Archive for October, 2010

Nikki Yanofsky, blurred

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Nikki Yanofsky

I normally strive for technically sharp, correctly exposed concert photos. That’s the nature of shooting for publications: there’s a limit to how artsy you can get. Tonight I shot Nikki Yanofsky, an immensely talented 16-year-old Canadian jazz vocalist, and my favorite shot of the night, above, is about as far from technically perfect as it gets. I completely missed the focus, but I did manage to catch a genuinely expressive moment, and the blur and blue halo (from the strong backlighting) give the shot an impressionistic feel that’s quite different from what I normally produce. The rest of my shots from the show look kind of boring by comparison, although Yanofsky was quite a sympathetic subject.

Nikki Yanofsky

Nikki Yanofsky

The primary challenge here was dealing with the backlights, which were intensely bright, especially when compared to the relatively weak frontlight. This was a seated show, so I had to kneel down at the front of the stage, and when I pointed my lens up at Yanofsky, the backlights were right there in my frame. What would have been my best shots were largely unusable thanks to the resulting loss of contrast, although I did salvage that headline photo and a couple others. The Varsity Theater has a balcony that I moved up to in order to get a few shots without that strong backlight, but unlike, say, the 9:30 Club, the balcony is pretty far away from the stage. The shot immediately above was at 200mm and cropped in a good bit – I might bring my D300 to the next show I cover here if I expect to be shooting from the balcony.

A few more shots from this show are up at Flickr.

Sufjan Stevens’ new tour…

Monday, October 18th, 2010

Sufjan Stevens

…is kind of bewildering. It features almost entirely material from the new album, which is fine except for the fact that the new stuff is so different from the old and is a bit jarring by comparison. It features bizarre backup dancers (which I understand may or may not be anything new for Stevens’ stage show). It features Stevens himself doing these weird robotic white-boy dance moves. At first, the crowd laughed and hooted and hollered a bit. Then, he kept doing it and it became less and less clear how seriously we were supposed to take this stuff. It just kind of got a bit strange and uncomfortable and distracting.

Musically, I thought the show was kind of a mixed bag too. Some of the new songs have these pretty great buildups, creating lots of tension before exploding into joyous noise. Live, they just seemed cacophonous and a bit unfocused. Also, Stevens has started using the upper register of his non-falsetto voice a lot more, and it’s not really a part of his voice that I enjoy all that much. I love his lower, softer range; I don’t love this new reliance on his upper range.

Sufjan Stevens

The light for the show, at least for Stevens himself, was decent; there was a white spotlight that focused on him occasionally. Aside from those moments, it was all about deep color washes; lots of yellows and magentas. The stage show features a mesh screen that gets periodically lowered in front of the band to allow projections to show up not just on the screen behind them, but also in front of them. This is a pretty cool effect, although one that’s not really photographable except from a vantage point further back in the venue. Up close, the mesh screen just obscures all the band members and makes getting good shots pretty much impossible. The screen was down for maybe the equivalent of one full song out the first three, so this isn’t a negligible consideration.

I didn’t really get too many photos of Stevens dancing for some reason. I was kind of zeroed in on getting one or two great shots of him singing; I ignored trying to get shots of the larger stage show or the other band members (who were playing in darkness almost the whole time anyway). I guess I got that from shooting for a daily where one great shot of the bandleader is really all that you’re looking for, and the rest is just bonus.

I more or less got what I want, but a gazillion photos of Stevens singing and playing guitar does not an interesting photoset make, so I’ve just posted a few over at Flickr.


Sunday, October 10th, 2010


The worldwide obsession with zombies is a little strange to me. DC had some kind of zombie walk on the mall every year and I never went or had much interest. Minneapolis’ version of this is the annual Zombie Pub Crawl, and it happens right down the street from me, so I found it much more tempting to go and take pictures of crazy bloody people. I wasn’t really feeling very into the spirit, so instead of really engaging with folks I just kind of sniped away, street photography style. There was some seriously impressive makeup going on.


Zombie Pub Crawl

Zombie Pub Crawl VI

Blood on the street

Full set here.

Ra Ra Riot at the Varsity Theater

Saturday, October 9th, 2010

Ra Ra Riot

I love shooting Ra Ra Riot. Their brand of indie-pop isn’t really my favorite, but I love their live show. The entire band just seems so deeply into their music; it’s pretty endearing and it makes for great photos. Cellist Alexandra Lawn in particular (above) looks like she’s in a happy trance for most of the show, dancing with her instrument the whole time, often with a wide smile on her face. There’s a good reason that she is a perennial favorite with concert photographers.

Ra Ra Riot

The Varsity Theater has a lighting rig that rivals the best of any I’ve ever seen at a venue this size. Bizarrely, it was put to best use for the first opener. For Ra Ra Riot, the lighting scheme mostly consisted of colorful background washes and inconsistent frontlighting. Lawn and violinist Rebecca Zeller were on the far edges of the stage and almost never got any clean, direct frontlight. For basically the entire show, I was locked in at ISO 3200 and even then not quite getting the shutter speeds I wanted – I was flicking from 1/80 up to 1/320. I probably should have broken out the primes a bit more than I did. I often have a severe bias to the 24-70 simply because it’s the most versatile of my concert lenses, but switching it up more often would definitely do me some good.

