2018 In Review (or, Reasons To Be Cheerful)

Time for my year-end retrospective already? Geez, the year goes by fast doesn’t it?

#preshowdefensivecrouch. (Yeah it’s a thing, look it up.)

#preshowdefensivecrouch. (Yeah it’s a thing, look it up.)

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.

Børns

Børns

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.

Børns

Børns

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!

Taylor went  big  with her Reputation

Taylor went big with her Reputation

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.

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift

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.

James Bay

James Bay

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.

“Weird Al” Yankovic

“Weird Al” Yankovic

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.

Rivers Cuomo of Weezer

Rivers Cuomo of Weezer

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!

Matt Berninger of The National

Matt Berninger of The National

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!

Twenty One Pilots drummer Josh Dun likes to hurt drum kits

Twenty One Pilots drummer Josh Dun likes to hurt drum kits

Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots

Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots

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.

David Byrne thinking outside the box

David Byrne thinking outside the box

David Byrne has a song where he describes a brain. Really.

David Byrne has a song where he describes a brain. Really.

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!

David Byrne

David Byrne

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.

Stephane San Juan

Stephane San Juan

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.

Twenty One Pilots

Want to see a few more favorites? Check out the slideshow below!

Or revisit my “Year In Review” for previous years: 2017, 2016, 2015

2016 In Review

Hard to believe it's that time of year again. Seems like only yesterday I was writing my 2015 "year in retrospect" post (maybe that's because I didn't do any other blogging in the meantime?), but it's already time to look back on another year.

2016 was a fun year for me. I got to shoot a lot of bands I hadn't shot before, and a few that I had already shot once or twice in prior years. There were new favorites to be discovered, unexpected help from unlikely sources, some disappointments and rejections, and a lot of lessons learned along the way. I tried to be a little more selective about the shows I agreed to shoot, and more disciplined about pressing the trigger when I did go and shoot (after all, you've got to sift through all those millions of shots in the hours after the show, and that's not nearly as much fun as it sounds...)

But without further ado, here's a sampling of my favorite moments from the last year. And like last year's review, these may not be what I'd consider my best shots - rather, they might be shots that capture something that reminds me why I love shooting shows, or they may have some other special significance to me.

Here goes.

Troye Sivan

Troye Sivan

In the vein of new artists I shot this year but didn't expect to, here's one of Troye Sivan from his show early this year at the Fox Theater in Oakland, CA.  I hadn't heard of Troye until I went back to Michigan last Christmas and my teenage niece mentioned she was planning to drive 3 hours to see him. Any new artist that gets a teenager to drive that far for a theater-sized concert is probably someone worth paying attention to, because you can bet they're going to be huge soon. I immediately jumped on the chance to shoot his tour stop in the Bay Area, and was not disappointed. Oh, and that thing I said about "going to be huge soon"? After playing the 2,800 seat Fox in February, he came back and sold out the 8,000 seat Bill Graham Civic Auditorium across the bay just 8 months later. Needless to say, I'll be going over my niece's playlist again this Christmas.

Jonathan Richman

Jonathan Richman

If Troye Sivan is the next big thing, then Jonathan Richman might be the exact opposite. Richman has been around since the early 1970's, and is partly known for being in a band that later spun off members to The Cars and Talking Heads. Richman has been tremendously influential in his own right, however - I'll save you the history lesson, as you can learn all about him on Wikipedia - and he's still going strong playing clubs on the west coast. I caught him opening for The Growlers at the Fox, and honestly wasn't prepared for the madness to which I was treated. He has a childlike quality to his performance, wide-eyed and full of enthusiasm and wonder, and you can't help but smile wide and go along for the ride. There's nobody out there quite like him. Jonathan Richman reminded me that night of why I'm addicted to the surprise of live music... and why I always plan to show up for the opener.

Ok, what else?  Well, I was thrilled to have the chance to shoot two supremely talented artists who caused quite a bit of confusion among Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran fans back in 2015 thanks to their uncannily similar names: Foy Vance and Vance Joy.

