Tag Archives: phish

Solo Trey

For an artist used to fronting a funk or rock band, going “acoustic solo” represents a huge change in context. You’re expected to tell stories, engage the audience, create the feeling of your living room or home studio while simultaneously whittling songs down to their skeletal form. After nearly three decades of Phish, a dozen Trey Anastasio band tours, playing acoustic with both a string quartet and an orchestra, the solo acoustic Trey Anastasio show raised the expectations bar very, very high.

Trey Anastasio, solo and acoustic, Mayo Performing Arts Center 2-8-18

Trey’s usual inter-song banter is limited to gentle expressions of appreciation, or sometimes a one-line quip about stage antics. Thursday night he sat us down in his living room and explained where various lyrics came from, gave us glimpses into the green room, and shared his abundantly optimistic view of life with us. Musically, favorite TAB and Phish songs were distilled into basic chords, letting us hear not the typical layered and composed structure but the real intent of the song. Using a looping pedal, a few delays and an electronic drum to keep time, Trey was able to scat sing, solo over chord changes, and recreate minimalist Phish solo dynamics. It’s rare to see any of the band members with a seated audience, in a room quiet enough to hear people unwrapping their snacks ten rows behind you, but that’s what was created with 1,300 fans, two guitars, and one amazing musician. It was intimate, it was immediate and it was delightful.

Thirteen Nights In The Garden Of Eden

Phish’s Baker’s Dozen run at Madison Square Garden was musical history in the making. For those of us lucky enough to be there, it will be remembered not just for the incredible musicianship, jams, song selection and variety, plays on words, but for the sense of community that enveloped the entire Tri-State area like a fluffy towel. It was Chicago as the Cubs closed in on the World Series, the Olympics, and a double-dose of Hanukah all at once. Each night was a special treat, unwrapped gingerly but with intent for us to enjoy; the press and our friends and family and even people who “just don’t get Phish” seemed to know what was going on and why it was important. When the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 2003, I had complete strangers asking me how I felt after a tough playoff loss, and that sense of pop up community and genuine interest echoed and reverberated and found all of the highs (of all kinds) in the local area.

The band showed how to play to a room – not just acoustically but emotionally as well. Sure people sing along at concerts, but 20,800 fans practically screaming “Fluffhead” makes the hair stand up on your neck. It was the energy and intensity of a small venue Coheed & Cambria show an order of magnitude larger and louder, but no less personal. The number of times Trey stopped to look around the arena and take in the fans, the emotions, and the love was remarkable. When your musical heroes allow subtle childhood nuances to peek through on stage, you have to fall in love with the band all over again.

The room showed how to play to a band – from the security guards who were tolerant of fans of all ages, shapes and sizes (and costumes), to the concessions staff who worked at double speed during set break, to the ushers who made sure everyone had fun without being forceful about level crashers. I’ve never loved shows at the Garden due to what I felt was a bad echo problem, but the new ceiling seems to have addressed the issue. On night 3 I brought a human-sized inflatable donut into the Garden, and when one of the security guards went for a closer inspection, another told him “it’s an inflatable, they’re going to bring them in.” The entire Garden was a model for fan friendliness and creating an atmosphere where it was almost required to have a good time. And no, I never thought I’d write something good about the Garden where my previous experiences mostly revolved around sticky floors that seem intent on ruining my shoes within the first thirty minutes, people puking in the stands, and indoor air redolent of the men’s room.

Phish got a banner, equalling the Rangers during the lifetime of the band.

A Hammond B3 organ driven through a Leslie speaker brings back forty years of memories, from my Aunt May and Uncle Murray’s house that had a huge console organ (a Hammond of course, that they offered to let me both fix and keep – fortunately my father knew that the amplifier inside housed lethal voltages); the first peer who told me about Leslie speakers much to my disbelief, only for me to discover that the wonderful phased sound I loved was the product of the spinning cones; discovering the J Geils Band during my first summer in Boston cementing the association with large-scale concerts, heavy vibrato keyboards, and enjoying great music in the company of mildly crazy friends.

