Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Erykah Badu @ Marquee Theatre

To be honest, going into this the only thing I new about Erykah Badu is that she has some wild hair, and used to wear some large hats.

After the pat down and bag search I made my way to the front pit area of the Marquee Theatre. There was a band on stage that was seriously rocking the house and winning the crowd over. I found out later that it was Janelle Monae... I'm out of the loop on current music apparently. It struck me as a sort of 60's era soul with some R&B mixed in... but then throw in some melting electric guitar and live drums. A sort of novelty act, but in a good way. I came in too late and was not allowed to shoot them unfortunately. There was some serious energy here, it ended with a stage dive and the crowd going completely bonkers for her.

Before any band or performer goes on stage, I sort of hang out in the wings, off to the side of the stage. I get my camera and lenses ready for shooting and wait for the house lights to go down. Tonight when the house lights went off, I made my way to the far side of the stage, where a DJ was set up. I figured it would be a couple of minutes of him "kicking out the jams", getting the crowds pumped, and bigging up Erykah Badu... making her entrance a massive spectacle. In fact, this couldn't be more wrong. The entire intro was so bizarre to me, which made the DJ completely pointless. He played a bunch of greatest hits records from 20 years of hip hop, using his Mac to change the songs. (Don't get me started on this) TWENTY minutes later, a guy from behind the curtain walks out on to the middle of the stage, and tells the DJ to cut it. He promptly fades the music out, and hits a different button that plays some prerecorded keyboard sounds. A solid 6 or 7 minutes later Erykah Badu walks out on stage, very un-climatically, with a dim flashlight in her hand, shining it at the audience for about 10 seconds, then puts it down, and takes her positionat behind the mic. For the next 20 minutes while I was able to stay and photograph, her feet didn't move from the spot she walked out to.

Wearing possibly the most bizarre, in a bad way, outfit I'd seen in a long time, complete with bowler cap and "a smelly old blanket that a Navajo wove"... Erykah killed any 'up' mood that the DJ created by starting the show with three slow moving ballads all in a row. There had to have been 12 or 13 people on the stage... say 10 of them not put to any sort of use... and Badu lit by a spot light. It was the most underwhelming use of the beginning of a show I'd ever witnessed. I can completely understand creating a mood... but this was akin to being on a terribly unsatisfying rollercoaster ride at a ring road carnival, or simply being pushed down a hill. The show started fantastically with Janelle Monae, so much electric energy... then the DJ got everyone in the audience singing and dancing together... then Erykah Badu came out, and might as well could have started reading Pride and Prejudice. Actually, as I was watching Janelle Monae and her band... I was thinking to myself, "It's got to take a serious performer to book someone like that as an opener... she must not be able to be upstaged." Sadly, this was not the case.

I didn't set out to write a scathing review... I don't think my reviews count for much more than a few ok photos and maybe some back story on what it's like being a photographer... but I had to say something, didn't I? I'm sure the rest of the show was brilliant.

On another note, my new lens... the Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro performed amazingly! I used it almost exclusively for this shoot, save for a few wide shots with my 17-40mm. While this lens is a "Macro" lens (meaning close-up), I think it is dismissed as a nice portrait lens... but I am actually quite impressed by it! This was the first time I really got to see what it can do with light on a persons face. Luckily, the Marquee broke out with their spots for this show and I was able to play with it. The images are incredibly sharp and bokeh (blurry background) was silky smooth! Great purchase!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cake @ Marquee Theatre

"Hello Phoenix, we are CAKE, and we are here to serve YOU!" The old play on words never gets old... I thought it was a fun, lighthearted way to open the show.

I was actually moderately excited to shoot CAKE in concert. I can't call myself a "big" fan, but do become infatuated with their sound pretty heavily from time to time. In fact, it was in the latest such CAKE craze that I found out they were coming to town. I instantly emailed my editor at the New Times and said I had to shoot it.

A couple days before the show I got the call that I was confirmed to shoot... and was told there would be no opening band, and that CAKE would actually play two separate sets, with a break in between. This sounded pretty awesome! Not that I'd get to shoot the whole ordeal, but from a fan's point of view, what more can you ask for? And in fact, I had to leave after I'd shot anyways... prior engagement that evening.

