The Next Silicon Valley? Apple Guru Steve Wozniak Visits Capital Region

"Steve Wozniak" "GlobalFoundries"

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak speaks on a panel at the GlobalFoundries semiconductor plant in Malta, NY

From downtown Saratoga Springs, it’s a quick 15-minute drive down Route 9 to Stone Break Extension in Malta, where a guarded gate marks the entrance to Fab 8, Global Foundries’ massive new silicon computer chip manufacturing and research facility. (Quick, that is, unless you fail to properly navigate a series of somewhat-disorienting traffic circles along the way.)

It was here that television news trucks gathered Thursday afternoon in front of GlobalFoundries’ complex of expansive buildings – all gleaming silver with blackened windows and orange accents – for an appearance by technology guru and Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak on a panel called, “What’s Next for Tech Valley?”

Just before the afternoon event, some 400 attendees poured out of buses that had shuttled them in from off-site lots. “One thing will never change – we’ll never have enough parking spaces,” quipped Fab 8 general manager Eric Choh during introductory remarks, calling the $4 billion facility with 1,600 employees “the biggest private and public development project in the history of New York state.”

While many of the attendees who paid $75 a ticket were there to hear insights from Wozniak, the panel – moderated by Albany Business Review publisher Carolyn Jones – was equal-parts boosterism for “Tech Valley,” a swath of territory that encompasses SUNY Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE), GlobalFoundries’ Malta semiconductor facility and a growing number of local technology-related businesses.

“The last few days, I’m just amazed at what I’ve seen here,” said panelist Peter Schultz, co-inventor of the fiber optic technology used in telecommunications. “We’re seeing a lot of major suppliers from Silicon Valley move into the area. I’m here to tell you, this is just the beginning. There are a lot of things that have to be built into the infrastructure to make this thing go.”

Schultz cited relatively low Internet bandwidth as an impediment to local growth (“A lot of people in this area are still on dial-up,” he said), while panelist John Cavalier – former chairman and CEO of East Greenbush software firm MapInfo – said the area was still lacking in the access to venture capital and the “management skills” needed for Silicon Valley-type entrepreneurial growth. “What we need is one major venture capital company to open an office here and get serious about it,” Cavalier said.

Wozniak also spoke about the need for the sort of funding that drives innovation. “Steve Jobs and I went out to a [trade] show when we were two kids without a company or shoelaces…. When we started Apple, we didn’t have any experience or money. Our funder Mike Markkula mentored us. He was basically the mentor that really established Apple.”

"GlobalFoundries" "Steve Wozniak"But among the region’s assets, Wozniak mentioned the prominence of local universities and educational institutions, something which also drove initial growth in Silicon Valley, he said, as well as the relatively lower cost of living here, which could draw companies away from more expensive places like northern California.

Other panelists cited the quality of life factors that can help local companies attract the employees they need to succeed. “In the past few years we’ve hired a large number of people. One of the assets we have here is [access to] arts and culture,” said panelist Daniel Pickett, CEO of nfrastructure, a Clifton Park firm that provides IT services to companies like GlobalFoundries.

At the end, panelists got what perhaps many of them were there for – a bit of prognostication from the man known affectionately as “the Woz,” a bearded, rotund computer engineer and technology visionary dressed in a black polo shirt and blue sneakers. “I normally don’t like to be a futurist,” he said before waxing at length about the wonders of smartphone technology in response to a question from the audience.

“We’re getting closer and closer to having a little human being that we talk to,” he said of Apple’s voice-controlled personal assistant Siri, which accompanies the latest editions of the iPhone. “This thing has the senses of a human being…. It will eventually know my expression. It will think faster every year. One step beyond that, maybe decades from now, [we’ll see] consciousness in a machine – like a person that teaches me everything and guides me through life and might be my best friend.”