Vance Joy

Vance Joy

Foy Vance

Foy Vance

You've probably heard Vance Joy's song "Riptide" somewhere in the last year or two - on radio, TV, movies, etc. It's been pretty much everywhere. But Foy Vance remains somewhat under the radar, despite some pretty sweet gigs opening for Ed Sheeran and Elton John, among others. I'd recommend checking out his excellent new record "The Wild Swan" if you get the chance.

The award for my most intense, and perhaps most fun shoot of the year has to go to the band Foals. Their show at the Fox (yeah, I spent a lot of time there this year) was everything I expected and hoped it would be, which was loud, energetic and unpredictable. Foals is one of those bands that truly gets it when it comes to music photography. They want photographers to capture them at the show's peak - when they're sweaty, tired and cranking the energy to 11. So unlike every other band out there, Foals has the photographers shoot their last three songs instead of their first three. 

The results are kind of spectacular. It's the end of the show so they're playing their biggest hits, the crowd is going crazy, there's guys jumping off the stage... it's a photographer's dream (as long as you've got good insurance on your gear, I suppose.) When the chaos was over, I had a stupid smile on my face that wouldn't go away for hours.

With that show, Foals might've entered my top 5 of bands to shoot.

Foals

Foals

One of the most unexpectedly cool shows I shot this year had to be Bon Iver at the Fox.  I knew Bon Iver - aka Justin Vernon - was an impressive talent from listening to his records, but I didn't anticipate how impressive his live show would be. I've never seen so much gear packed onto the Fox's stage - instruments, lights, an imposing array of enormously tall video screens... there was hardly room to walk on the stage! It certainly wasn't at all what I expected from a guy who's known for some fairly melancholy electronic folk. While Justin was fairly reserved and stationary throughout the show (save for an amazing synchronized dance party at the end with his support act Francis and The Lights), the staging made for some incredible photos, even if it was challenging to get a clear shot at times and I wasn't given much time to shoot close-up. But I was the only photographer approved, and best of all I was given permission to shoot the entire show (except for the aforementioned dance party), which is a rarity for artists of his stature. So this one stands out as one of my favorite shows of the past year.

Bon Iver

Bon Iver

Bon Iver

Bon Iver

And finally there was Twenty One Pilots.  

To say they've have a meteoric rise in the last few years is a severe understatement. They went from playing in Yahoo's cafeteria a few years ago to playing Saturday Night Live and selling out arenas around the world on their latest tour. I'd been fortunate enough to shoot these guys twice in the past two years, both times at the Fox in Oakland. I've always been amazed by their showmanship and the passion of their fanbase, known as the "skeleton clique", not to mention their remarkably candid and thought-provoking lyrics and the simple fact that they just seem like real, stand-up guys. So when they came to town yet again, this time playing not one but two sold-out shows at the venerable Greek Theatre in Berkeley, I knew I had to be there. And even better, they brought along one of my all-time favorite bands, MuteMath, as support. This was a must-shoot show for me.

Thanks to unexpected help from a friend of a friend who knows a guy, I was given the chance to shoot the first night. I wish I could say serendipitous opportunities like that come along all the time, but truthfully it doesn't usually work out that way. So I'm beyond grateful when it does. Shooting that show was truly the highlight of my year, and I'm already crossing my fingers that I'll get the chance to shoot them again in 2017.

Twenty One Pilots

Twenty One Pilots

Twenty One Pilots

Twenty One Pilots

And as I mentioned, one of my favorite bands - MuteMath - opened the show. That was a big one to check off my bucket list. I'd narrowly missed shooting those guys a couple of times previously, and wondered if I'd ever get the chance. Thankful to have gotten some really great shots of them this time around.

I've noted in the past that if there's one thing I love to shoot, it's passion. I love artists who lose themselves on stage and give their all to the performance. It makes for great photography, to be sure, but even as just a fan I find it intoxicating. There's nothing quite like being at a show surrounded by people who all feel the same euphoria about what they're experiencing, and the feedback loop generated with the artist in that moment can be incredible. So here's to those fans and the shows this year that brought the passion in spades. It truly is what keeps me coming back for more.

Here's to a great 2016, and much more to come in 2017.

Foals

Want to see a few more? Check out my Flickr album "Favorite Concert Shots of 2016 and the slideshow below!