In an age of spectacular stage production with moving platforms, confetti cannons, lasers and backup dancers, seeing what Chris Kuroda does with the lighting rig is itself a show-within-a-show. The true choreography of each night happened in the rigging and with the house lights, bringing not just color palette but literal shape to each song, each jam riff, each peak. One of the Garden executives told me that CK5 is one of the (fewer than three) people allowed to tap into the house lights. What he did with them made the room fold in on itself, so you were never that far from the spotlight even when the backup dancers were in the row in front of you.

Had a number of “first” listens to various Phish classics, live, including “The Lizards.” In a complete plate o shrimp moment, the song opens with an oblique reference to a long corridor, much like Genesis’ “Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” which ostensibly was set in the same neighborhood as the Garden — and I happened to be reading Mike Rutherford’s autobiographical discourse about that very album at the very same time.

Toroidal influences abound, and the theme was executed to perfection. It’s easy to be heavy handed and devolve into cliche when it comes to thematic elements, but Baker’s Dozen reveled in the slow reveal. It was, in the words of original Apple designer Tog, the progressive disclosure of what we needed to know – the donut themed promotional reel, the tickets in a donut box, the introduction of the flavor of the night, the Garden signage and “Glaze On,” song selection that walked the formation of a carefully crafted pun. “The universe is a donut” long form intro to “Harpua” (itself a “Jimmies” reference) is a template by which all other themes should be judged.

At the conclusion of a run like this, of an event that transcends time and space and work and everyday schedules, you feel a bit deflated. The house guests have left, the Olympic torch is extinguished, Hanukah menorahs are de-waxed and wiped down and gently put away until the next celebration. And that’s precisely the point – we’re on to the next tour, the next nights vibrating with love and light with our friends and family and that slightly goofy person who just flew in from Tampa or Denver or San Diego or Birmingham (lot of bridges). The torch is on its way to the next stop, and in the mean time, we’ll take care of our shoes.

Local coverage:

Trey, post-residency.

NY Times summary

NY Time prelude

New Yorker heartfelt piece on Phish community

Donuts, Ice Cream and Phish

I attended the opening night of Phish’s 13-night “Baker’s Dozen” run at Madison Square Garden last night. Despite its storied history, landmark concerts and self-proclaimed centerpiece status of the venue world, a jumping night in the Garden isn’t quite the concert-going Eden I’d prefer. Sometimes it’s the sound (cymbal reflection off of the back of the arena), sometimes it’s the lighting or sight lines, and sometimes it’s just the fact that it’s in New York and it’s at the epicenter of civil engineering that would make Rube Goldberg blush.

Then I saw Phish at the Garden, something that has happened twenty-nine previous times without me, and suddenly I am converted. The entire four-month crescendo to last night’s opener has been the typical self-deprecating, insanely creative and genuinely fun experience you associate with Phish, from the residency announcement that featured donuts rolling down 7th Avenue to the donut-shaped tickets that came in a box to Ben & Jerry’s special one-night “Freezer Reprise” flavor (which of course we sampled pre-show, and then got the t-shirt to capture the remaining sensory memories, all the while supporting The Waterwheel Foundation). The day of the show, the “flavor of the night” was announced — coconut — with free donuts from Philadelphia’s Federal Donuts (part of the culinary mosh pit that brings you Dizengoff, Zahav and their self-titled donut stands in the city of Brotherly Love). Sprinkles on the sweetness of the event came in the form of a heartfelt New Yorker article about Phish and community and why we do what we do.

With all of that foreshadowing, fanfare and dramatic tension, you had to wonder if the show would carry its weight. Carry it did, with the grace of picking up a beach ball (or donut shaped float) and tossing it back into the frenzied crowd. I’ve never seen a band play to the hall, to the crowd, and to the moment like that. Whether it was Chris Kuroda’s audience lighting at the tension and release moments of jams, or the audience’s pickup note of wild cheering that redirected the new light rig over the floor, the sense that the band and audience were locked in was palpable. Each jam modulated from minor to major, from earthy to just quite spacey and back to ground, the way you enjoy a fine tasting menu or — in my case — excavate the Phish food pint, savoring the fudge fish but tasting the caramel, the marshmallow and the chocolate with equal relish.

