for teaching all of us to hear (as Tom Brislin writes) “the bass lines in the background of life.”

    The Drama of Graduation

    This is about the Yes album “Drama”, with a thin reference to my own high school graduation.

    Thirty-five years ago today, as I was deep in final exams of my last year of high school, a friend told me that Yes had broken up, and that Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson were being replaced by Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn of the Buggles. The shock that swept over me must have been close to that felt by Red Sox fans when Babe Ruth was traded to the Yankees, or when Wayne Gretzyky was traded from Edmonton to the Los Angeles Kings. This wasn’t so much a trade as I felt it was a betrayal of my adolescent sense that nothing should change, that things I designated as “mine” would remain consistent and persistent until they were no longer such an integral part of my daily routine.

    It’s easy to look back now and realize that (a) I didn’t really like Tormato, the last Yes album with the the “core five” on it, all that much, and that Jon Anderson’s pseudo-religious waxing lyrics had started to grate on me even then (b) It was a perfect time for a transition, for me to identify with the things that were constant (Howe, White, Squire) and embrace something new and (c) Drama is a rather good album.

    I remember buying Drama in the midst of packing my things for college; I put it on my trusty Radio Shack turntable (which lasted another two months after school started, to be replaced by my first component stereo system) and listened to it all the way through. Once. Twice. It rocked out. It had soaring guitar solos. It had driving bass lines. And yet, I think I was terrified by it, as terrified as I was about driving 30 miles across the void between high school and college. As I sought comfort and stability, my musical family suffered a divorce, came back together with a trophy spouse of a vocalist (the Buggles had the first video played on MTV), and dared to challenge me. I am reminded, 35 years later, of something my friend Jim says about good art: “It is supposed to make you uncomfortable.” With hindsight, it was all good, and was the beginning of my decision to explore musically at WPRB-FM over the next few years.

    Chris Squire’s Progeny

    I’m still kind of reeling from the announcement that Chris Squire of Yes is being treated for leukemia. Squire’s bass playing basically powered my engineering education at Princeton; I’m pretty sure I completed every physics, electrical engineering or math problem set listening to Yessongs, Relayer, and Going For The One. His bass was equally at home as a melodic voice (Heart of the Sunrise, Perpetual Change) as it was nestled in next to Alan White in the rhythm section. My love of all things Rickenbacker stems directly from Squire’s choice of axe, and I’ve even modeled capes (truthfully: while getting into trouble in departments in which I had no business at Nordstrom) playing air bass.


    The news is amplified through a 3-course plate o shrimp: It’s been just about a year since my ice hockey coaching friend Chad beat his leukemia into remission; I’m just getting proficient enough on bass myself to appreciate the dexterity and musicianship required to pound out some of those Squire bass lines; this week, Progeny, a 7-show collection of 1972 Yes concerts was released in a nicely packaged and Roger Dean-enhanced boxed set. Progeny is effectively the early leg of the 1972 tour that produced Yessongs; it’s a bit of Phish show catalogue of the Fish in his favorite element.

    Yessongs may be one of the single largest musical influences in my life. It was, at the time, the most expensive record I had purchased (the original vinyl is a triple LP). I copied Roger Dean’s artwork repeatedly; I studied the packaging as a musical history codex. It’s a safe bet that my love of live music is a by product of the crowd noise, energy and gentle melodic liberties of that recording. Progeny, indeed. And sincere hopes that Squire is able to beat his leukemia and continue making music that spans decades.

    The Snowman 2014 Holiday Gift Guide

    Based on the rousing success (about seven people read it and based on amazon.com click-through rates, at least ten products were viewed) of last year’s Holiday Gift Guide, I humbly present the emergent, annual (almost), carefully researched and field tested Snowman Guide to Getting Gifts For Geeks Who Seem To Have Everything, But Need Something To Ooooh About.

    Jewelry For A Cause. It’s jewelry with a purpose, for a social movement, and it’s beautifully crafted. My favorite is the Caliber Collection, cuff links and bracelets made from bullet casings and destroyed guns taken off the streets, leaving the serial numbers intact. Take the admonition to “beat swords into plowshares” and spur interesting conversation at work or a party. The Talisman collection is much more accessible price-wise, and could be a fun gift for that poker player in your life; the “In Gratitude” collection supports women in Uganda. Be good and look good. (About $250).

    Schneider iPro Lens Kit. This is now my “go to” for concerts and just walking around new cities. Wide-angle, telephoto and macro lenses in a single carrying “tube” that slips into your pocket easily. (Yes, someone at a Phish show asked me what kind of pipe that was, and when I said it was for my iPhone, he said “Cool, a pipe for your phone”). Even if you eschew the phone-wielding crowd at shows (a camp to which I’m gravitating), it’s nice to be able to capture some landscape shots outdoors with a simple snap-on to the phone. There’s an iPhone 5S version and an iPhone 5 version and it appears you can get the lenses individually with just the snap-on case as well. For $200 it fits the intermediate point between a vanilla iPhone and a full-size DSLR body (Between $180 and $200).

    Next year the Turn-I-Kit will be added, once it’s available through some retail/online channels. I got mine through the Kickstarter campaign, and while it’s still a bit rough to use, it is quite cool dangling your iPhone off the back of a 200mm f/2.8 lens.

    Borrowlenses gift card. Let’s say the photo-nerd in your life won’t spring for that $5,000 piece of glass, but really wants to be able to get some high-quality shots on your next trip. Enter BorrowLenses, where you can rent a wide variety of photo gear for 3 days to a month. I’ve used this to get super telephoto lenses, or to audition gear before deciding what to buy (better to spend $180 on a weekend rental than be to annoyed with an $800 lens that isn’t quite as fast as you had hoped). Their gift certificates encourage experimentation, which is part of the fun of photography. ($100 for something reasonable, but gift cards in any amount).

