20 December 2018

Don't Know What You Got (Till It's Gone)

We’ve got a little more than a week before the year actually ends, but for concert photography, the “no, thanks!” message I got for the last show on my calendar meant I’m done in that particular department for the year. As with so many other outlets, I find myself inclined to putting this particular bow on my year as both a reflection and for looking ahead.
Kelly Hansen and Mick Jones of Foreigner - 7/18/18
For 2018, I covered some truly legendary names in the music business, and a number of them are on the road to say good-bye to the road. Having missed some artists I’ve been a true fan of before they called it a day, I’m thrilled at the list I’ve accounted for this year. Sir Elton John has started his farewell tour, as has metal icons Slayer, and southern rock heavyweights Lynyrd Skynyrd. I didn’t make it to Bob Segar’s final bow in St. Louis, which is probably one that will nag at me going forward, but things happen. I also had to take a pass on the Eagles’ stop in the Gateway City, but whether they’ll be back again is anyone’s guess.

Next year, both KISS and Ozzy Osborne will be dropping by, both on their own planned curtain-call runs. I’ve seen the former in concert many times, never the latter, but I hope for the chance to stand in front of both with my cameras before they call it a day.
Cyndi Lauper - 8/19/18
Aside from farewells, there were some other pretty banner names that I was fortunate enough to add to my roster of shows covered. From Taylor Swift and Foo Fighters (twice this year!) to Sir Rod Stewart and Judas Priest. How’s that for an eclectic mix? Foreigner and Styx fall into the iconic-acts category, while Imagine Dragons and Avenged Sevenfold help carry the ball for current artists.

People always want to discuss “best” this and “greatest” that. I can’t pick anything as a favorite over the others. I’m all over the place in my tastes in music, and the shows I covered reflect that. Along with the Foos, I covered Ghost twice, Lindsey Stirling at a pair of shows, Breaking Benjamin twice, Halestorm got a twofer, and The Struts – oh, The Struts, my newest musical infatuation and the band my friends are almost certainly tired of hearing me talk about already! – let me in to cover them a whopping four times.
Lindsey Stirling and friends - 12/7/18
There were shows that were just pure, unadulterated fun. How else can you describe a show with Vanilla Ice, Tone Loc, and Naughty By Nature, to name just a few, all on one stage (at the same time, for the finale!)? And I would tell you all about the Steel Panther show, but as you’ll learn shortly in my review, there’s not a lot I can say about it that will keep this writing at a PG-13 level. But “fun” definitely fits!

Back to the eclectic thing, in one week this summer, I stood in front of Rob Zombie, Amy Lee and Evanescense with a full orchestra behind them, Grace VanderWaal, and K.Flay. Marilyn Manson and Walk The Moon were part of that same week, along with Joan Jett, who opted not to have her photos taken, but still put on one helluva show. But I also stood in an arena filled with the score of HBO’s hit series “Game of Thrones” as composer Ramin Djawadi showed that an orchestra can certainly deliver a rock concert, too!
Alice Cooper and Nita Strauss of Alice Cooper - 10/20/18
Names that I grew up with were in front of my lenses, and even now I have to remind myself that it wasn’t just a dream. U2 and Alice Cooper, ZZ Top and Faster Pussycat, Poison, Tesla, Cheap Trick, these are just a few of the acts I was lucky enough to cover. On the country side of the house, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert played just the same venue with just a brief gap between them, but everything was civil. Sugarland and Little Big Town dropped in to SLU for a couple of shows, bringing some of the meteoric names in country along with them, like 2019-Grammy nominee Kacey Musgraves and actress/singer Clare Bowen.

In a first for me, I covered two different single-day festivals, both from The Point in St. Louis – Pointfest in May, and Wayback Pointfest in September. These shows had tons of talent, from local artists like Guerrilla Theory and The Skagbyrds to names everyone knows, or should know, like Candlebox, Buckcherry, POD, and Alien Ant Farm. With Shinedown, The Offspring, 311, and Alice in Chains at the “big names” on the posters, there was no way I wanted to miss these shows!
Alien Ant Farm - 9/3/18
Along with Slayer’s adieu, I got to round out my collection of the “Big 4” with Anthrax, and one of my favorite new acts, Bad Wolves (yeah, I’m a bit partial, sue me!) took the stage for a killer set. I watched a 6’8” clown bring an audience to laughter and tears when Puddles Pity Party performed everything from Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to Adele’s “Hello.” And I got to be in the room for The Smashing Pumpkins’ return to the stage in St. Louis.