Story and photographs by KIRSTEN FERGUSON
Published on Saratoga Wire, 9/8/12 

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LIVE: Gillian Welch & David Rawlings

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at the Filmore Theater after their concert in the dressing room

“I heard someone trying to describe what we do. They said we’re acoustic downer rock,” joked singer-songwriter Gillian Welch during her recent performance at the Egg in Albany, where she was accompanied by her longtime musical partner, guitarist David Rawlings.

Rawlings had just introduced “The Way It Will Be” by calling the song “kind of a bummer.” The stunning tune (sometimes known by fans as “Throw Me a Rope”) has been in the duo’s set for years, but didn’t make it onto an album until last year’s “The Harrow & the Harvest,” their first album since 2003’s “Soul Journey.”

It was a mournful and dark song, yes. But not quite a bummer. Over two sets spanning their five critically acclaimed albums, Welch and Rawlings demonstrated how musical chemistry and keen song-craft can unite in some magical combination to keep even the bleakest material from seeming shoot-me-now depressing.

Their set-up was sparse. Both stood in a small rectangle of light, armed with an acoustic guitar and outfitted in cowboy boots, while the rest of the stage remained empty and bare. And many of the songs had pitch-black themes: a moonshiner’s death wish on “Tear My Stillhouse Down,” Biblical redemption on “Rock of Ages,” rural fatalism on “The Way It Goes,” romantic doubt on “Dark Turn of Mind.”

The songs were simple and austere, but also acutely observed and quite beautiful. And many of the show’s lighter moments came as the evening progressed. “Elvis Presley Blues” was a ballad to a hip-shaking folk hero; “Red Clay Halo” had a faster, bluegrass tilt; and the retro-leaning “Wayside/Back in Time,” one of Welch’s best-known songs, had a comparatively pop uplift.

After Rawlings drew loud cheers from the nearly full room for a masterful guitar interlude on “Revelator,” Welch slapped out the beat to “Six White Horses” on her bare thighs and by clogging her boots against the stage. The pair then paid tribute to the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth with a segue into “This Land Is Your Land” in the midst of “I Hear Them All,” the one song sung solely by Rawlings.

“Now I’m in such a good mood, I’m gonna play you a killing song,” Welch said before the pair finished their set with the murder ballad, “Caleb Meyer.” They returned for an encore that included “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” a traditional song they learned from guitarist Doc Watson, who died earlier this year. And “I’ll Fly Away” – from Welch’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou” collaboration with bluegrass performer Alison Krauss – had the crowd clapping along.

Story by KIRSTEN FERGUSON
Published on www.nippertown.com, 8/14/12

LIVE: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band

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“People need to miss Clarence,” Bruce Springsteen told Rolling Stone magazine recently about his decision to keep the long-running E Street Band going despite the loss of saxophonist Clarence Clemons, one of its most popular members.

When Springsteen brought his Wrecking Ball tour and expanded E Street Band (with a new five-piece horn section) to the sold-out Times Union Center in Albany on Monday night, it was clear he was walking a line between carrying on without Clemons and late keyboardist Danny Federici while also honoring their memory.

The most visible testament to fallen bandmates came at the end of the three-hour show during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” when Springsteen paused at the line referencing his former sideman: “And the Big Man joined the band.”

The video screen flashed a montage of the saxman to cheers from the crowd, while Clemons’ horn-playing nephew Jake – who’s taken over in part for his uncle – looked up reverently at the rafters.

The emotional tenor was just right: part eulogy, part celebration. For every downside with Springsteen, you could say there’s an upside, too.

During “We Take Care of Our Own,” the second song after set-opener “Badlands,” anger at the erosion of the safety net was turned into an anthem of patriotic pride that reclaims the flag and flips “America the Beautiful” on its head.

On recession-era tune “Wrecking Ball,” another song from the new album, Springsteen softly repeated its chorus of “hard times come and hard times go” like a mantra: a reminder that economic downturns inevitably turn back around.

