David Duchovny at Social Hall SF

As long as there's been rock 'n roll, there've been musicians who have wanted to transcend the limits of radio and recorded medium to achieve another level of fame on the silver screen. (Thank you, Elvis.)  And likewise, many actors have crossed over in the other direction, wanting to leave behind the glitz and glamour of Hollywood to explore the grime and glory of rock stardom (hello, Jared Leto, Billy-Bob Thornton and Keifer Sutherland!)  Add to that long list of crossovers one David Duchovny, star of sci-fi drama The X-Files on Fox, not to mention the Showtime series Californication and a long list of minor movie credits.

With his acting career in a bit of a lull while talk of an X-Files reboot continued to swirl, David jumped into the music world in 2015 with the release of his debut album Hell or Highwater.  It's a bluesy, bar-room style of rock that echoes his New York roots, and while it may not end up on anyone's "best of 2015" lists, it's a respectable first effort for a guy best known for chasing little green men and rambling in a distinct monotone about unimaginable government conspiracies.  And recently he's taken his act on the road, playing a string of club dates along the West and East coasts, supported by a young and very capable five-piece backing band.

 David Duchovny and a crowd barrier that requires a lot of trust.

David Duchovny and a crowd barrier that requires a lot of trust.

Duchovny's tour made a stop in San Francisco at the Social Hall SF, a relatively new club-sized venue that opened in late 2015 in the basement of the more well-known Regency Ballroom.  The Social Hall SF is a gorgeous and cavernous space with multiple rooms and a low ceiling that very much reminds you you're in a basement.  Yet it serves its purpose well.  The stage is of ample size and very low to the ground (thanks to the low ceiling, I imagine), making photography relatively easy, though a bit awkward when shooting front and center.  The lights were quite dim, but nothing worse than what you see in other clubs of a similar size.  I was thankful to at least have the benefits of a photo pit in front of the stage, though the crowd barrier was rather flimsy and it inched closer to the stage as the night went on.  And I was given the opportunity to shoot the entire show, rather than just the first three as is more common.  I live for shows with that kind of photo policy!

 David Duchovny. I do approve of his sneakers.

David Duchovny. I do approve of his sneakers.

The show featured everything you'd expect, including catcalls from overzealous female fans, lots of classic rock poses performed somewhat convincingly, and numerous X-Files quotes shouted from the crowd between songs ("Get it out of your system", David encouraged with an air of resigned tolerance.)  And there were a few surprises as well.  For one, David was surprisingly willing to interact and connect physically with his adoring fans.  He frequently left the sanctuary of the stage to explore the audience, slapping high fives and posing for photos not just in the front row but all around the circumference of the crowd.  He also pulled out a surprisingly good cover of The Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" during the encore, a band from his hometown which in retrospect seems like an obvious influence (he's certainly no Lou Reed, but there's moments you can hear his dry, clipped vocalizations paying homage.)

All in all, it was a lot of fun to watch one of my favorite actors branching out and doing something he clearly loves that isn't what people would expect from him. Writing and producing music, and then getting up and performing it on a stage for customers paying between $28 and $150 to see you (the latter getting you the soundcheck meet-and-greet VIP experience) isn't an easy thing to pull off for even the most seasoned of celebrities, so I give Duchovny a lot of credit for taking his second career as seriously as he seems to be tackling it.  

He's working on a second album, apparently, which I'll be looking forward to hearing. It'll be fun to see just how much he's growing as a songwriter and performer, and see if he's able to grow his audience beyond those who know him primarily as Fox Mulder.

Photos: Sufjan Stevens

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of shooting one of my all-time favorite artists, Sufjan (pronounced "Soof-yahn") Stevens.  