    Kiva gift card. Kiva is a microlending site – you make interest-free loans, $25 (or more) at a time, to the unbanked populations around the world. Whether it’s buying supplies for a bodega in Tanzania, or funding engine repair for a driver in South America, the aggregation of those $25 credits into $800-$5,000 short-term loans makes a difference. It’s not charity; it’s a continuous (over the course of tens of months) cycle of re-investment in people. I’ve given Kiva gift cards to people who seem to “have everything” and the reaction is usually quite positive. If the recipient wants to cash out after making one loan, at least you’ve made an epsilon economic improvement wrapped around a gift card. ($25 minimum, and a nice gift).

    Patreon. It’s easy to be a patron of the arts when you have millions laying around. If you have single dollars lounging electronically, direct them to people who are creating art and get a “behind the scenes” view of the process. For $5/month (on average), you get previews, interesting Q&A, and in some cases not-quite-public art. Create a PayPal account, fill it up with gift money, then direct your giftee to use it to support the arts. I’m a huge fan of Jeph Jacques and while I’ve purchased a variety of books and t-shirts from him, I’m kind of full up in those patterns. Supporting his Patreon gives me a bit more of my daily-Jeph-dosing including forays into music and other things that make his slightly left of center mind tick. ($60 is $5 a month for a year)

    53 tablet pencil. How quaint – a pencil. Yet if you express yourself in the Stern 14.6 point font on whiteboards enough, you know sometimes it’s just easier to draw. Now draw on your iPad, and share the images, and you have a whiteboard to go where you do your best thinking (yes, even in that room). I’m loving my Pencil by FiftyThree Digital Stylus since it “feels” like a pencil and has a variety of brushes (pencil, marker, paint) that’s somewhere in between drawing with a mouse and using a Wacom tablet. (About $50-70 depending upon finish)

    Sonos Play:1. I outfitted the house with all Sonos gear this summer, and removed about 80 pounds (seriously!) of speakers, amplifiers, cables and mess. We have a SONOS PLAY:1 in the kitchen, and it makes breaking down cauliflower fun (recommended: Springsteen’s “Darkness On The Edge of Town”, it’s perfect for anything in the cabbage family). Most important, it’s changed the way I listen to and discover music. I’m hearing subtle details I’ve missed before (that high-end percussive theme on “Promised Land:” glockenspiel!) and I’m able to create loudness from just about any source on the ‘net – radio, streaming services, or the whole family music library I’ve loaded onto a NAS drive in the basement. (About $200 for a single Play:1)

    John Scalzi autographed books. I have waxed, fawned, and exhibited the full spectrum of fanboy behaviors when it comes to John Scalzi. In addition to being a superb science fiction writer, he captures the zeitgeist of life in this decade with aplomb and poise. Each year, Scalzi offers personalized books for the holidays. Support a great writer, and a local bookstore. ($20 and up)

    Live Music, Now. Give someone a StubHub gift certificate, so they can see the live music (or sporting event) of their choice. I’m noticing that the premium over face on most tickets on StubHub is retreating back to something resembling a fair spread, and in some cases no worse than the collection of insane fees you’d pay to Ticketmaster or Telecharge. (Any amount supports your favorite artists)

    Live Musc, Then. Gift a year-long membership to Concert Vault and the recipient can stream access to the entire Bill Graham Presents catalog of classic shows, along with $5 pricing on downloads of those shows. Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, Talking Heads, and a seasons’ worth of Yes shows — all in one place. Personally, for the prog rocker on your “nice” list (as opposed to “The Nice” on your rock list, or the nice on your Unix process, but I digress), the 12-10-74 Yes show is worth the entire subscription price. It’s one of the few recordings of the “Relayer” tour (now 40 — yes FORTY — years old) with Patrick Moraz on keyboards, and the “Sound Chaser” opening freaked out a lot of long time Yes fans. Now, of course, it’s classic, and for $40 you can relive the moment (stream it to your Sonos Play:1!)

    “Fly From Here” Reviewed


    Disclaimer: I’ve been a serious Yes fan since about 1976. The release of Relayer was a big part of my musical discovery, and I sit facing a lithograph of Roger Dean’s cover in my home office. They are, without a doubt, my favorite and most-listened to band over the forty years I’ve been listening to music. With that, I really wanted to completely love the new Yes release, Fly From Here, the first studio release in ten years.

    I like it, which is the equivalent of “I like you as a friend” in music romance. It has some good moments, and deserves a few more rotations on the iPod. My major complaint is that it feels assembled – some keyboards, some guitar licks, some layered vocals – and not so much experienced as older Yes albums. On the other hand, it’s so much better than the last two things that passed for studio albums (Open Your Eyes and Magnification) that it’s comfortable. And there’s the trouble: I didn’t want comfortable. I wanted the jarring, what’s-that-sound effect of hearing “Sound Chaser” for the first time (having to look up “fruition” in the paper dictionary), the delight I get out of listening to Steve Howe’s guitar solos in various versions of “Yours Is No Disgrace” and even the contrasts of “Tales” (listen to “The Ancient” starting around 12:20 in for some of the best Howe guitar work in the context of Yes songwriting. Ever.) Those aural reactions don’t happen at first listen. The best comparison, on many levels, is to Drama – including Geoff Downes on keys and the production hand of Trevor Horn. I absolutely hated it when it was first released, and now I am privileged to have heard “Machine Messiah” and “Tempus Fugit” live.

    For now, I’ll take assembled, and remember that “change we must.”