Rock ‘n’ roll is dead – at least as far as record sales go. Album sales dwindle with every passing year. It’s in the live arena that it’s at its healthiest. Bands tour now like they did in the 60s. You get paid to show up and play, and anything else on top of that is a bonus.
For 20-odd years I was a music journalist, first in New Zealand, then in London. I went to hundreds upon hundreds of gigs, in venues big and small. A decade go, I started shooting bands for my project capturing bands during soundchecks. Before then, I’d only shot a handful of live gigs. I went to those shows as a reviewer, not a photographer.
Times change. Now, the prospect of capturing a band on film is too good to miss up, especially when that band includes an old friend and means I won’t have to head for the exit after only three songs.
Jon Spencer has been a righteous noise in indie rock circles since the late 1980s, first in hardcore band Pussy Galore and then in the swamp blues/rockabilly riot Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I remember seeing them a few times in the late 1990s; their gigs were spectacularly loud and sweaty.
Blue Explosion still tour regularly, but Spencer has also created a new band, one that leans more on a 50s vibe. Heavy Trash – a partnership with guitarist Matt Verta-Ray.
My mate Sam is usually behind the drumkit; we met well over a decade ago, when he was the drummer in Nashville country-soul outfit Lambchop. We’ve hung out together in Zagreb, Moscow and Istanbul, drunk in dive bars in New York and slurped local brews in my old hometown Wellington. Back in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, he plays with six or seven bands; Heavy Trash is the only one with a big enough profile to bring him this side of the Atlantic.
I took the same set-up I use for my soundcheck shots; a Nikon FM2N with a 50mm lens and an autofocus Nikon F100 with an 85mm lens. A few of my last rolls of Fuji Neopan black and white, and a some Fuji Superia 400, a film that emphasis red and saturates colours dramatically. I pushed the Superia up to 800 and the Neopan all the way to 3200. Just like Kodak’s Tri-X, Neopan is a fantastic film to push process.
I ended up not even using the F100. The 50mm was all I needed. Sure, the wider focal range means you see more of the background, but it’s also much closer to the front-row-view of the action. Zooming in further detaches those faces. You see the sweat but not the crowd.
The pick at the top of the post is my very favourite, Sam silhouetted against the raking venue lights as he took a turn on the bass during the last few songs. It was his birthday that night; a few minutes later he was presented with a cake on stage. The things you miss when you’re rewinding your film…