GF’s Top Ten Albums – 2016

Here’s my annual (mostly) geezer list of my top ten albums (actually a baker’s dozen) for 2017. As previously stated, it is a list that has no recognition of sales and/or chart position, and instead relies on my own narrow musical tastes and steadfast affection for the music and artists I grew up with. I am my own niche!

1 Emitt Rhodes – Rainbow Ends

The year’s most unlikely record is also my choice for the year’s best. With this, his first emitt-rhodes-rainbow-endsnew album in 43 years, Emitt Rhodes has pulled off the most miraculous of comebacks. With the help of LA’s finest pop practitioners (Jon Brion, Aimee Mann, Nelson Bragg, Fernando Perdoma, Probyn Gregory, Jason Falkner & others) and the loving guidance of producer/acolyte Chris Price, Rainbow Ends is a mature song cycle that honors Rhodes pop-wunderkind past (The Merry-Go-Round, Fresh As A Daisy, etc), while planting him firmly in the 21st century. Eleven songs, and every one is a gem!

2 David Crosby – Lighthouse

Crosby has never been the most prolific of artists, with only three solo studio albums to his name from 1971 to 2013. So following his 2014 released Croz, with this new one just two crosbydavidlighthouse-300x300years later, was completely unexpected. Produced in collaboration with Michael League of the jazz ensemble Snarky Puppy, Lighthouse might be the best thing he’s ever done. Playing on his strengths as a harmony singer and acoustic guitar player, the album uses both of those assets as a bed for each of the songs. The end result is stacks of unique harmonies (as only Crosby can do) over subtle acoustics and keyboards, with very little else to get in the way. This is a truly magical-sounding record.

3 David Bowie – Blackstar

Released just two days before Bowie’s untimely death from liver cancer last January, 51rhm9wiqol-_sy355_Blackstar is Bowie’s farewell gift to his fans. Never before in music history has an artist made such a deliberate artistic statement of their exit from the world, as Bowie does in his video for the song, Lazarus; a year later, it is still chilling to watch. Following his 2013 surprise release (The Next Day, his first new LP in 10 years, at that time), Blackstar is a major work from one of rock’s greatest artists, every song a winner.

4 Monkees – Good Times

Maybe the best reunion album ever (!) by an older band. Should be a template for all legacy bands thinking of making a new record. Dolenz, Tork & Nesmith understood that their the-monkees-good-times-album-rivers-cuomomain strength was not as songwriters (other than Nesmith, they never really were), but as performers. And boy do they perform! Under the expert guiding hand of producer and main songwriter Adam Schlessinger (Fountains Of Wayne), The Monkees romp & roll through 13 songs tailor-made for them, to create – arguably – the best album, front to back, of their entire 50+ year career. Highlights are many, but hearing Mickey sing with the late great Harry Nilsson on the Nilsson-penned title cut, is a rare joy. Another highlight is the Andy Partridge (XTC) song, “You Bring The Summer.” In a perfect world, this past summer, it would have been blasting out of car radios all over the world!

5 Barry Gibb – In The Now

Another of 2016’s comeback “kids” is Bee Gees’ leader, Barry Gibb. In The Now is Gibb’s first solo record in 32 years, and well worth the wait. With that vibrato-laden voice still barry-gibb-in-the-now-2016-billboard-1240completely intact, your reminded what an original vocalist he is. As the lead singer on 90% of the BeeGees hits, he’s the voice you know best. And the songwriting and production are strong throughout. Many highlights, but certainly, in a just world, Star Crossed Lovers would’ve landed Gibb back at the top of the charts where, with this new record, he deserves to be.

6 Elton John – Wonderful Crazy Night

With his 30th studio album, Elton John continues his late-career surge that began with 2006’s Captain Fantastic sequel, The Captain & The Kid, and came to full flower with his 61cqleko7slheartfelt collaboration with Leon Russell (The Union, 2010) and his return to his piano trio format (The Diving Board) in 2013. Elton was quoted as saying he wanted this new album to evoke the exuberance he projected in the 70’s with albums like Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player & Caribou. This album is, by turns, upbeat, rollicking and, at times, introspective. Working with longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin (50 years and counting), this is a classic Elton John record in all the best ways!

7 Graham Nash – This Path Tonight

There’s something slightly-odd about a Top Ten list with both David Crosby & Graham Nash on it (Stephen Stills, where are you?), but not making music together, as they have album-this-path-tonight-largefor the better part of five decades. Here’s to hoping they can mend fences and play together again! But out of the chaos of their personal disfunction has come new solo work that rivals the best that either has ever done. Nash, recently-separated from his wife of 30+ years and in a new relationship, seems newly-energized with this, his first new solo album in over a decade, and a recent global tour that has lasted most of the past year. All this from a guy who turns 75 this month! This Path Tonight features ten great new songs that look forward (the title song), look back (Golden Days), look at the world (Cracks In The City), and look within (Myself At Last). And harkening back to his hit-making start with The Hollies, one perfect pop song (Another Broken Heart).

8 The Novelists – Breaking The Script

In the fall of 1993 I met a young, local CNY songwriter named Joel Ackerson. He was 15 at the time, but full of passion to write and perform music, and – most importantly – very talented! His first band, Eclipse, won a SAMMY Award for Best New Band in 1996 and he thenovelists12was on his way. Over the past 20+ years, Joel has relocated several times, and released a few beautifully-crafted solo CDs, before ending up in his current destination, Reno, Nevada. In Reno, he has found his ultimate partners, forming The Novelists in 2005. The current line-up has been together for three years now, and their new album, a double CD, is a triumphant success. The songs are, by turns, confessional, universal, introspective, and always passionately performed. I can’t really compare them to anyone, as they truly have their own sound. Ackerson has a uniquely-original voice, sounding unlike anyone I’ve ever heard (that’s a very good thing) and his co-leader, Eric Anderson, has a clear, magical voice that cuts and soars above every ornate arrangement. Together, along with a nonpareil rhythm section of bassist Zak Teran and drummer Justin Kruger, they’ve created an impressive album that stands – on this list, anyway – among the year’s best!

9 Look Park – Look Park

Look Park is a new band fronted by Fountains Of Wayne lead singer Chris Collingwood. Whether he’s moonlighting from FOW or gone for good, I’m not sure, but given his lookpark_lookpark_coverFountain’s partner Adam Schlessinger’s involvement with the new Monkees’ album, and the musical comedy TV show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, where he’s the musical director, it would seem that Collingwood has found a new home. Working in close company with legendary producer/arranger Mitchell Froom (Crowded House, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney and numerous others), Collingwood has crafted a near perfect pop album. Look Park is a little less “rock” than Fountains, with more keyboard layers in the production (thanks to Froom) and more melodic in overall approach. The result is one of the best pop albums of the year.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLDkrJFzxZU

10 Explorer’s Club – Together

Hailing from Charleston, South Carolina, The Explorer’s Club has made a name for gwhnpz2ithemselves in the underground pop scene with their dead-on homages to the Brian Wilson productions of the 60’s, blending ornate instrumentation with lush harmonies, they have sounded like the second coming of the boys from Hawthorne, CA. With this, their third long player, they move from the mid-sixties Beach Boys sound, to the late-60’s version, with what might as well be, their “Beach Boys – Friends” tribute. While they may not be entirely original, their songs are so evocative of the sixties heyday of vocal harmony bands like the Beach Boys, The Association and the Mamas & the Papas, it’s hard not to smile. Really beautiful stuff!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oe0RESujmqM

11 Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression

At 69, Iggy has stated in several places that this may be his final go-‘round. If that’s true, iggypop_cvr_sq-15e81c6017fb680dfa65663e00fb6a94d3f9de85-s300-c85he’s really going out on a high note! Producer Josh Homme (Queens Of The Stone Age) was a big fan of Iggy’s late-70’s collaborations with David Bowie (The Idiot & Lust For Life), and really wanted to capture that energy and feeling again; and he has, in impressive fashion! These songs are more melodic, and thoughtful than one would expect, given Iggy’s legendary reputation as the Godfather of Punk, but there is plenty of swagger – and humor –  to be sure, although that is tempered with a more mature presentation. If you haven’t paid attention to Iggy in a long time, this is the album you’ve been waiting for. Highly recommended!

12 Santana IV

I honestly haven’t cared about a Santana album in decades, probably since this original santana_iv_front_coverband was still together. The plan here, was to reunite Carlos Santana with the original line-up (Greg Rolie, Neal Schon, Michael Shrieve, etc) that made the first three Santana albums and see what happens. After all those Clive Davis-manufactured projects that paired Carlos with questionable young singers, I really doubted I would ever care about another one of his albums. I was wrong! Santana IV brings it all back home. It is a worthy successor to their Abraxas period, and a real joy to hear!

13 Elovators – The Cornerstone

While I’m certainly not the world’s biggest reggae fan (I own a total of two Bob Marley elovator-cd-coverrecords), I am a VERY big Nick Frenay fan, and this is one of four Boston-based bands that my son regularly performs with. Originally released last year as The Cornerstone, they changed their name (and re-released this album) last month due to legal threats from an English band with the same name. These guys are fantastic live, and have really strong material that you immediately find yourself singing along with. Nick does all the horns (his solo on the song linked to below, comes in at 3:10) and sings numerous background vocals. These guys are the real thing. So good! Available on Amazon & iTunes.

