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.
Another year, another retrospective of my concert photography adventures. I always look forward to writing these posts because it's often easy to forget about the shows I shot just a month or two ago, much less a year ago, and this little trip down memory lane is a great reminder of all the fun I've had in the last year.
As always, this is obviously not an exhaustive list of the shows I've shot, nor is it a collection of my favorite or best shots. But each shot tells a piece of the story, and every show carries some special weight for me. And truly there's been some amazing shows this year, so let's get into it.
First up, Fox Mulder! Correction, that's David Duchovny, the X-Files actor who has created a second career for himself as a rock 'n roll artist. When I heard that David would be playing at a smallish basement club in San Francisco, I knew I had to shoot it. The X-Files were must-see TV for me back in college, and I'm pretty sure that was true for the entire audience at his show as well. I was given the opportunity to shoot the entire set, and though the light was not ideal, I was pretty happy with the shots I was able to get. You can find more of those photos on the blog post I wrote after the show.
David Duchovny wasn't the only hero of mine I had the chance to photograph in a small club this year. I was also grateful to catch Filthy Friends, a musical collaboration that features Sleater-Kinney frontwoman Corin Tucker and R.E.M.'s legendary guitarist Peter Buck.
R.E.M. was one of those bands I didn't appreciate until I was in college, right around the time Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi were propelling the band to new heights. But once I discovered that they had more songs than just "Shiny Happy People" and "Losing My Religion", I was hooked. Peter and his distinct Rickenbacker guitar tones were a big part of why.
Peter is an interesting guy. He helped define one of the most important and popular alternative rock bands of all time and is revered by some of the greatest musicians alive, but since R.E.M. broke up in 2011 he records and tours with his numerous side projects, slumming it in tiny clubs and just playing music for the fun of it. The man cares nothing for the music industry, for the expectations put on musicians, for the fame. He cares about making music, and that's it. I expected him to be too important, too famous to dwell amongst the fans after the show was over, but there he was, signing autographs at the merch table like a hungry young musician might. There's something deeply inspiring about that no matter what form of art you create.
Since we're on the theme of small clubs... one of the most fun shows I had the chance to cover this year was in a small club in New York City called Irving Plaza. I found myself traveling to the Big Apple this spring for a conference related to my day job, and since I was traveling alone I knew I'd have some time to kill in the evenings. Lo and behold, it turned out that The Band Perry, a now-massively famous country band that I once photographed performing outside the cafeteria at Yahoo HQ before they became famous, would be squeezing into Irving Plaza to play an intimate show for fans and industry folks, debuting a little of their new pop-oriented sound. I worked a few connections and ended up getting to shoot the show for a NYC-based online magazine.
This wasn't your normal club show, however. The Band Perry don't usually play clubs anymore, so this was billed as a "pop-up" tour. Which in part meant they constructed an in-the-round stage in the center of the small room and brought in a higher production value than most bands who play such rooms. The show was short (maybe an hour tops?) and there was no opening act, but it did not disappoint.
Moving from NYC to the Jersey shore now... I was fortunate to shoot one of my photographic muses, Jack Antonoff of Bleachers, once again at the Fox Theater in Oakland. Jack puts 110% into his performances, every single time, so I almost can't fail to get an amazing shot of him. He makes my job so easy! I hope to never miss one of his performances when he comes through the Bay Area.
Here's a show I actually didn't end up getting to shoot, but I have to mention anyway. You may remember from last year's review that in 2016 I had the chance to finally shoot one of my all-time favorite bands, Mutemath, when they opened for Twenty One Pilots in Berkeley. At the time I somewhat prophetically mused that "I'd narrowly missed shooting those guys a couple of times previously, and wondered if I'd ever get the chance." Well, little did I know how close I came to missing that chance completely. Only months after wrapping up the support slot on that tour, and shortly before the release of their incredible 5th LP Play Dead, the band announced that founding bassist Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas would no longer be touring with the band. And then, just five months later, it was announced that legendary drummer/animal Darren King, the driving force of the rhythm section and creative yin to Paul Meany's yang, would be leaving the band completely for unspecified reasons. (Darren's departure was announced on 808 Day, which I find depressingly coincidental.) This just weeks before their fall tour was to begin and their new album released. The news was devastating to fans, and felt like a death knell for a truly incredible band. Having already replaced one original member a few years back, only one original member would now remain, at least when playing live.