My appreciation for Sufjan's music goes way back to the late '90s, when I was a student at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.  At that time, Sufjan was a student at our nearby rival, Hope College in Holland, MI.  While at Hope, Sufjan was part of a tremendous 4-piece alternative/folk band called Marzuki, which often played in the West Michigan area.  I had the opportunity to see Marzuki play at my school on a few occasions, usually in front of very small crowds, and I was always awed by the talent and musicianship they put on display.  They'd play an amazing song with guitar, bass, cello, wood flute, etc... and then swap their instruments and play another amazing song just as well as the last.  Led by guitarist and vocalist Shannon Stephens, who has since put out a number of amazing albums of her own, Sufjan took on more of a supporting role but his influence on their sound was undeniable.

Marzuki is one of those bands that I still mourn the loss of to this day - their low-fi self-titled album and their more polished EP No One Likes A Nervous Wreck remain two of the most prized albums in my collection.  There are songs on those albums that will send chills up your spine and stay in your head forever.  (I hope one day Sufjan or Shannon or somebody else will re-record and release some of those songs - "Kissing the Ceiling", "I Love You I Hate You" or "You Can't Be Happy Without Me" would be amazing and they deserve to be heard - but I'm not holding my breath.)

So all this to say, it was incredibly special for me to shoot the first of his two sold-out shows at the Fox Theater in Oakland, CA on June 5th, 2015. Sufjan was touring in support of his phenomenal LP Carrie & Lowell, an intimate exploration of the grief he experienced in the wake of his estranged mother Carrie's death, and the affection felt for his step-father Lowell with whom he remains close.  The show was emotional, powerful and I believe cathartic for Sufjan.  There were a lot of tears shed in the audience as well.

Sufjan Stevens

At the end of the first set, a young woman made her way onto the stage, crying, to shake Sufjan's hand and thank him for his music.  In a way, it seemed not just appropriate in that moment but necessary, as if the audience collectively needed to exhale and reach out to the man and share in the grieving process.  I quickly snapped a photo of the young woman as she hurried off stage.

I shot this show as the house photographer, and was surprised to find that I had the "pit" to pretty much to myself, which I can only assume is related to Sufjan's seeming lack of interest in things like social media. (I call it a "pit", but in reality they had me shooting from behind one of the two bars that flank the orchestra level of the theater. Because the show was a seated show, there was no photo pit at the front of the stage.)  Not that I would complain about being lonely in the pit, however!  Thankfully I was prepared for being placed farther back and I brought along a monopod and a 1.7x teleconverter to pair with my 70-200mm f/2.8.  They paid off, though the angle I was shooting from was not ideal and the light was dim for those first three songs, so I ended up getting my best shots from the balcony.

It was a magical night and one I won't soon forget.  Sufjan has come a long way in the years since I first attended his shows - his audience has multiplied across the world and his songwriting and musical talent has grown exponentially, but he still comes across with a humble charm that can put you at ease before knocking you flat with the most beautiful and sorrowful sounds you've ever heard.  

I can't wait to see what he does next.

 

Photos: London Grammar and Until The Ribbon Breaks

London Grammar, a young electronic pop trio out of the UK, wrapped up their North American tour with a sold-out show at the Fox Theater in Oakland, CA on Saturday, February 7th 2015. Considering the enthusiasm of the large crowd - nearly five times larger than their last Bay Area show last year - it's safe to say they've got a bright future ahead of them.

This shoot was a little more challenging than some, as we were told up front we'd only be allowed to shoot for two songs. I had hoped this meant they were going to be really long songs, but nope - just the usual length, and go figure, there was plenty of dim light to start the show. To make matters worse, my preferred camera was in the shop, so I had to make do with my backup, which struggles in dim light. Despite all the challenges, I managed to get a few keepers.

Opening the show was Until The Ribbon Breaks, a new electronic pop band also hailing from the UK who blends pop, hip-hop and rock to create a unique sound. Their music was inspired by old films which the band watches in the studio while writing music apparently, so it came as no surprise that their set featured a projection of some of this film footage while they played. They also projected a cameo by hip-hop act Run The Jewels during one of their collaborations.

For this set we were allowed to shoot the normal three songs, which was helpful.