GF’s Top Ten Albums – 2015

Here’s my annual (mostly) geezer list of my top ten albums for 2015. It is a list that has no recognition of sales and/or chart position, instead relying on my own narrow musical tastes and undying affection for the music and artists of my youth. So sue me!

1 Bertolf – First & Then

t282658654-i1038966844_s400I discovered Dutch artist Bertolf in 2011 when a friend sent me a link to his stunning pop track, For Life. Loving great Pop AND being 50% Dutch myself, I was smitten. I wrote at length about this new album in a previous blog entry (https://garyfrenay.wordpress.com/2015/12/23/bertolf-dutch-treat/), so I’ll just say here that this is the most consistently accomplished album of the year for me. Nary a skip track, and one beautifully-written and performed track after another. Highly recommended!

2 Brian Wilson – No Pier Pressure

imgres-1Knowing no bigger Brian Wilson fan than myself, it almost goes without saying that this would be my most eagerly-awaited album of the year. I have seen Brian and his band live 6 times over the years, and have been anticipating this, his first release of all-new original material since 2008’s That Lucky Old Sun, for nearly three years. The album picks up where Brian left off on side two of the 2012 Beach Boys reunion CD, That’s Why God Made The Radio, with similar production but WAY better songs. When I first heard that he was using some young “hip” singers on the album (Nate Ruess, Zooey Deschanel, Kacey Musgraves & Sebu Simonian), I feared the worst kind of record company boardroom-intervention at work; i.e.: “Brian, what you need are some young stars to sing your songs so we can sell you to a new demographic.” Yikes! But in actual practice, it all works as smooth as silk. And when you think about Brian, in his heyday with Beach Boys, that’s what he was doing then; writing all the songs, but then using whichever voice he thought worked best (Al, Mike, Carl or Dennis) to sing the lead. This is such a beautiful record. I wish that anyone with even a passing interest in Brian Wilson would give it chance. A real gem!

3 Todd Rundgren – Global

urlMy love affair with Todd began 44 years ago this month with the release of his landmark album, Something/Anything? To say that I’ve followed every twist and turn of his constantly-changing career would be disingenuous on my part. I’ll admit that he lost me in the nineties when I heard him rapping on one album. Horrors! But with his stunning 2004 release, Liars, I fell back in love with Todd; and fell hard! I’ve seen him live three times since (in the last 8 years) and have eagerly looked forward to each of his past three releases; Arena (2008), State (2013) and now Global, released in April of this year. Although Todd’s current style could accurately be defined as EDM (Electronic Dance Music), it is so much more than that. The sense of joy, passion and humor that Todd brings to the project transcends all definition. There are many highlights, but one listen to Soothe, should hook anyone who has a heart.

4 Jeff Lynne’s ELO – Alone In The Universe

0888751451124_280_IDShot_3Another legacy artist who had been missing in action for over a decade is ELO’s Jeff Lynne. He semi-returned in 2012 with, not one, but, two “new” releases; a covers album of songs from the 50’s, Long Wave, and a note-for-note reworking of all his great ELO hits, Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra. For someone whose last new original work was the ELO album, Zoom (2001), these were NOT what I’d been waiting for. Thankfully, Lynne was just getting warmed up! Alone In The Universe is a welcome entry into Lynne’s ELO canon, with song after song of exquisitely-crafted Pop. The lyrics are nothing to write home about (where they ever?), but the music, his velvety voice and that singular production style of his, washes over you like a warm rain. Lynne breaks no new ground here, but with the hallowed musical landscape he created in the 70’s, I wouldn’t want him to. Welcome back Jeff!

5 Maura Kennedy – Villanelle

222_KennedyVillanelleI was lucky enough to share the stage with Maura and her multitalented husband/partner Pete at the 2014 Bright  Lights show which was a reunion of early-80s CNY bands. Maura and Pete led a band through a set that covered several local artists who could not be there; Dress Code, The Pop Tarts, The Tearjerkers, and My Sin. In the wake of the gig, I introduced Maura, via email, to My Sin’s songwriter, B.D. Love, who has lived in California for the past three decades. They hit it off right away, and – surprisingly – began to write songs together. Villanelle, is the result of that inspired collaboration: Love’s lyrics, set to music by Kennedy. The album features some of the best songwriting out of CNY that I’ve ever heard, marrying Love’s poetry with Kennedy’s innate sense of chords and melody, to create an unforgettable song cycle that has to be heard to be believed. 

6 Squeeze – Cradle To The Grave

squeezeThe return of Chris Difford & Glenn Tilbrook is one of the most underreported music stories of the year. Their first album of new material in 18 years was inspired by the Danny Baker memoir, Going To Sea In A Sieve. Tilbrook read the book and reached out to the author about turning it into a musical, only to find out it was already being turned into a TV series. He then reconnected with Difford and set about writing and recording this album, loosely based on the series. Cradle To The Grave has since become Squeeze’s highest-charting album (in England) ever! And deservedly so. One great song after another; lively, literate and oh so melodic. If you ever cared about this band, this is the  album you’ve been waiting for them to make!

7 Keith Richards – Crosseyed Heart

richards23f-1-webI’m not sure why, at this late date, I care about Keith Richard as a solo artist WAY more than Mick Jagger. As Jagger was always the frontman and lead singer of the Stones, logic would dictate that he would naturally draw more attention to his solo projects. But Richards just seems so much more authentic to me. And with this, his first solo album in 23 years, he has proved that. Richards spent years, on and off, recording this under the watchful eye of producer/partner Steve Jordan. Every song is a winner, with smart production choices all the way through. The biggest surprise here, given his rebel image, is that Richards has such a soft heart and such a serious gift for melody.

8 James Taylor – Before This World

814d4bMHYVL._SL1500_Like Squeeze, this was Taylor’s highest charting album of his career and, surprisingly, his first #1. After a decade of live, cover and Christmas albums, I thought maybe we had seen the last of James Taylor, the songwriter.  But Taylor delivers one fine song after another here, including the enchanting Angels Of Fenway, a tribute to the Red Sox team that finally won the World Series (in 2004) and to the long-suffering fans who loved them. Even this die-hard NY Yankees fan got teary-eyed listening to it, Thank you James!

9 Ron Sexsmith – Carousel One

ron7Another fine album of superlative, thoughtful pop music from the best songwriter that few have ever heard of, outside of his native Canada. Elvis Costello once referred to Sexsmith as the “songwriters’ songwriter,” and I would certainly second that. This, his 14th long player, doesn’t break any new ground, but why would you when you have songs this good and a voice this warm. Like James Taylor, the less surprises, the better.

10 Zombies – Still Got That Hunger

61JbRK9ZYkL._SY355_The return of Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone has been one of the sweeter stories in music of the 21st century. Starting in 2000, with their album, Out Of The Shadows (released under their own names), they have revived the Zombies name from the dead, touring regularly, and releasing three new CDs under the Zombies’ moniker. Their latest, Still Got That Hunger, is their strongest yet, with all the hallmarks of their classic sound intact.

Bertolf – Dutch Treat

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One of the greatest things about being a music fan is not only discovering a new artist, but turning friends on to that artist. Among my hardcore music friends, music is currency. And the more obscure – and cool – your new “find” is, the greater the value.

I first heard of Bertolf Lintink through a friend in early-2011. Being half-Dutch myself (my father was 100% Dutch), I’ve always been interested in hearing new Pop artists from The Netherlands.

A quick sidenote: I can still vividly recall standing in a Ben & Jerry’s in Amsterdam in 2008, when a gorgeous version of the Bacharach/David classic, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, came on the radio by a female artist I had never heard. As I stood there swooning, melting faster than the ice cream cone I was holding, I asked the owner of the store if he knew who was singing the song. He told me it was Dutch artist, Trijntje Oosterhuis. I asked him to write down the name for me, as I knew there was no way I was going to get it phonetically. I’ve since found over a half-dozen of her albums and they are all beautiful (her two Bacharach albums are must-hear for all Burt fans)!

21601630291_b42014b9cb_c.jpgWith Bertolf (he goes mainly by his first name), I was intrigued to hear a Dutch musician who embodied so many of the influences I had myself. He sounded to my ears a lot like Pete Ham, of Badfinger, with echoes of Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren and Eric Carmen thrown in for good measure. But the unique twist, was that he also had the guitar chops of the finest acoustic players I had ever heard: think Michael Hedges’ hands with McCartney’s head and you’ll start to get the idea.

The first song I heard, “For Life,” might still be my favorite pop song of the 21st century. It’s a deceptively simple-sounding song, that builds slowly with a looping Macca-esque bass line and 70’s throwback synths, over a lazy, pounding rhythm, to an utterly-climactic chorus that still lifts me out of my seat, every time I hear it. To say the least, I was hooked. I sent the YouTube link of the video for that song to everyone I knew, and turned quite a few on to this great new artist.

But I had to know more. And isn’t the internet a wonderful thing for that!

