Echoing the '60s psychedelic happenings around Stanford University, Bert Keely has woven two remarkable careers - as a pioneering Silicon Valley computer engineer and a wonderfully versatile guitarist. During the dotcom boom, the band he co-created - the Flying Other Brothers - made some phenomenal music, worth a new listen and now collected in the new limited-edition box set Circle Back! A 20-year retrospective featuring the Flying Other Brothers, Circle Back! includes three full-length albums Skywriting, Bert's Brew, and Alive and Grateful with special guests on select tracks, including Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead, guitarist G.E. Smith, and producer T Bone Burnett.
At the start of the dotcom boom in the late '90s, Keely and his bandmates were at the epicenter of tech innovations that dramatically changed the world. While Bert worked closely with Bill Gates at Microsoft (1998 - 2008) and led the company's team to engineer the first Tablet PC prototype, Keely is also known by insiders as the engineer who convinced Steve Jobs to develop the iPad. His Silicon Valley tech community was swept up in the vast potential good of the Internet. Now more than a decade after their last flights, on tour and especially on San Francisco's live music scene, this band of techies virtually reunites on Circle Back! to celebrate the best of the Flying Other Brothers.
Founding Flying Other Brothers band members Roger McNamee (venture capitalist), Giles McNamee (investment banker), Bill Bennett (marketing/PR strategist), Tony Bove (technology author), Larry Marcus (venture capitalist), and Keely were techies to the core, fond of the Grateful Dead who had also formed in the neighborhoods around Stanford.
Keely's only time seeing Garcia live was at the Keystone in '78 with the Jerry Garcia Band; it was in the same room (previously known as The Big Beat) that the Grateful Dead played their first Acid Test under that name. In '78, Keely was a junior at Stanford studying engineering under professor Bob McKim who had conducted what became known as "engineering acid tests" to understand the creative potential of psychedelics. The next year Keely came to release his solo debut album of psychedelic folk, Take Me Home, in '79. For Keely and the Flying Other Brothers, music and technology were always a weave. The scene at Stanford proved to be fertile ground for Bert's burgeoning careers in both engineering and music.
Circle Back! Box Set -- Featuring The Flying Other Brothers:
Circle Back! gives an inside look into the songwriting that made the Flying Other Brothers an extraordinary collective who recorded four albums of high energy music with producers such as Jack Casady (52-Week High), Stacy Parrish (Secondary), and Shauna Hall of 4 Non Blondes (IPO). Circle Back! carries their music/tech wave into 2021 with three new albums: Skywriting, Bert's Brew, and Alive and Grateful. Across the box set, Bert Keely's riveting guitar shares the spotlight with pedal steel solos by Barry Sless and electric solos by G.E. Smith, as well as standout rhythm guitar work by Bob Weir and Roger & Giles McNamee.
The new album Skywriting features a collection of eight original songs written by six different brothers and sisters. Bill Bennett's "Clueless" kicks off the album with the beat popularized by Bo Diddley, with Keely workin his Lowell George-inspired socket wrench slide guitar technique. "Arastradero Road" is co-written by Keely and Lisa Brennan Jobs (daughter of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs), who wrote the lyrics about leaving the West Coast to attend Harvard. Lisa sang the song with the Flying Other Brothers at The Fillmore (1998), and it became a regular feature with Keely on vocals at their live shows. On "Arastradero Road," Keely and Barry Sless trade intertwining lines of pedal steel and electric guitar for a thrilling solo section.
The high sense of optimism of Roger McNamee's tune "Happy Endings" closes Skywriting with a dizzying depiction of those times. "Happy Endings" is one of the songs that convinced Pete Sears (Rod Stewart, Jefferson Starship) to join the Flying Other Brothers in studio for their album 52-Week High, and to become a key member of the touring band.
Bert's Brew includes two previously unreleased recordings of the Flying Other Brothers in the studio with T Bone Burnett, and several captured on the road with G.E. Smith. Keely's vocals are featured throughout Bert's Brew; complemented on the album's opener "Come Along Now" by Bill Bennett's baritone on the choruses and bridge. Written in 2006, during the Iraq war and in anticipation of the 40th Anniversary of the Summer of Love, Keely's anthem "Another Summer of Love" focuses on the good will that spreads when people come together peacefully, time and time again. "Road to Here" is another great Roger McNamee song, with Keely on vocals and a heavenly extended outro with guitars swirling gently atop an ethereal rhythmic bed.
Bert's Brew includes standout live covers such as "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," both on local radio favorite Sleepy John Sandidge's show on KPIG (Santa Cruz) and in an electric version recorded in Ashland with Keely and G.E. Smith trading solos. Dylan's "Forever Young" further highlights the masterful guitar work of Smith; he appears on all but two tracks on Bert's Brew.
Alive and Grateful:
Bob Weir appears on two tracks on Alive and Grateful, first on a duo version of John Lennon's "Imagine" and then again with the Flying Other Brothers backing him on a 28-minute version of "Jack Straw" > "Playin' in the Band" > "Queen Jane Approximately." "Imagine" came to light with Weir and Keely recording in the former's home studio to commemorate the life of mutual friend Richard Newton, the Dean of UC Berkeley's School of Electrical Engineering who passed away from pancreatic cancer in his mid-50s.
Keely goes furthur into Dead material on Alive and Grateful, with solo versions of "I Know You Rider" and a 24-minute loop session of "Terrapin Station" recorded during the pandemic. Bert's Brew closes with Keely singing an intimate version of "Stella Blue" from a 2019 Stanford University concert.
The Flying Other Brothers lived for the moment. Listening to Circle Back! is an invitation to ponder how things have changed in twenty years, and to try to imagine changes that lie ahead.