There are so many great acts and great shows that I’ve seen this year, I’m not going to list more of them. I’ll leave some out and then I’ll feel bad. I’ve put up a “year in review” photo album that can be found and you can see who I’ve seen. But the experiences are beyond words anyway. I don’t know if next year will be able to top this year as far as pure numbers. But with acts like Disturbed, Panic! at the Disco, John Mellencamp, Metallica, Shinedown, Michael Buble, Garth Brooks, and Cher joining the aforementioned Ozzy and KISS tours in my area, I can tell you there’s no shortage of legends standing under spotlights to be found, no matter what kind of music you like. And if those names are enough for you, how the return of the Rolling Stones to the US for a thirteen-city tour, including Chicago? And, just as big for me, the return of The Raven Age opening up shows for Iron Maiden again, which brings me right back to where this all started.
Sir Elton John - 10/30/18
See ya in the pits!

02 December 2018

Hit The Lights!

I’m going to start with a little bit about the way I shoot photos, all photos, but concerts in particular. After having many (many!) discussions with other photographers, I know I over-shoot. I let my cameras do their thing, shooting as much as ten shots a second in bursts. I do this because when there are performers on stage, lights are changing, people move, they blink, all kinds of things happen. Depending on where I’m located, how many people are on stage, etc, I can shoot anywhere from 3-400 to nearly 1,000 shots during a three-song photo set. Like I said, I know this is a lot, probably too many, but I want as much as possible to whittle down later.

And whittle I do. On average, I’ll end up with between 2-5% of what I shoot as “keepers”, stuff I edit and post for public consumption. To save you the math, that means if I shoot 500 photos, I will end up with between 10-25 shots that I’m happy enough to share. Sure, sometimes there’s more, sometime even less, but that’s about normal. And, honestly, that’s really enough. I used to post more, but they would get redundant, and who really wants to sort through three or four dozen nearly-identical repetitive shots?

Now, with all that groundwork being laid, with the scene being set for what’s normal, what’s typical, and what I can usually expect when I walk into a show, here’s the meat of my tale today: At the show I was shooting last night (I’m not naming names here!), the opening act had nearly non-existent lighting. I suppose it’s the aesthetic they wanted, but it was basically the type of lighting stage crews use to set up and tear down between scenes during productions when they don’t want the audience seeing anything under the curtain. Here’s a simple cellphone shot from the audience:
This isn’t a misrepresentation. Obviously the human eye can see more than a camera sensor, but this is what the whole set looked like. Going to back to where I started this, we were allowed to shoot the first three songs. So, even if I was shooting lightly, you’d expect 150, 200 shots, right?


I took exactly fourteen photos during those three songs. And one of those is this one here, which I took because someone on the side-stage was using a small pocket-type flashlight to look through a tour case. Look at how much more light there is over there than on the performers!
I’m not a production manager. I’m not a lighting designer. I’m certainly not a publicist. I’m a guy that slings a couple of Canon cameras around and has been incredibly fortunate to have gotten to shoot some of the biggest names in music in an incredibly short time doing concert work. But if you’re reading this and you’re in a band, or you help in any way – promoting them, setting up, friends with them, whatever – please, pass along a little bit of unsolicited advice: if you want promotion, if you want publicity for your shows and you’re going to have photographers come in, please, turn on some lights! At least for the first three songs, or whatever you allow to be shot. It makes for better shots if they’re not all completely coloured lights, too – reds and blues shoot terribly, and you’ll end up with a lot of black and white photos – but even if that’s what you want, at least turn them on.

That’s my little miniature rant/story for the day. Thanks for tuning in!

11 November 2018

Fade to Black

Last night I ran into a situation that I’ve worried about for a while. A few weeks ago, I got a confirmation from a publicist to go and shoot a show in St. Louis. It’s pretty routine stuff, and I’ve gotten pretty good at making that run. I got to the venue early because there was another big show happening next door, and I didn’t want to worry about fighting for parking.

When I got the original e-mail, there was a contact for the tour, but not for the venue’s marketing office, who usually handles the on-site coordination. No big deal, though, because I’ve worked with the place – and the people there – plenty of times. I just fired off a quick text to one of the contacts there to find out if she was handling the show. And that’s when things went awry.