I little digging revealed that Bertolf, now 35, started out in a band called The Junes, quickly moving to a supporting role with platinum-selling Dutch country-rock artist Ilse DeLange. After several years with DeLange, he went solo in 2009 with the release of his first album, For Life. A single from that album, “Another Day,” reached #10 on the Dutch Top 40.  His follow-up album Snakes & Ladders (2010), yielded two top ten singles – “Two In A Million” (#2) and “Cut Me Loose” (#3) – and cruised to #11 on the album charts; a bona fide hitmaker!

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I was able to buy both of his albums on iTunes and I was hooked. For nearly two months that summer, I listened to nothing but Bertolf. With nary a skip track on either release, I’m hard-pressed to name another pop artist whose first two albums are this consistently good; maybe Eric Carmen.

Another sidenote: I also learned that we shared a similar passion for the Beatles. In 2009, to celebrate the release of the Beatles’ remasters, Bertolf and friends staged a rooftop concert in Amsterdam,  performing a concert of Beatles classics to an unsuspecting lunchtime crowd, much like the Fabs had done 40 years prior. More recently, one of his side projects is Her Majesty, a tribute band that will perform Deja Vu, by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in it’s entirety on a full-length concert tour this coming spring, starting in January 2016.

His third album, eponymously title Bertolf, appeared in 2012, with a bit of a shift in style. Gone, for the most part were the driving rhythms that propelled so many of the tunes on his first two albums, with drums sacrificed entirely on nearly half of the songs. The material, while still strong, was more varied in tone and temperament and I found myself, more often than not, going back to the first two albums for my Bertolf fix. That said, the song “Mary,” where the singer addresses the photo of his girlfriend’s dead mother, asking for her hand in marriage, is an incredibly sensitive lyric and a real beauty.

Bertolf’s newest album, First & Then was released in late-September of this year and has been on continuous repeat on my iPod ever since.t282658654-i1038966844_s400  It is the perfect marriage of the power and scope of his first two albums, with the more introspective elements of his third. And the songs are his strongest, and most mature writing yet. Stylistically, he has found a way to combine his virtuoso finger-picking talents with his deeper pop sensibilities. The result is one of the richest pop albums of the past ten years. And while I could extol the virtues of every song here – all winners – I’ll just highlight four.

“Jericho” was the first single from the new album, drawing inspiration from the biblical story of Joshua storming the walls of Jericho for ultimate victory. But when he sings:

I’ll lay siege to you, I will starve the guard, seven times I’ll march around your heart, and I’ll give a shout, when the horns will blow, till your walls come down

it sounds like the battle of Jericho is a metaphor for capturing the heart of his beloved. And when, at 1:30, Bertolf breaks the mood with a bridge full of na-na-na’s, it is a truly sublime pop moment like something you might expect from McCartney or Brian Wilson. He is innately tuneful in the way that the greatest songsmiths are.

In “Billy’s Boots,” a broken and nearly-defeated protagonist looks in the mirror and assesses his failures while wishing for a little luck to change his fortunes. Here Bertolf refers to the title character from the popular 60’s British comic strip, Billy’s Boots. In the strip, Billy inherited a pair of magic boots from his grandfather that, when worn, changed his fortunes from bad to good; an apt metaphor for a broken down man.

Oh, my ever-swinging moods, I wish I had Billy’s Boots, that could show me where to be.

Bertolf also addresses aging in the beautiful song, “Wrinkles.” Over a delicate finger-picked guitar pattern that compares favorably to Paul Simon’s on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme, he addresses his own image (in the mirror?), and looks inward with his most poetic lyrics on the album:

And the moon it rose high, as I was sleeping, and the summers quietly went by, there’s a train that I rode, as I was running, and these wrinkles, grew around my eyes… overnight.

The production on this track is stunning, from a bed of haunting strings under the constant acoustic guitar pattern and plaintive vocal, to the spare train-like drumming under an evocative Chris Botti-like trumpet solo over the fade. Perfection!

My first favorite track on the album is still, after over 20 plays (thank you iTunes play counter!), “Fool All The People;” the only overtly-political song on the album; although several others have somewhat-veiled social meanings. Set in 6/8 time, it musically evokes – to my ears – the Gene Pitney classic, “Town Without Pity”, while still sounding totally modern. The lyrics reveal the singer’s feelings of being lost in the system:

We’re just numbers and figures in the bigger picture, pawns in the game, and we were deceived, led to believe, we could choose these things in democracy, you mess with our minds, but you must know, you can’t fool all the people all the time

while the music soars! Through several modulations, the melody climbs, finally finishing in Roy Orbison fashion with the highest note of the song. Dramatic, emotional and very memorable!

In a year that has seen several of my favorite legacy artists (Brian Wilson, James Taylor, Keith Richards & Jeff Lynne, to name a few) release long-awaited new albums, Bertolf’s First & Then gets my vote for Album of the Year.

A true Dutch treat!

Last sidenote: YouTube is the ultimate source for music and a great way to experience Bertolf’s music. A quick search will yield dozens of live and studio clips of the artist at work; all highly recommended!

30 Bands I’ve Shared The Stage With

GF AS back pic

Ok, I’ll bite. While I’ve always been a bit wary of musicians who are inveterate name-droppers, this latest Facebook-meme craze got me thinking about my own long musical history, and of the many great acts I’ve been lucky enough to share the stage with. Friends and fans will regularly bring up many of these shows to me in conversation, and they are always great shared memories. With that is mind, here is my list, with my own short recollections.

1) Bulldog – Shoreline, Liverpool, NY (1972)

When my high school band, Fieldstone (Charlie Robbins, Dana Klipp, Charlie Heimermann & Frank Caputo) got this gig, it was the high point of all of our lives up to that point. Bulldog was a new band on Decca with a minor hit, No, (#44 on Billboard). But what thrilled us was the fact that Gene Cornish & Dino Danelli of the Young Rascals were in the band. GF Fieldstone bass 1 copy

Only 4 years removed from their last Rascals’ hits, these guys were still major rock stars to us. I don’t remember much about our own set, but I still vividly recall standing at the side of the stage and not being able to take my eyes off of Dino Danelli; to this day, still the one of the greatest drummers I’ve ever seen. Quick note about the Shoreline: three months later, in Feb 1973, I saw the Raspberries there, on the same day that my future-Flashcubes bandmate Tommy Allen saw them. Our first of many great shared rock & roll experiences!

2) Ramones/The Runaways – The Brookside, DeWitt, NY (1978)

37940_151902768180056_828311_nIn what was supposed to be our big break (according to Brookside owner Si Sifer), the Flashcubes (Paul Armstrong, Arty Lenin & Tommy Allen) opened for both bands in a very memorable triple bill. The Runaways were all still in their teens and escorted by legendary indie rock impressario/writer Greg Shaw (Bomp Magazine), and The Ramones still had Tommy Ramone on drums (the only one of five gigs we played with them, when he was there). 37940_151902741513392_3622967_nThe Runaways were impressive, in their own unskilled, sloppy way, and the Ramones were simply stunning. We had never seen anything like them; one song after another, bam, bam, bam, bam! Like  a machine gun! We would play with them four more time over the next two years. In Poughkeepsie, later that same year, their fans threw sandwiches at us during our set (although we did get to hang with them backstage and hear stories about their recent sessions with legendary rock producer Phil Spector, very cool!). And the following year, we shared the bill with them AND their new movie, Rock & Roll High School, which was screened in between our sets.

3) The Jam – Four Acres, Utica, NY (1978)

Jam flyer37940_151902744846725_6373083_nOpening for Paul Weller & company was one of the early jewels in our crown as the Flashcubes. They were truly one of the greatest acts in the early British New Wave scene, and were really strong live. Weller, especially, was an obvious force to be reckoned with; a really compelling performer. The show felt like a real punk show, with kids pressed up against the stage. I recall someone knocking Arty’s microphone into his teeth. Ouch! The band was managed by Weller’s father, John, and they all had such thick working-class English accents that they were nearly unintelligible. Hard to talk to because of that!

4) Police – Firebarn, Syracuse, NY (1978)

When we opened for The Police at the Firebarn, they had one import single out, and were traveling around the States in a van doing dates for $200 a night. 1661764_624577287579266_1194927243_nLocal promoter Chuck Chao had us open because we had a following and he knew they would at least have someone to play to. They also played through our PA which, in retrospect, is laughable. And yet they were amazing! It was one of the only times in my life where I’ve watched a band and just known they were going to be huge. 37940_151902761513390_1465587_nTo a man, Sting, Andy & Stewart were ALL brilliant. When we played with them 6 months later, their first US LP was out, and Roxanne was on the radio. Instead of the 75 people who came the first time, they now had a crowd of over 600 people stuffed into Uncle Sam’s. Just three short years later, they sold out the Carrier Dome (over 30,000 people), and actually asked from the stage, “how many people saw us at the Firebarn?”  Wow!

5) Romantics – The Firebarn, Syracuse, NY(1978)

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In the Romantics, from Detroit, we found our kindred spirits. Both four-piece guitar bands, we shared so many influences, and we played together nearly a dozen times in Syracuse, Detroit and in New York City. They were always way more professional than us, with a real “act” onstage, and, more importantly, real management offstage. But we always got along great with them. We probably spent more times with the Romantics than any other band of that era, even linking up with them again, years later – as Screen Test – to play a gig with them in 1983 when they were riding high with their #3 hit song, Talking In Your Sleep.