But all was not lost. Old friends of the band stepped into the vacant roles and rehearsed night and day, and the tour went on with convincing vigor. And when they passed through San Francisco for a date at the Fillmore in October, it felt as though they never missed a beat. Sure, it wasn't quite the same Mutemath I've enjoyed in the past. But the new songs sounded amazing live, and the energy in the room was off the charts.
And here's the most interesting part: new drummer David "Hutch" Hutchinson, who had been working as a an EMT for more than a decade before the life-changing call came to take Darren's seat at the drum kit, found himself called back into life-saving duty at The Fillmore. Midway through the show a young fan at the front passed out, apparently exhausted and suffering from hypoglycemia. The band stopped mid-song and Hutch jumped off the stage to administer first aid while Paul played a beautiful and calming rendition of "You Are Mine" solo.
Never seen anything like it before.
Mutemath wasn't the only fun show I went to in October. October is often one of the busiest months of the year because it seems like all the big tours come through around the same time in mid-autumn. I could find an amazing show to shoot every single day of the month if I was crazy enough.
But October turned out to be a month of surprises for me. I started out the month with a bunch of great shows I expected to shoot, and ended up shooting none of them. Some were cancelled, some didn't come through with approvals, and some I ended up having scheduling conflicts. But the replacement shows ended up being even better.
First up, I had the chance to shoot at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, CA for the first time as Coldplay came back to town at the tail end of their US tour. I hadn't seen Coldplay since 2002 when they played the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, and it's safe to say their live show has evolved a bit since those days. It was pretty much a photographer's dream: pit access along the catwalk, confetti, pyrotechnics, and a very energetic Chris Martin making ample use of the catwalk, all in the first three songs. Most bands won't give you all that right out of the gate, preferring to save some surprises for the end. But Coldplay held nothing back, thankfully. Those guys put on a heck of a show, and I'd highly recommend seeing them next time they tour.
And then, a couple of weeks later, I had the chance to shoot Arcade Fire for the first time when they headlined Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA. This one wasn't a pit shoot; instead they positioned us back by the soundboard - but outside the crowd barrier. Not sure why they didn't afford us the protection of being behind the barrier as is normally done; who wants to try and grapple with large amounts of expensive camera gear while people squeeze by in the dark with overflowing beer cups in both hands?! But at least the show was in the round, which made the distance from the stage a bit less, and the show was pretty amazing, from what I saw of it before I was escorted out at the end of the third song.
I've always loved the ceiling of the Oracle, and I knew going in that I had to get a wide-angle shot that highlights the architecture of the place. In some ways the ceiling reminds me a little bit of Madison Square Garden, but perhaps a bit less finished. Being in the round and positioned off-center only makes for a stronger shot, I think! I was thrilled with the results.
To finish the year off, I had the opportunity somewhat last-minute to photograph a rare performance by Thom Yorke of Radiohead at the Fox Theater. Thom, along with longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and audiovisual artist Tarik Barri, only played two shows in California - one in LA and one here in Oakland - before heading off to headline the Day For Night festival in Houston, so I guess our show was a rehearsal of sorts. I've yet to see Radiohead live but I've long admired their creative spirit, so it was a bit of a treat to catch their mad genius frontman in person like this. Unfortunately Thom didn't want photographers getting too many good shots of him, apparently, because he had the photographers (all 8-10 of us by my estimate) shooting from the balcony aisles, and in near darkness for most of the time we were given. Oh well, it was worth it, if only because it gave me an excuse to finally try out the Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 I've had my eye on for awhile!
In conclusion, 2017 was another great year for me. I shot some of my biggest shows to date, contributed to a few new publications, and continued to refine my approach to the craft. I've been a little pickier about the shows I'll agree to shoot in an effort to maintain better balance with my day job, and I think it's been good for me. I'm looking forward to a bunch of great shows I've already booked for 2018, and hopefully pushing myself to get a little better every day.
Lastly, I wouldn't be doing this if it weren't for the fans who continue to inspire, whether it's with kind words at a show, "likes" on an Instagram post, or just showing up to scream their heads off for their favorite bands. Thank you, fans, for all of that. A great fan base makes all the difference, not just for the bands on stage but also for people like me working unnoticed in the narrow gap between the stage and the audience, and I can't stress that enough. Rock on.
See you in 2018.
Want to see a few more photos? Check out the slideshow below!