I was told I wasn’t on the list for press approval. That was unusual, but not unheard of. Sometimes people forget to pass messages on everywhere they need to be. It happens in all walks of life, all kinds of business, and this one is no exception. So I pulled up the e-mail confirmation I had, having learned some time ago to keep these messages close at hand until my foot was in the door. I had plenty of time, so I sent off an e-mail to the tour contact I had looking to get things straightened out. Since I know not everyone checks their phone every thirty seconds, especially when they’re working on setting up a rock concert, I followed up shortly thereafter with a call. I left a voice mail, then waited.

When my phone rang, maybe ten or fifteen minutes later, I figured I was about to have it all sorted out. But I was wrong.

It turns out the publicist that sent my approval forgot not only to tell the venue, but anyone else, either. The tour manager had heard nothing about it, and his allotment for media passes had already been used. He was incredibly apologetic, but there was nothing to be done. I hung around chatting with a fellow photographer that was covering the show, but then there was nothing left to do but point the car north and head back to the house, empty-handed.

Between the venue contact and my fellow photographer, I’ve been told a lot in the last 24 hours how bad people feel that I got shut out, got short shrift on the show last night. Of course I’m disappointed, but this was just a bump in the road, not the end of the line. There will be other shows – I have a few on the slate for later this week – and there will be other chance to capture this artist. It could be easy to point fingers, to pound on the table, to wail and gnash teeth and to yell and scream and rage. But even if I’d done all of that, I’d still have been in the car heading home. So what’s the point? It’s just one of those things. I’m out a little gas, a little parking money, and a little time I would have spent sitting on the couch instead. So, it’s just another story to tell, to laugh about with friends, and carry on.

I’m not naming anyone here, you might notice. I don’t want this to pop up in a few months or a few years and have people start talking about the folks involved. That’s not why I’m writing this. I’m writing it more just because it’s a story, and I like telling stories. And to share that, yes, the curtain dropped early on me last night. But the show will go on, again, and again.

20 June 2018

Stranger In A Strange Land

The two-year anniversary of my first professional concert shoot has come and gone. You can read all about that over here if you want. In just a little over two years since I was handed that first photo pass, I’ve collected 59 more of them. While I’m sure some of my concert-photography peers are chuckling at the idea of only 60 passes – or the idea of keeping track of them – I’m still pretty happy with my growing collection.

Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top - 2018

I’ve gotten to see some incredible shows, from the legendary – Iron Maiden, ZZ Top, Metallica, John Fogerty – to the newcomers – The Struts, Ghost, The Regrettes, Kelsea Ballerini – and everything in between. I’ve shot in clubs that hold a few hundred people to stadiums packed with tens of thousands behind my back. I’ve passed superstars in hallways, stood on arena floors while monstrous stage shows were happening, and was inches away from my childhood (and adult) icons playing songs I’ve known my whole life.

And yet…

Another friend – Bonnie Burton, an incredible author - wrote a great piece earlier this year talking about “Imposter Syndrome.” It’s nice to know others feel the same way, but that doesn’t really change the feeling. I’ve explained to others that, every time I step into pit or onto the floor for a concert I’m shooting, there’s a desperation in my head. There’s a part of me – a not-too-quiet part – that’s telling me to not screw it up, or they’re going to realize you scammed your way in here. My goal at every show is to get the shots that are going to show that I belong there, that get me in to the next show, and then the one after that.

Shania Twain - 2018

So, why am I writing this? Honestly, I have no idea. I have a ton of friends and family that always seem excited to see my shots and hear what adventures I’m off to. In online communities, I get compliments when I share my work, and that’s gratifying. So it’s definitely not me fishing for compliments. Besides all of that above, 1) I don’t think all that many folks read this stuff and 2) taking compliments is one of the hardest things I know how to do – or don’t know how to do, more accurately.

Really, I started writing this because I’ve not written anything for a while, and I realized the anniversary had passed. Then I started thinking and writing about some of the cool stuff I’ve gotten to do. And then I started feeling like I was being a braggart, which circled right back around to that Imposter Syndrome thing.

