Time for my year-end retrospective already? Geez, the year goes by fast doesn’t it?
Though when looking back through all my shots from the last year, I was (as always) amazed that some of these shows were in 2018. It feels like forever ago that I shot some of these. So I always love reviewing my shots and reminding myself of all the fun I’ve had in the pit this year.
And so without further ado, here are a few of my favorite shots and shows from 2018. As always, the disclaimer applies that I’m choosing not just some of my best shots, but shots that are somehow special to me, or bring back good memories. So here goes!
Let’s start off with the show that started the year for me. Garrett Borns, who goes simply by Børns (I’d love to know how that’d be pronounced in Scandinavia, by the way), has always been fascinating to me. He grew up along the shoreline of West Michigan in a town called Grand Haven, not far from where I grew up, and it’s always been hard to picture a quirky, Gucci-loving pop artist like him coming out of a blue-collar place like that. He’s done well for himself though, recently releasing his second album of pop hits to great acclaim. When he announced he’d be opening his Blue Madonna tour in Oakland at the Fox Theater, I jumped at the chance to shoot it as the house photographer. But a few days prior I was also offered the chance to shoot the whole show for the studio who designed it, which turned out to be a really fun assignment. The show was beautifully lit and I had a great time trying to capture all the lighting cues.
There was one moment in particular I really enjoyed from this show, even though it’s quite simple. During a quieter ballad, Børns was lit by a single spotlight from behind, the light spilling off the stage onto the first row of the audience. A lone woman in the front row, illuminated by this light, reached up toward her idol, unable to reach him.
I happened to be in the balcony at the time, and found a great angle to capture this moment.
My biggest show of the year was none other than Taylor Swift, whom I haven’t taken photos of in quite some time. Needless to say, her show has evolved a bit since the last time I saw her! I was thrilled to have the chance to photograph just the second night of her massive Reputation stadium tour when it came to Santa Clara, California. I heard somewhere that she needed 82 semi trucks to haul around the staging, and I absolutely believe it. The stage was massive and elaborate, I’ve not seen anything quite like it. It was a beautiful show to shoot!
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Taylor has the best team of publicists I’ve encountered yet. Not only were they a joy to communicate with leading up to the show, but her main publicist even came out and introduced herself to each of us before the show, making sure we were set up alright and giving us tips on what to expect in the first two songs. Just the nicest people all around, really.
The sad reality in this industry is that there are many managers, publicists and artists out there who don’t care much for photographers. They might want your photos (and sometimes your copyright), but they don’t care much for you, the person taking them. They tolerate your presence rather than welcome it. They may even try to take advantage of you with unfair contracts, restrict you from doing your best work, and generally make your life difficult.
But Taylor’s team gives me hope.
One of my favorite albums of 2018, and one of my favorite shows as well, was by James Bay. His album Electric Light was incredible and probably didn’t get the attention it deserved, despite James getting a big break debuting two tracks on Saturday Night Live last spring. It’s a pretty great album, in my opinion, especially in the latter half.
James played a show at the legendary Fillmore in San Francisco shortly before the album released, and it was all kinds of amazing. And I don’t know what it is, but the man seems to have a knack for looking cool in my photos, both times I’ve photographed him. I got one shot of him looking off in the distance in that sweet red leather jacket of his, bathed in harsh white light, that I’m particularly fond of. He’s the epitome of cool. Everything about this picture takes me back to that show and that album, and I’m thankful for it.
Changing gears to another brand of “cool”, I had the chance to shoot another legend this year: “Weird Al” Yankovic! I grew up listening to his music, and remember having my young mind blown by his movie UHF many years ago, so it was especially thrilling to capture his “Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour” when it came to Oakland. Weird Al left his props and costumes at home for this tour, choosing instead to play deeper cuts in a more intimate, sit-down setting. It was still awesome.