6) Artful Dodger – Stage East, East Syracuse, NY (1979)

Along with Badfinger, Raspberries and Big Star, Artful Dodger was one of our Power Pop forefathers. scan73784stgpsThe Flashcubes had a way of selling local promoters (basically, Chuck Chao) on the marketability of our favorite bands, so that they would book them, and we could get to share the stage with them. That was the back story of this one. Not many people came (sorry, Chuck), but it was a real treat to meet them and to finally get to see them live. They were a really strong live band, and they were super nice to us.

7) David Johansen – Slide Inn, Syracuse, NY (1979)

I had seen the New York Dolls on a bill with Aerosmith and Mott The Hoople in Rochester in 1973, so getting to play with the Doll’s former lead singer, Johansen, was a real treat. 220px-In_Style_(album)He was an amazing frontman and performer, and his band, unlike The Dolls, were extremely tight. But like The Dolls, they were loaded with energy and they totally ROCKED! A very memorable night for all who were there.

8) The Records, Walnut Park, Syracuse University, NY 1979    SU block party pass  The Records clipping                 The Records were riding high with local airplay for their singles Teenarama & Starry Eyes when we opened for them at a big outdoor block party at SU.GF SU block party AL SU block party TA SU block party MW SU block party   We bonded heavily with them as we were both proudly waving the Power Pop banner. They even came to see us later that night at our own show at the Slide Inn. We would cross paths with some of them again in the coming years.

9) Joe Jackson – Landmark Theater, Syracuse, NY (1979)

Landmark Joe Jackson passOne of the first big opening gigs we did with new Flashcubes’ member Mick Walker. Really thrilling, being onstage at the Landmark in front of over 2,000 people. We had joined Joe two times earlier that year at Uncle Sam’s (Syracuse) and the Red Creek (Rochester). He was always a little prickly (although extremely talented), but his band were super friendly guys, especially bassist Graham Maby.

10) Pat Benetar – Uncle Sam’s, DeWitt, NY (1979)

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Our first gig with Pat (& guitarist and future spouse Neil Geraldo) was on New Year’s Eve 1979, for a WAQX-95X event. Sold out and really fun. We joined them again a few weeks later at Toad’s Place in New Haven, CT, a great showcase club. They were an impressive live band and very nice to work with. It was no surprise to any of us when she became huge over the coming years, Couldn’t have happened to nicer people and well-deserved!

11) U2 – City Limits, East Syracuse, NY (1981)

Our first big opener as Screen Test (Arty Lenin & Tommy Allen). When we played with U2, they had one single out, I Will Follow, and their first LP had just been released. Like the Police, they were very impressive live. ST kodalith studioDefinitely an act you thought could be huge and, of course they were/are. Unlike most acts I’ve opened for, we did NOT meet the boys from Dublin. Their management ushered us out of the dressing room before U2 even got off the bus. We got no closer to them than anyone in the crowd did. Still great to see in that small-club setting.

12) Squeeze – Auburn Star Theater, Auburn, NY (1982)68440_247579468745432_1230163281_nThis might’ve been our high point as Screen Test. Squeeze was riding high with hit MTV videos for Tempted and Black Coffee In Bed, and we had just been on the MTV Basement Tapes with our video for my song, You Don’t Know Me. Small theatre, huge crowd and one of the best receptions we ever got as an opener. And Squeeze, bless them, actually pushed us back out on stage for an encore, something very few headliners would ever do. Very memorable!

13) Graham Parker – Lost Horizon, Syracuse, NY (1983)LostHorizonJust a few years removed from his Rumor days, Parker was doing clubs and promoting his then-new LP, The Real Macaw. He was a really strong live performer with one great song after another and a really good live band that included our old friend, Hugh Gower, the left-handed guitarist from the Records.

14) Marshall Crenshaw – Lost Horizon, Syracuse, NY (1985)

Crenshaw was touring in support of his third LP, Downtown, with a band that included another old friend, Joe Jackson’s bassist, Graham Maby. Crenshaw was my favorite songwriter at that time, and it was a real treat for Screen Test (Arty Lenin, Tommy Allen & Jim Carney) to share the bill with him. Screen Test - studio squareWe had crossed paths with Marshall before, most memorably at a showcase for both of us at Trax in NYC in 1981 (before Jim joined the band) when we were both trying to get a record deal. Crenshaw had played first that night, and I clearly remember looking out and seeing legendary music executive Clive Davis in the audience and thinking “This is it, this is the night we get signed!” But as Crenshaw’s set ended, Davis and his entourage, all got up and left the club. Oh well…

15) Bryan Setzer – Lost Horizon, Syracuse, NY (1986)ST LH dressing roomAfter the break up of the Stray Cats, and a year spent as the band leader for Robert Plant’s Honeydrippers, Setzer had released a solo album, The Knife Feels Like Justice, and was hitting the clubs to promote it. It was the only time I ever saw Setzer live and he was great. A real performer, and what a guitar player!

16) David Bromberg – Auburn Star Theater, Auburn, NY (1987)

It was a real thrill to be asked to open for Bromberg, a longtime major label recording artist, and to do it – not as a band – but as an acoustic duo. 10397118_297526037084108_5646634647277569528_o

This was the first time Arty & I had ever done our duo in such a large setting. We went over great and Bromberg was a real down-to-earth guy to work with.

17) Jerry Seinfeld – BT Nightlife, North Syracuse, NY (1987)

SEINFELD -- Pictured: Jerry Seinfeld as Jerry Seinfeld (Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

A year before Seinfeld developed his groundbreaking sitcom for NBC, he was still working the comedy clubs and somehow, we ended up on the same bill with him at this short-lived venue. They had the idea of pairing live duos with comics. Yeah, that’ll work! I remember finishing our set, and standing at the bar watching Seinfeld, who I’d seen on TV (Letterman, maybe), and thinking, what a hard life; telling jokes to a tiny crowd on a Thursday night in the middle of nowhere. Little did I know what was on the horizon for him!

18) Peter Tork – China Club, New York, NY (1988)

Our Flashcubes/Screen Test drummer Tommy Allen moved to NYC in late-1986 and started working at the China Club. Peter-Tork-takes-a-soloWe spent many memorable nights there over the next few years, but none more-so, than the night Peter Tork, from the Monkees, sat in with us (Mickey Dolenz was there too, but was too tired to join in). After showing us his arrangement in the office/dressing room, he joined us onstage for a rousing rendition of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode sequel, Johnny Too Bad. Actually playing in NYC with one of the Monkees; what a trip!

19) Nils Lofgren – Lost Horizon, Syracuse, NY (1990)581788_226683190835060_1374549548_nAnother opener as a duo, for Nils, who touring as a solo. I owned every LP Lofgren ever put out (even the Grin records) so it was a great to be sharing the bill with him. He was so good live, just a wonderful performer. And super nice to us. Always nice when that happens!

20) Bobcat Goldthwait, Tom Kenny & Adam Sandler – Landmark Theater, Syracuse, NY (1991)  

 c480x270_47 ccsu_pbl_02_2002_04 hqdefaultOne of my oddest openers was actually a closer. This comedy show paired CNY local-boys-made-good, Goldthwait and Kenny, with newcomer (he was just starting on SNL at the time) Adam Sandler. After Goldthwait’s headlining set (Sandler actually was the opener), he came back out for an encore. The curtain, which had been closed throughout the show, opened to reveal an entire band set-up, and Arty & I, and several members of Tom Kenny’s old band, the Tearjerkers (Charlie Robbins, Mark Rotundo & Larry Dziergas). We launched into U2’s With Or Without You, while Bobcat did a spot-on Bono impersonation, complete with a banner on a pole that he waved like a true, iconic rock star while the place went nuts!. After that, Kenny led the band through Eddie Cochran’s 20 Flight Rock (with Goldthwait now on guitar), and that was the finale. Truly one of my all-time favorite performance memories!

21) Aztec Two-Step – Copperfields, Syracuse, NY (1991)

My first solo opener. Even though they were long past their initial commercial impact, Aztec Two-Step were a wonder to behold. 11013216_432990883537622_4256390645978243204_nI remember telling friends at the time that I couldn’t imagine any duo being better. The way their voices and guitars blended was amazing. Arty & I have gotten many compliments over the years for our duo, and they are always greatly appreciated. But for my money, there is no finer duo than Rex and Neil.

22) Ani DiFranco – The Zodiac, Syracuse, NY (1992)

Jon Notarthomas & I hosted a singer-songwriter showcase at the Zodiac (which later became Styleen’s Rhythm Palace), where we featured regional and local songwriters in an unplugged setting. Ani_DiFranco_-_Ani_DiFrancoIt was a weekly show that was an enormous amount of work to arrange, but was ultimately rewarding. One of our major coups was booking a 21-year-old singer from Buffalo, Ani DiFranco, who had started her own label, Righteous Babe Records, when she was just 18. With two cassette LP’s to her name, she played for us twice in 1992. Like seeing the Police in 1978, Ani’s talent was undeniable. Her playing, writing and singing were all world class. It never surprised me when she went on to such a successful career. She was that good!