Coconut themed songs bookended the sets, “Reba” made a lyrical nod to the beignet-du-jour, and on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a pair of lunar references (“Halfway to the Moon” and “Moonage Daydream”) reinforced the feeling that we were witnessing something of an entirely different plane of creativity. There were at least a few moments when Trey stepped aside the mic stand, looked around at the 200 and 300 levels of the Garden, and you could see the smile that meant “Hey, I’m playing at Madison Square Garden with my best friends.”

It was, like the show in its entirety, pure joy. And there are a dozen more to go.

Summer Tour 2017: Return To Chicago

Phish Summer Tour 2017 kicked off in Chicago this weekend, and I was back for the first two nights at Northerly Island (versus last year’s Wrigley shows). The opening night of any tour is always a calculated risk, as the changes the band has rehearsed and managed, from the lighting rig to new songs to subtle routine differences finally get amplified, literally and figuratively.

While the first night was careful, fun, and full of new songs for me, the second night showed what I hope the rest of the summer will be like:

  • The new lighting rig is outstanding. It’s back to being lights to capture rhythm and a bit of timbre, without the large LED panels that honestly I found distracting and seemed to require too much physical orientation. The new rig has mobility of the various spars to change intensity, direction and fills, but it’s “just lights” and so opens up (believe it or not) more creativity for CK5. The number of cans shot out into the audience was a nice touch as well; sitting in the back of the pavilion it was cool to see 20,000 (or more) people having an insanely good time.

  • The Type II jams were alternately paced by Trey, Page, Mike and Jon. At one point during the “tribal” riff in the 7/15 “Simple,” (maybe 12-13 minutes in) Fishman clearly picks up the syncopated lead and just powers into the next set of ideas. It felt like much less noodling and more carefully choreographed musicianship.

  • Page was on fire. Even without keyboard staples like “Suzy Greenberg” or “Squirming Coil,” he was taking leads on songs, paving the way for some great interplay with Trey.

  • First set of 7/15/17 is some of the tightest 72 minutes of rock and roll you will ever hear. After the TAB tour in the spring, I was hoping some of Trey’s soloing energy would carry on into the summer, and if anything my expectations were well exceeded.

  • “Northerly Simple” will be marked with the “Tahoe Tweezer” until something more epic comes along. That was the first long jam of the summer, and it covered all kinds of musical ground. Deep into the groove, it was easy to just listen to whatever themes they were exploring, and after five or six shifts, I realized they’d been buried in the not-so-Simple jam for close to half an hour.

    And so it’s a few days off for me; after swearing I would refrain from back to back shows after last summer, I hit both Friday and Saturday this year (newly repaired knee held up well!). Can’t wait to see what they bring to the Garden later this week and through the thick of the Baker’s Dozen.

    As for Chicago: What a great city. Walkable, fun, great food, architecturally stimulating, more great food, emergent neighborhoods that show what 10-30 years of careful curation and investment can do (think DUMBO but with lawns and less attitude), and now enough Dunkin’ Donuts to fuel my inner wook.

    As for Northerly Island: Reviews seem to be mixed on the venue. I think the lawn is a mess; it supposedly holds 20,000 people and it’s completely flat, so you see the band on a video screen, ideally get some phase-corrected sound delivered live, and get to spread out a bit. If it rains it’s a short extension of Lake Michigan and for only a few dollars under the pavilion pricing, it seems like an expensive ducat for three hours on your feet. Only one road in and out (and Saturday night, that road was closed early so getting to the venue via Uber was more of an adventure that you’d hope for pre-show). There’s no vending or tailgating allowed, so there’s no Shakedown, no lot, no fun pre-gaming. Water ran $5, as did soggy pretzels, and beer was $12-14 with premium drinks topping $20 each. That said – the sound in the pavilion was crisp and first rate (no echo, no weird absorption). The sight lines, even from the back, were great. Security was effective but mellow, and the people working in the pavilion were, to a person, friendly, accommodating and interested in seeing everyone have a good time.

  • 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.

    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.

  • 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.

  • From Estimated Prophet to Fade Away

    [Editorial note and corrected post: Tom corrected my aging memory; I did in fact get him to listen to Rush and so the musical context switch was complete].