The Struts - 2018
I’ve been doing this for two years now, and going really strong for the last fourteen months or so. As of the time I’m writing this, there’s no signs of slowing down, so I guess I can say I’m doing pretty decently at it. Only a few denials have come my way, and I don’t think they’re personal (I’d be far more flattered if those artists knew me enough to turn me down personally!). Just part of the game. I hope any of you that are reading this are still enjoying seeing what I’ve been getting up to, and I hope you enjoy reading about it every now and then, too. That’s definitely something I need to do more of. I’ve not posted here since March, and that’s just about criminal!

Cardinal Copia of Ghost - 2018
Thanks for the support. Thanks for reading, thanks for rocking, and keep your fingers crossed that I keep adding to my collection!

30 March 2018

Careless Memories

It would seem that 2018 is going to be the year that nostalgia truly rules. Roseanne is back on television, Def Leppard and Journey are playing a summer stadium tour, and a lot of the fashion trends thought dead and buried more than three decades ago are sprouting up again (for better or worse!).

But the granddaddy of all nostalgia trips is making the leap from page to screen this week, so that’s what I’m here to talk about. Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One takes place in a dystopian near-future where a true energy crisis has hit the planet, leaving people stranded at home, even for work. The only way to go anywhere is virtually, though a massive online construct called the OASIS. Through this framework, a story unfolds following (of course) the unlikely heroics of the book’s protagonist, a self-described overweight kid who’s greatest relief was when school moved online so that he could get away from real-life bullies.

If you don’t know the story by now, with all the coverage of the movie, here’s the nutshell version: An eccentric Steve Jobs-type video game creator, the man that started the OASIS, dies and leaves a message for the whole world. Out there, in his virtual creation, he’s hidden an Easter egg and clues to get to it. Whoever gets there first becomes the owner of the OASIS and, oh yeah, a couple hundred billion dollars to boot. Our protagonist – Wade Watts, because his dad was a fan of Stan Lee-style alliteration – becomes an egg-hunter, or gunter for short, with the dreams of winning this spectacular contest. He does so with the help of a few friends, while battling the evil corporation trying to take control of the OASIS for their own nefarious plans – which are basically focused around putting the whole thing behind a pay-wall and selling ad-space.

Okay, all caught up? Up to this point, the book and the film are tracking perfectly. This is the spine of the story, and that spine remains true. But the rest of the skeleton, and the muscles, tendons, organs, and skin that make up the rest of the body of work couldn’t really be much more different.

(**Spoilers for both book and movie ahead, but I’ll try to keep them minor**)

In the book, the challenges to find the three keys are much more cerebral. That’s not to say smarter, but they involve more sleuthing than their movie counterparts. The first key, for instance, is located in a hidden replica of a Dungeons & Dragons expansion, where the seeker then has to battle a demon king in…an arcade game. In the film, as promised by the very earliest of teaser trailers, the challenge consists of an all-out, no-holds-barred race instead.

I’m not going to go point by point and compare and contrast. The gist boils down to this: The book deals more with problem-solving, working things out in your head, piecing puzzles together. The movie has puzzles, too, but they’re more color-by-number visual situations than brain teasers. Basically, finding the Easter egg in the movie requires…finding Easter eggs in movies.

There is, and will continue to be, a lot of debate over whether the changes made in the translation from page to screen are any good. Personally, I told a group of friends a few months ago that I was keeping my expectations low because I knew there was no way they could pull it off by staying true to the book. But after I said that, it dawned on me that I was looking at it wrong. Yes, the film took its cues from the book, but it’s a separate beast. It was never going to be a direct adaptation. And if it didn’t work, the book wasn’t going anywhere. If I preferred that, it was always going to be there for me to go back to.

The movie doesn’t delve into any deep secrets of the universe, though it tries to be philosophical toward the end. It’s filled with visual spectacle and so many blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references, I think it’s destined to be one of the most freeze-framed movies ever. But it’s a Spielberg film targets at younger (not kids, but younger) audiences. You know what you’re going to get going in, and if you have that mindset, you won’t be disappointed. If you go in with a checklist from the book, then you’re setting yourself up for frustration. And I guess if that’s your goal, you won’t be disappointed in that case, either.

I do have a few honest complaints about the movie itself, separate from comparing it to the book. Mark Rylance as James Halliday didn’t work for me. I’m confident Rylance did exactly what Speilberg wanted, but the character is supposed to be a Steve Jobs-like character with a social awkwardness that became a recluse later in life. But he had no charisma, just the awkwardness. I can’t fathom how this character would become a household name that people would recognize like Jobs was. I think they just tipped the scales too far in that direction.