23) Stephen Stills – Symphony Hall, Syracuse, NY (1993)

This was the first major opening show I did after the release of my first solo CD, Armory Square. f1993-21I was a huge fan of Crosby, Stills & Nash, and was thrilled to get the gig. But as I sat and watched Stills do his soundcheck, a lot of that faded. His voice seemed shattered, and he was rearranging all of his songs, kind of like Bob Dylan does. Then backstage (actually downstairs) I was hanging with his bandmates (who were all very friendly) when he finally came through. His drummer, Jamie Oldaker (who I knew of as playing on Eric Clapton records) introduced me to Stills, who gave me a wet fish handshake, made no eye contact, and barely acknowledged me before moving on to his dressing room. Talk about a slap in the face. Sometimes the smallest interaction can turn a hero into a hero-no-more.

24) Catie Curtis – Cafe Lena, Saratoga, NY (1994)

Catie may be a lesser-known name on this list, but her talent is up there with any of them. After the release of my first solo CD, Armory Square, I was asked to be a part of Alan Rowoth’s Internet Quartet tour which presented 28 emerging New Folk singer-songwriters in an “in the round” format of seven foursomes, touring throughout the northeast. f1996-11It was on this tour that I caught the ear of Gary Brody of Tangible Music, and was signed to his label for both of my solo albums. My quartet was myself with Jim Infantino, Maria Sangiolo and Catie. As the dates went on, we learned each others songs and occasionally joined in for impromptu performances. I fell in love with Catie’s songs, and ended up recording Troubled Mind, on my second CD (Jigsaw People), with her joining me on harmony vocal.

25) Don McLean – Landmark Theater, Syracuse, NY  (2001)

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I remember missing my 30th high school reunion because I was opening for McLean at this show; certainly the best excuse I could’ve come up with! Arty & I played as a duo and went over really well to a nearly sold out crowd. McLean was supportive and friendly, and still a formidable presence onstage with a well-known songlist and a voice that soared. Very impressive!

26) Tom Rush – Everson Museum, Syracuse, NY (2001)

GF & Tom Rush 3I’ve performed Tom Rush’s versions of Urge For Going & No Regrets for years, so it was a real thrill to share the stage with him. A real listening crowd at the Everson (one of the true joys of folk shows), that was very welcoming to me as the opening act.

27) Badfinger – Holiday Inn Ballroom, Liverpool, NY (2004)
DSC00031Like Peter Tork and Bobcat Goldthwait, this was a situation where we not only opened for the main act as the Fab Five (Paul Davie, Arty Lenin, Dave Novak & Dave Miller), but we actually played with them, becoming, for one night only, a Syracuse version of Badfinger, backing up original member Joey Molland. As lifelong Beatles’ fans, playing with Badfinger was about as close as you could come to playing with the Fab Four. They were on Apple Records, after all! Joey was wonderful to work with and a pro in every respect. The show was sold out, and over 1,000 people got to see us actually BE in Badfinger for one night. One of our biggest thrills ever!

28) Eddie & The Hot Rods – Knitting Factory, New York, NY (2008)

We have a friend who refers to the Flashcubes as the band that refuses to die. The fact that we got to do this show – 31 years on from our inception – seems to be proof of that. DSC00012At our very first show in 1977, we did two songs by Eddie & The Hot Rods (Get Across To You & Get Out Of Denver, trivia buffs), so what an experience to pair up with Barry Masters & co all these years later. We also recorded their rock anthem, Do Anything You Wanna Do, on our 2001 album, Brilliant. The sets by both bands were loud, fast, and raucous, just as they should be. What a night!

29) Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – Chevy Court, NYS Fair, Syracuse, NY (2008)

In another date that harkens back to our early history (see #2 above), Arty & I did an acoustic opener for former Runaway and recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Joan Jet. 53e18af8dde80.imageWe did all originals, and actually spotted a few Flashcubes fans in the crowd. I wonder if they had been at the Brookside, all those year ago? Although we didn’t get any face time with Joan Jett this time, she and her band were sensational!

30) Mark Hudson & Gene Cornish – Landmark Theater, Syracuse, NY (2015)P1050892As part of our former-Fab-Five-bandmate Paul Davie’s BeatleCUSE show, we got to do our own thing, opening the show as the FabCats (Arty Lenin, Dave Novak & Dave Miller), and then sing on the second set presentation of Abbey Road, performed in its entirety. If that wasn’t enough, we got to join in the finale which featured Mark Hudson (Hudson Brothers, Ringo Starr & Aerosmith collaborator) and Gene Cornish (The Rascals). Hudson led the band through several rock & roll classics, and then stepped aside to let Cornish guide us through the Rascals’ #1 hit, Good Lovin. All these years on (I turned 62 that night), to be playing to over a thousand people with a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, (Cornish) and a musical hero who actually worked with Ringo for over a decade (Hudson) was just about as good as it gets.

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And the symmetry of opening and closing this long list with Gene Cornish (Bulldog, #1 & Rascals, #30) seems perfect. Gene is an upstate guy too, originally hailing from Rochester, NY. And our paths had crossed in between these two shows when he would join us onstage at the China Club in NYC in the late-80s for several late-night jam sessions. Always a down-to-earth guy, Cornish exemplifies, for me, the career musician. He never stopped playing. Sometimes in the limelight, and sometimes not. But always ready to head out the door for another gig with his guitar in his hand.

As a kid, I never dreamed of becoming famous. I only dreamed of playing music for a living, which I’ve managed to do now for the better part of four decades. And while playing music is a great way to make a living, it’s not a way to make a great living. But if you’re willing to live with less, it makes for the best life I can imagine.

And who would argue, with a list like this?

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Frenays’ Greek Odyssey

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Introduction

My wife, Jackie, has worked at Syracuse University since 1987 in the Study Abroad office. As a student at SU in 1978, she spent a semester abroad in London, and now, as an employee, she helps current students realize the same great experience.

One of the great perks of her job is that she and her fellow employees take turns escorting student groups to SU programs in London, England; Madrid, Spain; Strasbourg, France; Florence, Italy; Beijing, China; Santiago, Chile and several other exotic locales. As a result, we have been to London (twice), Florence (twice), and, last fall, took part in a traveling seminar throughout Germany, Poland and Austria. Jackie has also, on her own, been to Madrid and China.

This year, we are traveling as part of group who whose ultimate destination is a semester in Florence, Italy. But before that begins, they embark on an intensive 9-day traveling seminar of the Greek Isles and mainland where they will see, firsthand, the ruins of ancient temples, palaces and – in some cases – entire cities. We are along for the ride.

The seminar is designed and led by a former director of the SU Florence center and current professor, Alick McLean. Along with being the fastest walker in Europe (pant!), McLean is knowledgeable on nearly every topic we will encounter, and is a gifted and energetic teacher who – in action – is a sight to behold. On the seminar he is ably-assisted by an SU/Florence graduate assistant, Jean Chapman, and a native Greek tour guide, Rhea Skourta of HERC (Hellenic Education & Research Center).

Weins w:Alick & Jean

Each of the 23 students have had the summer to complete extensive reading assignments, conduct independent research on a related topic of their choosing, and prepare an oral presentation that will be delivered at the various sites we visit; in effect, the most amazing classrooms ever!

Day One: Travel to Chania, Crete

I’ve always maintained that my two trips to Japan with the Flashcubes in 2002 & 2012 were the most arduous I’ve undertaken – until today. We left Arlington Ave (my home in Syracuse) at 4:00 a.m., for a 5:30 flight to NYC. We then had a 9-hour layover there (SU takes no chances on not having their escorts on site in time to check in all of the students), before flying to Rome, Italy, which took about 8 hours. After another 4-hour layover in Rome, we flew 2 hours to Athens, Greece. With yet another 2-hour layover in Athens, we took one last one-hour flight to Chania, Crete, our ultimate destination. With 28 straight hours of travel, we could’ve flown to Japan from NYC – AND BACK –  in that time! This was a level of fatigue I didn’t even know was possible. 

We arrived at our hotel around 6:00 p.m. Crete time, checked in, unpacked, and had to meet in the lobby 30 minutes later for a quick walking tour (yeah, I really want to walk now) of the area. Chania (pronounced Han-ya) is the site of so much ancient Greek history, and an important port on the north shore of the island of Crete. The city is built around the port (Il Porto de Crete), and resembles Portofino Bay in Italy, with colorful shops and restaurants packed tightly in a ring around the bay. The city walls, built many centuries before, are still visible in places. Also prevalent are several churches and mosques, all – seemingly – peacefully coexisting. 

Chania

Our evening’s main and final activity will be a group dinner on the Port, at a very authentic Cretan restaurant. The meal is served family style with dish after dish arriving, including Greek salad, veal meatballs, roasted chicken, cheese and eggplant wrapped in bacon (is there anything that can NOT be wrapped in bacon?), stuffed mushrooms, and numerous other dishes. Really good! We made our way back to our room stopping for gelato along the way (VERY good), and finally called it a night at around 11:00 p.m. Wow!

Day Two: Exploring Chania

When you travel as long as we did yesterday, you always fear that evil jet lag thing where, despite immense fatigue, you wake up in the middle of the night and cannot get back to sleep; didn’t happen! Slept the sleep of the dead until 7:00 a.m. 