    My GD50 ticket by mail envelope, showing that indeed artistic talent skips a generation (or two)

    My GD50 ticket by mail envelope, showing that indeed artistic talent skips a generation (or two)

    Prophetic estimations of ticket lotteries were highly inflated for me; not only did I strike out on all Phish ticket by mail requests but also found myself on the wrong side of multiple money orders, a decorated #2 envelope and some long, strange musical trip references originating in a 1982 cross-campus walk. I have been at best a casual fan of the Grateful Dead; like my ramp-up to Phish phan status I appreciated their studio work but never veered into the live, jam performances. Introductions outside of what played on the album-oriented FM stations in the New York area occurred, as most of the best do, on a slushy early winter day of junior year, as then-roommate (and eternal Deadhead, wonderful friend, playmaker on my first ever ice hockey goal, and incredible cook) Tom got me to listen to “Estimated Prophet” on “Terrapin Station.” What was elided from that brief cassette tape exchange (yes, I had a Walkman, and yes, I provided my own sound track on cross-campus treks to the engineering building) was that “Terrapin” should rightly qualify as a prog album, and that my love of jazz and jazz improvisation would be fueled if I borrowed one of his Dead show tapes, and not just a mix tape with some studio work. Count that as a missed musical connection.

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    The Dead’s appearance on Saturday Night Live that featured “Alabama Get Away” is vivid in my memory; it’s intense for a small venue with limited time and it was also common for groups to publicly perform music in advance of the “album drop.” The show pre-dated my real affection for the band but at the time (April 1980), SNL and Don Kirschner’s late night show were about the only two outlets for live music outside of concert venues. With hindsight it was an incongruous format for the band and their performance (how can a jam possibly be bound by the pre-hour commercial break?) and that perhaps left me in a state of two-degrees-separated-from Dead that persisted until the bitter(sweet) end. Stanley Jordan, then a rising solo guitar player and one of “my” jazz DJs at WPRB-FM, found his way to Soldier Field based on his musical friendship with Jeff Chimenti. Bill Walton, scion of California basketball, added celebrity street cred to a farewell that was famously absent the usual red carpet suspects. Phish tour buddy George went full circle, texting me updates from the pit as he completed that revolution in the musical circle of life. Professionally, I intersected John Perry Barlow at a few career arcs, mostly through Sun’s John Gage, and later discovered that his Grateful Dead lyrics credits stem from the first groove on “Terrapin Station” – the highly estimated prophet of digital privacy, security and culture.

    And so I find the Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” shows a fitting conclusion to the original band’s, and the surviving members’, musical history. Aside from the “Not Fade Away” and “Touch of Grey” references, they brought the story of the band to its rightful conclusion. The notion of a musician retiring from the very performance that wholly defined his experience is somewhat odd, but in a year when we lost BB King, Ornette Coleman and most recently and suddenly, Chris Squire, I’m slowly conceding that writing the final chapter with intent, grace and a well-defined conclusion is quite respectable. It’s helping me come to grips with the fact that this summer marks the last big-arena tour for Rush, and that the shared musical experiences I’ve had with Ben involving the Holy Trinity of Toronto will also reach a logical conclusion with joy and not sadness. It’s better to end with a win than a loss, in sports, music or love.

    Later the same year that I discovered “Terrapin Station,” Tom and I shared a class with a take-home final. It was brutal, and even a week of my effort wasn’t sufficient. The Dead were touring at that time, and Tom left me a note one afternoon (a full 2 days before the due date), taped to a sealed #2 envelope, undecorated save for the honor code pledge, saying “Here’s my exam, please turn it in for me on the due date. Going to see the Dead at Red Rocks.” It’s one of my favorite college memories, and one that I repeat as an example of what a good college experience should be – trust, friendship, scholarship, adventure, and some insanely rich music. I succeeded in getting Tom to listen to Rush (but not Led Zeppelin!) and will always treasure his gentle insistence that I meet him halfway on the Dead.

    One day, next tour, I’ll get Tom to join me for a Phish show. Older, greyer, perhaps less in focus than before, I think we have a conclusion to write, rather than let fade out.