Similarly, I think Ben Mendelsohn’s villain, Sorrento, was very one-dimensional. He didn’t seem smart enough to be leading a corporate division, because he barely seemed competent enough to use the restroom without someone showing him how the door worked. It felt like a bit of a waste of a talented actor in a bit part that was actually a really important role.

T.J. Miller, on the other hand, was really amusing for a guy that never once appeared on screen. He was just voicing a digital thug in the film, but he was such a “gamer dumbass” type that it just worked perfectly. His character was engrossed in his virtual character, so much so that I imagine him to be the type that forgets he doesn’t really look like that when he’s in the real world.

On the hero side, the leads all did their jobs well. Nothing groundbreaking, but not really any stumbles, either. There’s a lot of story to be told and, even in nearly two and a half hours, there’s not a lot of time to focus on building the characters. This is one place the book has an advantage over the film. Told in the first person, the book lets us focus on Wade, to get to know him, his thoughts, and his motivations. But if they tried to be that centered in the film, the filmmakers would get crucified for making the other characters secondary. That’s part of the world we live in now.

Cline’s original book was a love-letter to all the things Cline loved as a kid, from the video games to the movies to the music to the pizza joints with a few coin-op machines in the back room. The movie is also a love-letter, this time to all the visual spectacle of the summer blockbusters that have come to define movies of a new generation. It’s different from the book, but that’s okay, because of one really big reason, in my estimation. As one of the screenwriters, the movie is still an Ernest Cline love-letter.

28 February 2018

Where Have All The Good Times Gone

When do we stop liking “new” music? I never wanted to be that guy that just keeps listening to the same stuff over and over, but here I am. And I don’t just mean genres, either.

After listening to a group of younger folks talking about new artists this past weekend, I realized I had no idea who about ¾ of the names were. And the names I did know, I knew for the wrong reasons (usually tabloid headlines). So when does this happen to us?

CC DeVille of Poison - St. Louis, MO - 2017

Strangely, there does appear to be an answer. A study published a few years ago found that most people tend to stop going after new music and circle back on “coming of age” favorites when they reach about 33 years old. Men are less likely to listen to newer music than women, but the median age still averages out about the same.

But what that doesn’t explain, really, is why. Over the last few days, I’ve had the SiriusXM radio streaming at work. Rather than my fall-backs of Hair Nation, Ozzy’s Boneyard, or even Turbo, I put on Octane to see what’s new in the genre I love – hard rock and heavy metal. And none of it was bad, not a one of the songs was something I would point to and say “what the hell is that???” The problem, for me, is that none of them stood out enough to get that far. It all just sounded the same.

Doing the concert photography thing, I’ve found myself hanging out with photographers generally younger than me (getting into the game late). I get excited when the bands of my youth are coming back to town – Poison and Def Leppard and Judas Priest are all coming through my area, and I hope to be in the pit with them! But when newer bands, bands that excite my fellow shooters – Queens of the Stone Age, MGMT, Muse – come through, I’m looking to shoot those shows because I know they're popular and I want them for my portfolio and to attract people to my work. It’s not that I have any problems with the music, it just doesn’t excite me.

The flip-side is that I feel the same way about what I see as “legacy” acts coming through – the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Chicago. These are bands that are legendary, but they’re before my time. I want to cover the shows for the prestige of having them in my collection, but not for the show itself. (And even committing these words to the electronic ether, I run the risk of it getting back to a publicist and having them say “well, if you don’t really want to be there…” But that’s a chance I’ll take.)

The thing is, these are all bands that fall into the circle of music I should like. Old and new, these are rock acts. But only some of them are mine. There are a few exceptions. I’ve really gotten to like The Struts, and Ghost from Sweden. A few others are pulling at my attention, we’ll see if they latch on.

Luke Spiller of The Struts - Champaign, IL - 2017

I don’t know what it is in out sort-of evolved primate brains that, at a certain point, we just say “nope, that’s enough. I like what I like and all this other stuff is just white noise that won’t get through my filters.” I don’t really like having those filters, but it really seems deeply ingrained. I’m trying to break it and shake it, but I just keep coming back to what I know.

Just my rambling thoughts for a Wednesday afternoon.