Following a quick breakfast in the hotel (with fresh squeezed orange juice, wow!) we headed out to our first stop, the Chania Museum of Antiquity. The students are doing a unit on Minoan Culture, which ended around 1450 BC, and this allows them a first-hand look at the remains of that civilization. I’m not a big fan of wall after wall of old vases, but there were some very interesting things including incredibly-ornate marble figurines and smaller-than-a-dime gold coins that were placed in the mouths of the dead to pay safe passage of their souls to Charon (in Greek mythology, Charon was the ferryman of Hades who carried souls of the newly-deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron, that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead).

After a few hours there, we walked (our major form of transport) about a half mile to the Nautical Museum of Crete where we saw the actual ship that sailed the Aegean Sea in 2004. It is a recreation of a ship from Minoan time, that was built as an experiment to prove that – with primitive tools and materials – the Minoans could have travelled throughout the Mediterranean Seas. As a kid, I loved Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, where he did much the same thing, constructing a boat using ancient methodology, and sailing it from South America to the South Sea Islands to prove how that area was settled. So, for me, this was fascinating to see!

Maritime

With a quick break at a local market (that included the best chocolate croissant I’ve ever had!), we walked back to our hotel to regroup and ready ourselves for an afternoon expedition to Knossos, the ruins of a great Minoan Palace from 12 BC.  It is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and is considered Europe’s oldest city. Some of the palace has been rebuilt (no more than 20%, standards dictate), to help visitors imagine what it was like when intact. It is an impressive place, to say the least, with majestic stone staircases, a now-visible subterranean water system, and a grand stone outdoor amphitheater, also still intact. The hardest part of the day here though, was the combination of heat and fatigue. Pretty substantial on both counts. 

     Knossos  Knossos 2We made our way back to the hotel in the afternoon, with about an hour to pack and get on the bus for a 2-hour ride to Heraklion. The drive was stunning as we hugged the coast, heading east to our next stop. With endless blue sea to your left and mountains to your right, it was like Big Sur on steroids. The most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen.

Landscape

After a quick check-in at our new hotel, we headed out for another group meal. This one was even better with Dacos (a tasty Greek version of bruschetta), Saganaki (fried Cretan cheese), and stuffed peppers (with a very creamy cheese). The Greeks, like the Italians, like to eat late, and long. Our dinner began shortly after 7:30, and we finally made our exit at 11:00; and we were the first to leave. We found out the next morning that some in our party stayed until after 1:00 a.m, as the restaurant owner kept bringing out more wine and desserts. Wow!

Day Three: Heraklion, Crete 

We left the hotel on foot (again!) at around 8:00 a.m. to be at the Heraklion Museum of Antiquity when it opened. This was more impressive than the Chania Museum with a very large collection of vases, weapons, household goods and frescoes from ancient times. Some really interesting things to see.

After two hours there, we walked back to the hotel and boarded our bus for our second palace in ruins, Festos (Gr: Phaistos). This one had not been reconstructed, but was still very impressive to see with the outlines of grand stone rooms, stairways and colonnades. The sun was unbearable, so I retreated to the shade as often as possible.

Our reward for all that dusty heat, was a trip to the most spectacular beach I’ve ever seen at Matala. The beach is ringed by stone walls that are dotted with natural caves that one can climb to and explore, which we, of course, did.

        Beach 2  Cave

The place was rocking with many end-of-summer tourists and locals, alternately drenching themselves in the pristine waters and baking in the sun. 

Beach 1

We also had lunch w/Alick, Rhea & Jean at a beautiful Greek family restaurant that sat atop the far west cliffs, overlooking the beach with a very dramatic view. The food was wonderful with Briam (Greek ratatouille), fresh salad (Greek tomatoes are unparalleled) and spinach pies. After copious amounts of food and drink (white wine) we made our way back down to the beach to meet up with the students at the bus, and head back to the hotel.

The evening was a rare free night, so Jackie & I wandered the market area on our own, shopping, people-watching and grabbing walk-away crepes, which are deliciously-filling, and available everywhere! 

Day Four: Santorini

My oldest brother, Bob, was a writer, researcher, a self-avowed old hippie, and an avid world traveller. On one of his many treks, he connected our family to lost relatives in the Netherlands. He had been all over Europe, the United Kingdom, and even Northern Africa, but always maintained that the most stunning place on earth was the Greek island of Santorini, where he had vacationed with his bride-to-be Hanya, in 2005. In late 2006, Bob was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died in early 2007. We had many long bedside chats when he was ailing, and, on one very memorable one, he told my other brother, David, and me, that we HAD to see Santorini before we died. It was a very special place to him, and he wanted to share that with us.

Eight years later, when this trip became a possibility, I scanned the previous year’s itinerary to see if maybe Santorini was on it; alas, it was not. But when Jackie came home in early-August with the updated itinerary, Santorini had magically been added. My heart leapt! Because of the expense of accommodations for 27 people in what is still the high season for tourism, it was prohibitive financially to stay overnight there. So what we ended up doing amounted to the tourists’ version of a drive-by shooting: we boarded a ferry in the port of Heraklion at 8:30 a.m., and at 11:00, landed on Santorini. Just 4 hours later, we would be boarding another ferry away from Santorini and headed for mainland Greece, our next destination. 

Until you actually see it, Santorini is almost impossible to describe. The original full-size island was destroyed by one of the most massive earthquakes in the history of the world in 1,500 BC. What was left was a ring of mountains and mini-islands, surrounding a deep sunken bay where the ships come in. If you saw the aerial view, it would look like a donut with a bite taken out of it! But to get up to where the towns are, you have to drive up the steepest, most treacherous mountain road I’ve ever seen. How our bus driver, Nikos, managed to steer our vehicle back and forth around the hairpin turns required to scale the mountain was a thing of beauty; honestly, like something out of a James Bond movie. 

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When you finally get to the top, there are sun-bleached white buildings, narrow roads, and acres and acres of ground grapes that can grow flat on the field – as opposed to being trellised – because of the volcanic soil, and produce a very fine white wine (more on that later). 

The reason Santorini is on the itinerary is that it is the home of Akrotiri, one of the most amazing archaeological sites in the world. It is a complete city, like Pompei, that was discovered in 1967, and is still an active dig. Our time there was brief, but the place is truly unforgettable. It has been set up with bridges and walkways that run throughout the site and allow the visitor to traverse the entire roofed-over area. You could see streets, houses, the town hall, storage rooms, and even frescos – still intact – on some of the walls. After three ruins in three days, this was my favorite. Just an amazing place to see.

       Akritori 2 Akritori 1

We left after just over an hour, and bussed into the main town, Thiera. Perched on the very highest terrain (1,000 feet above the port where we arrived), it is the main tourist mecca of the island. It seems that every home, shop, restaurant and hotel is the same sun-bleached white, with narrow cobblestone streets and a spectacular view that simply boggles the mind. All along the main drag, restaurants, hotels and homes are built into the cliffs that overlook the bay – what seems like – miles below. The view of the water and the cliffs below is – I’m told – unmatched anywhere in the world. Hard to disagree.

Thiera 1

We wandered through several narrow alleys to a little eatery that Alick had found on a previous visit, Restaurant Nikolae, where the owner greeted us warmly. Our wonderful meal included stuffed zucchini, Imam (eggplant with tomato), lamb with lemon, and our (now) usual appetizers of stuffed peppers, Tzatziki (yogurt dip) and Saganaki (fried cheese) – along with two cold carafes of their locally-produced white wine (delicious). When we asked Nikolae if he took credit cards, he replied, “Cash only; our banks are in the toilet.” A brief, but accurate, summary of the current economic problems Greece is facing.

We all reconvened at the bus for another harrowing ride, this time down the steep hill where we boarded a ferry again at 3:30 for a 5-hour ride to the port of Athens, Piraeus (and yet another bus ride to Nafplia, where we would check into our hotel near midnight).

      ST 4b  ST 3As the ferry pulled away, I couldn’t help looking back at the cliffs of Santorini, and thinking of a promise fulfilled to my brother, and a memory that will last a lifetime for me. Thank you, Bob.

Day Five: Mycenae

We began what would be the the longest day of our trip with a visit to the Treasure of Atreus, a remarkably intact tomb that looks like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. The tomb is built out of stones, but built into the side of a small hill. From behind it, you are not even aware of its presence.  But, from below, there is a grand entry after a long passageway of large square stones.

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That leads into the door. Once inside, it’s an immense domed structure that takes your breath away. Measuring 44’ high and 47′  in diameter, you can’t help but wonder how something this grand in scale could’ve been built in such comparatively primitive times. In fact, the large lintil stone over the entryway is the largest one in the history of all architecture, weighing over 120 tons. It is a mystery still how it was put in place. Kind of like Stonehenge.

IMG_0473From there we moved to the Palace of Mycenae with its grand entrance that features the Lions Gate, a huge black stone carving that is now part the logo for the film company of the same name (producer of the high-grossing Twilight & Hunger Game’s film series).

Like many of the ruins we visit, Mycenae is high on a hill, and to reach it you have to scale a seemingly endless string of rising, winding walkways that take you to the top of the site. An arduous trek to say the least, but worth it to see the remains of such magnificent palace grounds, complete with its own burial site.