Speaking of legends, I also had the chance to photograph Rivers Cuomo of Weezer when he came to San Francisco to play a solo acoustic show at a small venue in town called August Hall. I hadn’t seen Weezer in a long time, and I had missed shooting their recent tour stop in the Bay Area due to summer travels, so I was thankful to catch him in such a unique setting. Unfortunately the venue was set up in such a way that there wasn’t a dedicated spot in front for photographers to work from, but I was able to grab a little spot stage right where I could get some fun profile shots.
One of my most pleasant surprises came in October, when I finally got to shoot The National performing at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley again. I say “finally” because I had been scheduled to photograph them one year earlier in the same location, but the show had to be postponed due to the unhealthy air that blanketed the Bay Area during the Santa Rosa fires. A year was a long time to wait for a postponed show, but it turned out to be worth it.
I had photographed The National once before, in the same venue, and came away a little disappointed. They’re the kind of band that produces some pretty moody, cerebral rock music, and lead singer Matt Berninger can deliver his signature baritone in a pretty subdued, melancholy sort of manner most of the time. The first time I shot them, that’s exactly what I got - Matt, standing at a microphone in near darkness, hardly moving. Not the most exciting photos. But this time, thankfully, I got the other Matt: a frenzied, demon-possessed version of himself that makes for much better photos!
I also got to shoot one of my favorite subjects again: Twenty One Pilots. It had been almost two years since I last saw them, unbelievably, and once again their show did not disappoint. (Except that we only got to shoot two short songs, that part was a bummer. But hey, still worth it.) These guys keep going bigger and bigger with their production and somehow keep finding a way to work new elements into their show to keep it interesting for their fans. I hope 2019 gives me another chance to photograph them!
So what was my favorite show this year? That one is easy: David Byrne’s American Utopia Tour.
But explaining why it was my favorite is maybe not so easy.
You see, David Byrne isn’t like most artists. If you’re familiar with his earlier work as the frontman of Talking Heads, you know what I mean. He’s got a slant way of looking at the world and he packages it into catchy, unexpectedly quirky lyrics and melodies. He’s an artist in the truest sense, and that extends to his live show as well. One viewing of Talking Heads’ groundbreaking concert film Stop Making Sense and you’ll know that David Byrne doesn’t do concerts the way most musicians do.
For the American Utopia tour, David seemed to have thought to himself, “how can I strip away everything that people expect to see at a normal concert?” He performs the entire show in a grey, featureless chainmail box with none of the expected concert elements - you know, like instruments and amps and microphones - cluttering the stage. His band, eleven strong, wear their instruments like a marching band and perform mesmerizing choreography synchronized with some pretty creative use of light. David wears his trademark grey suit - with a few extra pockets for good measure - but skips the socks and shoes. His band dress likewise, blending together, though they are otherwise richly diverse in gender, age and ethnicity.
It’s a surreal experience, and difficult to adequately describe. You just have to see it to understand.
With nothing on the stage to hide behind, and no fancy light show or video feed to distract the audience, he’s exposed; he only has his music to entertain you. Luckily his music is pretty darn good! But there’s something else that’s hard to put into words. It’s just an indescribable joy that flows from everyone on stage. I’ve never been to a show where everyone on stage - in this case, twelve performers - seems to genuinely be having the absolute best time of their life for an hour and a half straight. And somehow, they did this for more than a hundred shows spread across the globe!
One of my favorite shots from that show wasn’t of David, but one of his six (!) percussionists, Stephane San Juan. Between verses of the Talking Heads classic “I Zimbra” the percussionists would turn and form a little drum circle, and the expressions of joy on their face as they faced one another was so genuine. It was if they all became kids again, reminding each other why they loved making music in the first place. I couldn’t help but take a quick picture of them.
That show’s infectious joy reminded me in a big way why I love going to shows, and getting up close to capture artists in still images like this. As I alluded to before, sometimes the industry has a way of beating you down, making you feel pretty small. It can make you question why you bother racking up the expenses and putting in the late hours. I had my fair share of that those feelings this year, and at times I questioned if I shouldn’t walk away for a bit.
But artists like David Byrne reminded me that there are reasons to be cheerful.
Here’s to a great year, and hopefully an even more cheerful 2019.