Ra Ra Riot

There’s no pit at the Varsity, so I got there unnecessarily early and was mostly confined to a single spot on stage left. I moved halfway through Ra Ra Riot’s set, though, swapping places with some other fans in the front, to get some slightly different angles. It wasn’t so jam-packed in there that that was a problem at all.

Ra Ra Riot

Ra Ra Riot

And how about that gorgeous light for the first opener, We Barbarians? Here’s a taste:

We Barbarians

Lots more photos of all three bands here in the full set.

Muse: where’d the lasers go?

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010


It’s not often that you get to shoot an arena band three times in the space of a year for three different outlets. About a year ago, I photographed Muse opening for U2 at Fedex Field near DC. That was for the Washington City Paper. This past March, I covered them again, this time on their headlining tour, at the Patriot Center in northern Virginia. That was for the Washington Post. Last night, I did it a third time – somehow they’re still on their headlining tour, and they were at the Target Center in Minneapolis. This time it was for Retna.


In March, the visual story of the show (well, aside from the entire stage production being insanely over-the-top) was the lasers. There were lasers everywhere, all the time. It seemed like I could barely take a single photo without green lasers showing up all over the place. This time around, they were conspicuously absent, except for a single instance in the first three songs where Matthew Bellamy shined some kind of handheld laser out into the audience. Not sure if it was a venue regulation, a downsizing of the tour production (that seems unlikely as all the rest of the bells and whistles were in full effect), or what, but in any case it was a bit disappointing. In large part thanks to the drama of those fancy green lights, my photos from March are way better than the ones I got last night. And I even had a step stool this time!

Amanda Rheaume, up close and personal

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

Amanda Rheaume

I went and scoped out the 400 Bar tonight, one of several (along with Triple Rock Social Club, The Cabooze and The Cedar Cultural Center) venues in my neighborhood that gets touring bands regularly. It’s by far the smallest of these, kind of Iota-sized for my DC-area readers, but with surprisingly good sound and lighting. I liked it quite a bit. Tonight Canadian singer-songwriter Amanda Rheaume was the feature act; she’s pretty active onstage and I’d imagine would be really fun to shoot in a more energetic setting. (Tonight’s crowd was rather sleepy.)

For this shot I went in tight and framed the subject weirdly. I like the tension created by the tight crop – I think the crop makes this photo stand out from the rest of the set.

Spark Festival 2010

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

Fred Frith

I was amazingly bummed to have missed this year’s incarnation of the Sonic Circuits festival in DC, where so many of my favorite bands who may well never play in the United States ever again were on the bill – Magma, Univers Zero, Richard Pinhas & Merzbow, Miriodor, and more. A small consolation was finding out last-minute about this year’s Spark Festival of Electronic Music and Arts right here in Minneapolis – in fact, just a few blocks from where I live. Unfortunately, I was only able to see three acts out of the entire massive festival lineup, but each one of them was awesome.

Fred Frith and Klaxon Gueule

Fred Frith (headline photo and foreground above, playing with Klaxon Gueule) was the big highlight for me, being a huge fan of his from Henry Cow on to his current-day explorations in jazz, free improv, modern composition and more. He played a long improvised piece that featured him wringing out all kinds of sounds from a simple electric guitar – using drumsticks, a violin bow, various scraps of metal, paintbrushes, and other nontraditional implements to make his point. Far from being gimmicky, it was a virtuoso show and earned Frith an ecstatic standing ovation from a pretty solid crowd.

Klaxon Gueule

Klaxon Gueule features a key member of Miriodor, guitarist Bernard Falaise, and was a nice surprise – Falaise (above) had some seriously ripping solos in the midst of their set. I also know bassist Alexandre St-Onge from his work with Shalabi Effect, one of the more out-there post-rock groups on the scene, and his fretless work was pretty fun to watch. Klaxon Gueule weren’t as transcendent as Frith, but I really enjoyed their set, full of more straightforward rhythms than one might expect from an act in a festival like this.

The Friction Brothers

Finally, The Friction Brothers were one of the most fun-to-watch group of improvisors I’ve ever seen. I know and like cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm (he singlehandedly made The Vandermark 5 one of my favorite modern avant-jazz groups) and percussionist Michael Zerang, but what makes the Friction Brothers unique is Michael Colligan, who plays… dry ice. He had two blocks of dry ice on a table and pressed heated metal objects (mouthpieces from brass instruments, tea kettles, spoons, coffee cans, and more) against them – as the dry ice sublimated, it created vibrations in the metal and that combined with escaping air moving around the objects created sound. There were no electronics used at all and this trio made some truly fascinating noises and turned them into compelling soundscapes.

Photography-wise, Frith and Klaxon Gueule played in a church on a stage lit only by two blue-gelled lights. I blasted the white balance back to a normal range in post-processing simply because the blue came out pretty hideously in photos. So the photos of them are not at all what people saw in real life, but I’m ok with that. Friction Brothers played in an even dimmer space lit only by a single light behind cellist Lonberg-Holm. Nothing to do there other than shoot wide-open at f/1.4 and ISO 6400 and hope for the best. I didn’t get the best, but it’s good enough in this case.

A few more photos here.