Mycenae

Today is a triple header, of sorts, as we are actually visiting three great sites, the third being Epidaurus, which was a great spa and medical facility in ancient times. Also on the site is huge stone amphitheater that was built in the 4th century BC, and is now – again – a working theater that seats 14,000 people.

Theater

We are, in fact, holding tickets for tonight’s performance of the great Greek tragedy, Orestes, by Euripides. While it was not the picture of comfort sitting on stone for several hours, the experience of seeing this great Greek tragedy, in this setting, is absolutely unforgettable.

Day Six – Bassae & Olympia

Another VERY long day on an excursion jam-packed with them. Our hotel wake-up call was for 6:30, and we downed a quick breakfast (all the hotels offer continental breakfast), and loaded all our bags onto the bus for a 3-hour drive to Bassae and the Temple of Apollo. The shrine is perched high in the Peloponnesean Mountains and, to get there, nearly two hours of our trip was spent zigzagging our way up impossibly-narrow mountain roads; the use of Dramamine was prevalent!

     Bassae tent  Bassae temple

When we arrived at the very peak of the mountain, there, shrouded in an immense tent-like structure, was Apollo’s temple. Our host for the day was the head archaeologist, Konstantinos Papadopoulos, whose resume included many years working on the Acropolis in Athens.  He and his wife, also an archaeologist, are leading a team of workers who are restoring what Papadopoulos calls “the most unique site in the world.” It is unique because, despite being rediscovered in ruins in the 1700s, nearly all of the pieces are there. The restoration team has built an ingenious infrastructure of cranes and hydraulic lifts around the temple to facilitate lifting and positioning pieces of walls, flooring and columns that weigh many tons each, into place. It amounts to assembling an epic-scale jigsaw puzzle. As it appears now, the temple appears to be maybe 75% in place. But the work that Papadopoulos and his team do, moves very slowly. 

The visit begins with two student presentations, and an extensive overview from our friendly site manager. As part of a hands-on workshop, we are invited into a large, modern outbuilding where most of the small scale restoration is done to the component pieces before they are put into place. Chipping awayCracks are filled and corners are refashioned (using synthetic marble), and the process is utterly fascinating to behold. We are invited to use pick axes and chisels to remove the waste from the processing on actual pieces that will be used in the temple. Our clothes get a little dusty in the process, but no one is complaining after such a one-of-a-kind experience. Papadopoulos is a warm and wonderful host who is clearly passionate about his work on the Temple of Apollo. After his inspiring speech about the work they are doing, and about the achievements of the early Greeks, one of the students was overheard remarking, “He could be a motivational speaker!” 

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We left Bassae around 2:00 and headed a little ways down the hill to a small town with a very authentic village restaurant. The entire small dining room was ours and we were served plate after plate of delicious Greek food – and locally grown sweet wine – by the owner (who spoke NO English) and his sons (who, thankfully, did). Towards the end of our extended luncheon (seems ALL Greek meals are extended). I saw the owner go over to one of the tables of kids and raise his glass to toast them all. He then issued a visual challenge to one of the guys to “down” his just-filled wine glass in competition with him. As everyone laughed at the idea of it (it was really strong, more like sherry, than wine, and certainly better for sipping) the owner drained his glass in one quick swig! The student, accepting the challenge, took a few tentative sips, but then, too, downed his entire glass, much to the uproarious appreciation of his friends. 

Dinner 1

We said long goodbyes to our friendly restauranteurs, and boarded the bus for our next stop, Olympia, the birthplace of, yes, the Olympics. We arrived at our hotel at 6:30, and had to be back in the lobby by 6:45 to walk (again, with the walking) to the Olympia Archaeological Museum which housed an amazing collection of Greek sculpture, more than we have seen anywhere else on our trip. We were there until closing at 8:00, and then had a few hours for dinner, before reconvening for yet another outing; but this one was truly special. 

Statues

Every year, on the date of the August full moon, the town of Olympia plans a celebration with an outdoor concert in the park (featuring traditional Greek music), and the entire site of the ruins is open until 1:00 a.m. to allow visitors a unique once-a-year look at the site under the light of a full moon. And this year, it fell on the only day we were there; really magical! After two more student presentations, Alick arranges one last unique event, a footrace for the students on the site of the first Olympiad, all those centuries ago. After this longest of long days – clearly – no one is at there best, but it is a spirited event, nonetheless, and a fitting end to another very memorable day in Greece.

Day Seven: Delphi & Athens

We started again very early this morning, boarding the bus in Olympia for a 2-hour ride to Delphi. Along the way, we made a rest stop at what Alick extolled as one of the finest bakeries in all of Greece, with the best Baklava he’d ever had. It did not disappoint. SweetsThe display cases were packed with all manner of Greek honey-drenched sweets, laid out buffet-style for you to put in boxes and pay by weight – always a dangerous situation. We found that out first-hand, when our three small boxes of goodies ran to 21 euros.  Yikes!

Back on the road, we made our way, winding up unbelievably-scenic mountain roads, to Delphi about two hours later, arriving around 11:00 a.m. This is another mountaintop ruins, partially restored, with a mostly-intact treasury building and an amphitheater that sits high above the rest of the sight; reputedly the second greatest amphitheater in all of Greece, after the one we saw the play at in Epidaurus, two nights previous.

Delphi

After two student presentations, we boarded the bus for a short 20-minute drive to Arahova, a quaint little ski town – yes, they ski in Greece – perched so high on the mountain that it almost takes your breath away to look down from the edge of the main street. We ate at a streetside cafe that had a running fountain fed by spring water from Mount Parnassus, where we dined on Greek Salad, Saganaki with Sausage, and Roasted Wild Boar.  Our water pitcher was refilled several times with the spring water from the fountain; so refreshing!

Arahova

Another two hours on the bus provided ample time to catch up on lost sleep and recharge for our first evening in Athens, the final leg of our journey. We arrived at 6:00, with instructions to be in the lobby by 6:30 for a group trek of about a mile to the Acropolis museum, which is situated just south of the site of the Acropolis, widely considered to be one of the most significant archaelogical sites in the world. The Museum houses many of the artifacts found at the site, and does an excellent job of creating context for the evolution of Acropolis and the surrounding area. 

At 7:45, we left the museum, making a mad dash – a speed walk, Alick called it – for the big rocky hill adjacent to the Acropolis. People regularly gather there to watch the sunset, which is spectacular. Unfortunately, we missed the actual setting by about 10 minutes, but still were able to experience something wholly unique, sitting high atop the city, with pink skies coloring the white buildings below, for as far as the eye could see all the way to the ocean. 

Group on rock

We declined Alick’s generous offer to join the group for a meal, on SU’s tab, opting instead to take a leisurely walk back to our hotel, shopping along the way and stopping for gelato before turning in a little early; a real rarity on this trip! 

Day Eight: Athens

We heard at our 7:00 a.m. breakfast that last night’s group dinner ran until almost midnight. I think we made the right decision to not go, as another long, hot day awaits, with temperatures expected in the mid-90s.

We walked en masse to where we had been for sunset the night before, and entered the Acropolis as it opened at 8:00 p.m. All of these archaeological sites we are visiting are set high on hills, this one, right in the center of metropolitan Athens. It is the original center of the area and the entire city spreads out around it, always looking UP at it.

We had only been on site about 15 minutes when we heard chanting and marching coming from below. FlagGradually, an honor guard of about a dozen young Greek soldiers ascended into the Acropolis carrying the Greek flag and suddenly breaking into song. Being unaware of their National Anthem, I can only guess that’s what they might’ve been singing. They proceeded past us to the west end and – in what is probably a daily ceremony – raised the Greek flag over the sight. Very cool to see.

There are several buildings of note but the most famous one, and maybe the most famous palace in the world, is the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena that gives Athens its name. Built in the 4th century BC, it is the most important surviving building of Classical Greece . With its immense perimeter of doric columns, it is the prototypical Greek temple. 

Parthenon

After a student presentation at the base of the Acropolis, we proceeded around the perimeter of the base to the Theater of Dionysus, yet another ancient stone amphitheater, not, however in usable condition like the one in Epidaurus. It was just after noon by then, and the sun was blazing hot. 

Luckily, relief was on the horizon in the form of a lavish group lunch at yet another, utterly charming, authentic Greek restaurant, with our tables on the sidewalk, shaded by lush olive trees. The lunch was courtesy of HERC, the travel agency run by Rhea Skourta, who arranged so much of the trip for us. She is a lovely woman from Athens who clearly enjoys her job, and is as knowledgable about all things Greek as she is charming. She accompanied us on many of our stops throughout the tour, and this was her way of saying goodbye to the group.

Rhea & Weins

The meal consisted of the usual Greek salad & Tzatziki, along with chicken souvlaki (kebabs), veal meatballs, and the most savory cheese pie I’ve ever had. Along with the white table wine, also now a staple, a few surprises. A rich dessert of Mosaiko, which was essentially dark chocolate fudge sticks interspersed with biscuits and pistachio nuts. Truly unique and maybe my new favorite dessert. The last treat – not offered to the students – was a mandarin orange liquor that was the perfect finish to a perfect meal!