And during “My City of Ruins,” a song that took on new meaning after its inclusion on his 9/11-themed album, “The Rising,” Springsteen led the crowd in a near-defiant chant of “Come on, rise up,” after referencing his missing band members and saying, “If you’re here and we’re here, then they’re here.”

There was weightiness to the show, as feelings of loss hung heavy. With the spotlight shining solely on him, Springsteen performed a riveting version of hard-luck tune “Downbound Train” that sounded downright harrowing.

He magnanimously played a rare acoustic version of “Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart” by request from a fan in honor of her recently departed mother, Jane – pointing to her at song’s end and looking like he wiped away a tear.

Springsteen2And much of the new material – including Celtic-inflected tunes “Death to My Hometown” and “Shackled and Drawn” and the heavily populist “Jack of All Trades” – had somber, height-of-the-recession messages about economic justice.

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of levity and joy to be had, too. Soaked with sweat, bottled water and a fan’s beer by the end of the typically marathon performance, Springsteen once again seemingly defied all signs of aging.

He traded frenzied guitar solos with Steven Van Zandt during “Murder Incorporated,” hopped up and down with an overly exuberant young man out on the floor during “Waiting on a Sunny Day” and cheered on Jake Clemons as he nailed his uncle’s solo on “The Promised Land.”

During a medley of Motown tunes that he first performed at Harlem’s Apollo Theater back in March – the E Street Band’s first full concert after Clemons’ passing – Springsteen stormed out onto the floor, chugged a fan’s beer and then lay on top of the crowd, letting them inch him gently back toward the stage.

He boogied with a fan sporting punk-rock-red hair during “Dancing in the Dark,” contorted himself into an impossibly limber backbend off the microphone before “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” and then fell to his knees on the stage at show’s end.

Story and photographs by KIRSTEN FERGUSON
Published on www.nippertown.com, 4/19/12

LIVE: Alabama Shakes

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“Let’s give them a Northern welcome,” says Higher Ground co-owner Kevin Statesir as he introduces Alabama Shakes to the stage of the South Burlington, Vermont nightclub, which is celebrating its 14th anniversary. Statesir marks the occasion at the end of the sold-out show by giving out free, limited-edition Alabama Shakes prints designed to look like vintage posters for a doo-wop dance party.

The young phenoms in Alabama Shakes – who added the “Alabama” to their name as an afterthought, to avoid confusion with other bands called the Shakes – are making their first appearance in the Green Mountain State. Just three years ago, singer/guitarist Brittany Howard and bassist Zac Cockrell were meeting after high school in their small town of Athens, Alabama, to write songs. Last year, the band signed a record deal with ATO to release their debut album, “Boys & Girls,” and they’ve since exploded, instantly selling out most of the dates on their recent East Coast tour.

It’s a South-meets-North night, with Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires – a high-energy, Dixie-punk band from Birmingham, Alabama, with a set of great songs – opening up the show. It’s their first time playing in Vermont, too, and I write down that they sound a lot like the Dexateens, an under-heralded, now-defunct Alabama garage-rock band, before going home and reading that Lee Bains III had been one of the guitarists in the Dexateens.

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What ever assumptions there may be about Alabama Shakes given their fast rise and all the hype, Howard just about shatters them when she opens her mouth and a world of raw emotion pours out. Between songs, Howard seems shy, quiet and unassuming, like a Gibson-guitar-toting librarian in a flower-patterned housedress.

But appearances are deceiving. Cockrell, guitarist Heath Fogg, drummer Steve Johnson and keyboardist Ben Tanner lay down a tasteful groove as Howard wails, shakes and gruffly hollers through deeply personal songs like “Hold On,” a desperate pick-me-up for herself, and “Boys & Girls,” about the injustice of being told she and her childhood male friend were too old to still pal around.

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Story and photographs by KIRSTEN FERGUSON
Published on www.nippertown.com, 5/8/12