The Marquee has yet to let me down. In that, every time I shoot there, I can count on the lights being terrible. I always feel bad for the bands that play there... the photos inevitably end up portraying an unexciting concert stop. As if they played in a bar along the way to the real venue. Dim light, from the back of the house is "moody" when you are there in person... but cameras need actual light to capture anything interesting. Shooting in this kind of situation becomes almost a chore. Cameras and lenses are pushed to their limits... and even "fast" lenses (or low-light lenses) generally struggle and need the assistance of a monopod, or a solid speak cabinet to lean on.

All negativity aside, it was fun. Another band I wish I could have stayed and watched, even from the back of the house. But I did get to hear them open with one of my favorites... "Comfort Eagle". It's a fun jam, and I think it is very categorically CAKE-ish. The twangy, dirty guitar riff... the near-monotone vocals... the word accentuating group yell... and the synchronous hand clap... it's all there. It's all great. It's all CAKE.

One odd note: in the moments before a band takes the stage... there is always music playing, generally chosen by the band... when I walked in that night I heard Laurie Anderson's "O, Superman!". I thought only my wife and I listened to Laurie Anderson...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Brian Wilson @ Talking Stick Resort

Some background... I hold the work of Brian Wilson in very high regard. "Pet Sounds" and "Smile" are two albums that I put in my top five albums of all time. I think they are basically perfect albums, and albums that should be enjoyed in their entirety.

Having shot live concerts for four years now, there is still the core group of my major musical influences I have yet to cover. Brian Wilson was one of the big ones. So of course I jumped at the chance. I'd never even seen him in concert before. I was too young when he left the Beach Boys, and I hadn't had the opportunity to make it to any of his solo gigs. So this was a real treat for me.

I was told I wouldn't have a ticket for the show, which is normal for photographers... but when I showed up to the Talking Stick Resort I met the entertainment director, who was also a big Wilson fan, and after chatting about Brian for a while, he said to just grab any open seat and watch the show. Sadly, there were a lot of seats to pick from. I don't know if it was lack of promotion, or just bad timing... but the 1600 seat ballroom at the resort was only about 3/4 full.

When Brian came on, everyone stood up and cheered... Brian was his normal cheery, if slightly awkward, and shouty self on stage... "THANK you ladies and gentlemen, THANK you!" I'd never seen him live before, so hearing him talk to the audience between songs was a real treat... and to be honest, really made me laugh. I couldn't tell if it was on purpose, but he was very goofy with the song titles and the banter, at one point he announced "This is a song... about a guy... who gets around! It's called, I get around!" When the band had finished the final chords, he shouted "That's the end of the song!"

The set list for the evening was a little bizarre, not exactly what I expected. Only a couple solo tracks... one track from Smile (Good Vibrations)... and a lot of the surf and car tunes. A particularly odd track for me was "Salt Lake City, USA". It just wasn't what I expected to hear that night, but I had an enjoyable time singing along none the less.

When introducing "God Only Knows" Brian got very quiet and said "For this song, I'm gonna shrink down to about five foot four, and use some femininity in my voice". His voice became very small, his face very serious, and it was apparent that he was nervous about attempting this song. While he was hitting all the notes, his voice just wasn't there for this song. His falsetto has diminished, which is a shame... but that aside, it was great to hear him perform this amazing song.

Brian's presence on stage was very endearing to me. Stuck seated behind a keyboard, obviously not as active as he once was, and his voice not what it used to be... I still looked on him as the man responsible for some of my favorite music. And I had a great time seated 20 or so rows back with my camera put away, just listening. I am too young to have had a chance to see him in his prime, but watching him in person, hearing his music beautifully recreated by his amazing band was a great experience. One that, tragically, I will never share with my very favorite artist of all time, Freddie Mercury, but maybe that fact made me appreciate the Brian Wilson show all the more.

Brian closed the evening with a kind farewell message, followed by a quiet and moving rendition of "Love and Mercy" from his solo work. I thought it was a great ending to the show, and I could tell that Brian hoped people would listen to the message. If you aren't familiar with the song, it's worth a download.