We had one more stop on our itinerary, so it was back out into the heat for another sweaty, group walk to the Agora, which was the meeting place and shopping center of olden Greek times. After another student presentation at that site, we were cut loose for some free time, which we used to shop for souvenirs and some much-needed down time in our air-conditioned room.  

We all reconvened for a group dinner (our second group meal of the day, a rarity) at Taverna Platanos, another classically-authentic Greek eatery where we – again – ate outdoors. We had been told by Rhea that this was where many of the movers and shakers in Greek politics and the media gathered for evening meals. Every table was full of locals, and they all stayed for hours, as did we. One thing I’ll add about Greek food: much is made of the so-called Mediterranean Diet, and with good reason. In our nine days in Greece the only obese people we saw were tourists. By all appearances, the native Greeks are very fit people, in spite of all the cigarettes.

Day Nine: Athens & Sounion

Our last day in Greece began like nearly all the others; early! We were out of the hotel by 7:30, and at the National Archaelogical Museum of Athens when it opened at 8:00. This is where most of the statuary, frescoes, and artifacts found at the Acropolis now reside. A very impressive collection that we had far too little time with. One of the highlights for me, was the painting of “The Spring,” a fresco painted in 1,500 BC. We had heard about this while visiting Akrotiri on Santorini where it was found. It is one of the oldest intact paintings in existence, and a wonder to behold!

The Spring

From there we boarded the bus for a one-hour ride to Sounion, home of the Temple of Poseidon.  While most of the temples and palaces we’ve visited are usually situated on higher ground (Delphi & Bassae were on mountains so high, one can only imagine how they were ever built on such treacherous terrain!), this one topped them all for setting.

         Poseidon  Weins @Poseidon

The temple sits on a cliff, over looking the Aegean Ocean. Very appropriate, given that Poseidon was the God of the Sea. Our final student presentation takes place here, and then we take a quick bus ride down to the shore below, to wade in the ocean one last time before heading to the airport for our flight home.    

Conclusion

After ten days away from home, I am DEFINITELY ready to get back, but I will truly miss Greece. Despite the fatigue of so many long days, and so much walking and climbing, I would do it again in an instant. Greece is the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited. With over 8,000 miles of coastline, it seems that every drive you take includes stunning views of mountains, dotted with silver-leaved olive trees, falling into azure blue seas that stretch as far as the eye can see. There are bleached-white buildings with red terra cotta roofs at every turn, carved into hillsides and crowded around every picturesque bay and port.

Greek sea, hi-res

Despite Greece’s recent economic woes, the country we saw seemed to be thriving. Restaurants and shopping areas were teeming with customers, and every public area we visited was clean and well-maintained. And the people were as friendly as could be: warm, good-natured, inviting and – ultimately – very proud of their beautiful country.

But all good things must end. Greece has been like a dream, and reality now beckons. Family calls, jobs and gigs await, and the dog needs a walk. Life will go on, but with the memory of Greece never too far away.

Pure Croz

BDL Photography

“David Crosby has no hits,” I explained to a woman on the subway last January, after seeing him and his band at the City Winery in NYC. She thought the show was good, but lamented that he didn’t do “the hits.” For me, that’s the beauty of David Crosby. Oh sure, he’s scored a few FM classics like Guinevere, and the title song from the CSNY album, Deja Vu, but no real AM radio play to speak of. Even his Phil Collins co-penned and produced comeback single, Hero, in 1993, failed to crack the Top 40, stalling at #44.

His compositions have always been too far outside of the mainstream to be hit singles. His style is esoteric, with alternate tunings, dense chords and unpredictable rhythms, not exactly the stuff of Top 40 radio. He has sung on his share of hits, soaring above Roger McGuinn on Mr. Tambourine and numerous other Byrds’ songs, and again on the gold records he created with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young. But he didn’t write those songs.

In spite of that, or maybe because of that (some cynical friends might argue), I’ve always found Crosby’s songs to sit head and shoulders above those of his partners. Something in his musical voice speaks to me in a way that very few artists have. With each new CSN or Crosby/Nash album, I would immediately scan the credits to see how many David songs there were; not that I needed the credits to identify his always-unique compositions, his songs have always, for me,  stood out.

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For over forty years now, I’ve followed Crosby’s tumultuous career, filled with great music and successful world tours, then drug abuse, weight gain and his ultimate incarceration where he kicked his drug habit in a Texas lock-up. How the mighty had fallen. But like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Crosby stayed clean, got a new liver, became a father again, and wrote, not one, but, two memoirs (Long Time Gone & Since Then), along with a book on musicians – like himself – who have tried to make a difference in the world through their music and their beliefs (Stand And Be Counted). He has also been more prolific than he has in decades contributing to new albums by CSN, CSNY & Crosby/Nash, along with several new solo releases, including his 2014 solo CD, Croz.

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I first saw Crosby live with the legendary 1974 CSNY tour at Rich Stadium in Buffalo, NY. I remember being thrilled that I was finally seeing them all live, especially, Crosby. But imagine my disappointment when they only did four of his songs (in a 28-song set), and one of them was (for me) the forgettable, Almost Cut My Hair. Not nearly enough Crosby for my tastes.

From left, David Crosby, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills, performing collectively as Crosby, Stills and Nash, acknowledge the crowd during the Live Aid concert for famine relief at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, Pa. July 13, 1985.(AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

Eleven years later in 1985, CSN played for the first time at the NY State Fair and I, of course, was there. This time, I later learned, Crosby was in the throes of junkiedom, and barely contributed. In a 21 song set, he was featured on just three songs, Guinevere, Delta and on the encore, Long Time Gone. He looked bad, but still – somehow – sounded great. His autobiography revealed that at that time, he spent more time offstage than on, smoking a crack pipe. In retrospect, the show was hardly even worth attending.

Over the next two decades, as Crosby very publicly sought to rebuild his reputation, I skipped many opportunities to see CSN, as I had no wish to sit through any more performances by Stephen Stills, who I felt had outlived his musical usefulness for me.

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As luck would have it, David and Graham Nash released a brand new double CD (Crosby Nash) in 2007, and toured with a band to support it. I was able to see one of the shows in Schenectady in October 2007 and it was like a dream come true. In truly democratic fashion, half of the 22 songs were David’s, and the presentation was subtle, with plenty of room to hear and appreciate the unparalleled harmony singing of Crosby & Nash. I walked out of the show thinking it couldn’t get any better than that.  I was wrong.

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Last year, Crosby released his first new studio album in 19 years called, simply, Croz. The album featured some of his best songs in decades and received unanimously-positive reviews. When I heard he was doing a solo band tour, I knew I had to make every effort to attend. My purest dose of Crosby yet, I assumed. I was there for the opening night of the tour and I was not disappointed!

Photo by Greg Cristman | www.gregCphotography.com

Backed by a very sympathetic band (featuring his extremely talented son James Raymond), and by that I mean, musicians who support the songs rather than overwhelm them, David did the entire new album live for the first set. How many other artists in their 70s have the nerve AND confidence to do that? Amazing! As the set ended, he promised to come out for the second set and play songs that the crowd would know. Which was true for crowd members like myself, but not so much for the lady I met on the subway after the show. He did open with the Byrds’ classic, Eight Miles High, but after that, pretty much no hits; just lots of uniquely-beautiful songs that only David Crosby could write. I remember thinking that it certainly couldn’t get any better than that, but again, I was wrong.

BDL Photography

Last week I drove to Albany to see Crosby on his first ever solo acoustic tour. Just David, his guitar, and that voice, still somehow miraculously intact after all those years of illness and abuse. He sounds like a man half his age. I know of no other singer of his vintage who still sounds exactly the same as they did decades ago (OK, maybe Al Jardine, but he’s a supporting player). Every song was in a different tuning (he kept his guitar tech quite busy), and his playing was superb. His alway-outspoken onstage demeanor was more entertaining than ever, with digressions aplenty about Neil, Joni, the Byrds and, of course, politics (big surprise, he LOVES Bernie Sanders).

Crosby, at 73, is still a live wire. But also a gentle soul with a unique musical voice that easily induces goosebumps. Seeing and hearing him alone with just his guitar and that mesmerizing voice, I got my most intense dose of David Crosby yet.

Pure Croz. Only took me 40+ years to get there.

BDL Photography

In Appreciation Of Chris Squire

Paul, Gary & Chris on bass

I was originally inspired to play a Rickenbacker bass by Paul McCartney (in Wings) and Chris Squire, of Yes. Given my very-public POP leanings (File Under Pop Vocal, anyone?), most people wouldn’t guess that I’m a closet Prog Rock fan, or that my very first concert I saw was Yes, at the SUNY Geneseo student union (for $1.00, w/student ID!) in 1971.

But I LOVE Yes, and especially their gifted bassist Chris Squire, who passed away this weekend at the age of 67. Squire was the only member present on EVERY iteration of the band (and why they aren’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is beyond me!).

I was lucky enough to see them again in concert several times over the years, with the most recent being on a 100º day at the Artpark in Buffalo a few years ago on their Fly From Here tour. To see Squire perform live, was like attending a master class in bass playing. His agility and inventiveness redefined the instrument for several generations of musicians, myself included.

He was also an equally-gifted singer and writer, and his background vocals and compositions were as much a part of the Yes sound as his landmark bass playing.

Truly one of a kind, he will be sorely missed.