Welcome to the Unholy Racket Music Pics blog! I hope to use this blog to tell the tale behind the pictures on the site. There is always so much more going on at a gig then just the main event on stage, so I hope to capture some of the atmosphere here. I will also use the blog to store what was going on in my head before, during and after the gigs as well as my thoughts on music photography.
Hope you enjoy it!
Neil (aka Unholy Racket)
I never begin a blog post without promising to do more, but this time the world of social media and the real world has forced my hand. Most of the gigs I cover from now on will be featured here on the website, and be accompanied by a few words.
Tonight was a long time coming. I have wanted to see Zola Jesus live for ages, and hadn't realised that it was four years since she had played the UK until she said so tonight. It was also my first visit to The Belgrave Music Hall in Leeds too (which is unbelievable!)
So here are a couple of thoughts on both....
Mika Roza Danilova is better know by her stage name Zola Jesus, and it has been way too long since she last visited. A new album, Taiga, brings her back to these shores. She is a really thought provoking artist. The first impression is that she sounds like..... I know, it is a hideous life being a female singer in that voices get stereotyped all the time. I often argue about just how much of a problem this is and that it should be avoided at all costs.
So, she sounds like Zola Jesus, with several of the often mentioned influences. The new album is a lot more bouncy and upbeat then previous works in places. She is also brunette, not blonde. What hasn't changed is her ability to set the spine tingling. She switches between soaring melody and descent into nervous breakdown on stage effortlessly.
She is a joy to take pictures of if the light appears at the right moment.
Pauses in a song are often accompanied by her hair being thrown around and a collapse into a state of despair.
She is breathtaking to watch and definitely has the ability to send shivers down the spine. This was the second date of her tour and she is definitely one to catch if you get the chance.
Belgrave Music Hall - Venue
I can't believe it has been a year since it has been open and this is the first time I have taken pics at the Belgrave Music Hall (particularly since the opening night featured one of my favourite bands!). I've visited a few times to sample the beers and the food (both of which are cracking), but never been to a gig there. It's a great venue though. Nice and open, with a few different levels. Clearly some thought gone into the layout with quite a lot of seated spaces and a nice open stage. The lighting rig is a joy compared to most venues of the size as there is actually some attention to lighting the front lip of the stage. I like it, I like it a lot.
As usual I am starting my blog with a promise to actually put some effort in and keep it up to date...... Believe that when you see it!
I, somewhat unexpectedly, popped along to see Midge Ure last night. Not unexpected in so much as this wouldn't be a gig I would like to have gone to, more from a had no plan but ended up going anyway. I am writing a review for one of the magazines I occasionally do bits for so won't go into the whole gig here. Instead I wanted to cover the topic of heckling.....
I quite often have pub debates about acoustic gigs. The argument usually goes along the lines of me saying 'you can tell a great song if you strip it down' and everyone else saying 'That's utter £$£%'. Anyway, I am sticking to my guns. Midge Ure has been involved in an amazing body of work over the last 35 years-ish. If you go to see Ultravox, you don't really get how good his collection is. If you go to see him solo then you get a sense of just how prolific and fine his back catalogue is. The songs absolutely stand the test of time.
The acoustic shows are also enhanced with entertaining tales in between songs. The insights serve to make a great connection between artist and audience and add some colour to the evening.
The most famous of all of these songs, 'Vienna', is particularly awe inspiring to see played on nothing but an acoustic guitar. Midge delivers the tune with all the passion it deserves and strains his vocal chords in the process. The crowd listen and hang on every word with rapt attention and explode into applause as the song comes to an end. Midge inclines his head to acknowledge the appreciative audience and the crowd and artist are in perfect harmony. As the applause drifts though, from the back of the room, comes a very well oiled heckle in a Glaswegian accent. The words are those that must haunt Midge Ure where-ever he goes.....
'Joe Dolce', a dramatic pause.....
Midge looks into the darkness of the crowd, not believing what he has heard. The applause faded now into nothing. It is high noon now between artist and heckler. The pause is broken by the second ill aimed shot from the drunkard at the back,
Midge takes a deep breath, one full of the the weariness that only 30 odd years of hearing the same thing can bring. He clears his throat,
'In some parallel universe, Joe Dolce is standing on this stage. Some sad bugger just shouted 'Midge Ure' at him......'
His aim straight and true, as only a seasoned gun slinger could manage brings down the drunken heckler, but as if he needed to make sure no further shots were fired....
'...but I doubt it'
I can't imagine how hard it is to be up on a stage presenting your life's work for an audience. Harder still, to imagine facing the same tired tale, inarticulately delivered as it was, for 30 odd years. It was great to see a immensely talented performer deal with heckler with all the aplomb of a seasoned stand up comedian with years of experience on the club circuit.
I do not know what possesses people to make loads of noise or heckle performers at acoustic gigs. It is an all too frequent occurrence and always sets my teeth on edge. These are fabulous opportunities to get closer to an artist and their music.... so when they are playing and putting it out there, is it really too difficult to just keep quiet and appreciate?
Been a bit busy recently and not blogged much. Of course this doesn't mean I haven't been busy, just the opposite. I have been too busy to get around to writing about it. So this is one of three catch up blogs, that picks on the three big gigs in my calendar and misses out on a load of stuff that would be interesting enough to write about if only I could find the time to do it. The gigs that I had planned my calendar around were The Fields of the Nephilim, Carter USM and The Levellers. There is an awful lot of planning goes into gig photography. Access to take photos at these gigs takes a ton of arranging and it is getting tougher and tougher. So I take each one pretty seriously....
First up, The Fields of the Nephilim. If ever there were a band that deserve respect when it comes to gig photos then it is The Fields. Notoriously difficult to shoot due to dark conditions and huge clouds of smoke/dry ice (last time they played Leeds the airport was closed for three days afterwards).
So I thought I would get some practice at low light shooting. Two bands who I really like where playing together in The Stereo in York. Berlin Black and the Shades of Grey and O. Children should be great to take pics of, but the Stereo is a pub back room with really tough lighting. The big issue with The Stereo is that the front lighting that should hit the band is actually too close too the stage to really help. As soon as anyone steps slightly forward of the light then they disappear into darkness. Even if they stand in the perfect spot they tend to get a 'floating head' effect as the light hits the head hard and nothing else. So Berlin Black's Shades of Grey all came out black and I really didn't get a shot that I thought would be worth sharing. From a gig perspective, the band seem to just go from strength to strength and put in a great gig. O. Children are a band I have been really keen to see again. I loved the first album, and the follow-up Apnea is something that has seen a fair amount of time on the car stereo. There are particular problems with taking pictures of O. Children in venues like this. Tobi, the lead singer, is one of the tallest folks I have ever seen. So the lighting at The Stereo, even if he stood on the perfect spot, hit his chest. The lighting was so dark that the auto-focus steadfastly refuse to connect with anything. I left the gig empty handed, a great wake-up call for a man a week away from a Neffs gig.
The debacle in York meant I needed to head out to my favourite place of practice. The Library in Leeds hosts The Flock club-night on the first Saturday of each month. It is usually defiantly dark and smokey. Zeitgeist Zero and Last July were playing in a nice looking double bill. Both bands put in a great set, but the lighting was really nice! This was clearly not was needed for a man on his last practise!
So, it was with much trepidation, that I turned up to take pics at the Fields of the Nephilim gig. The last time I saw them was at the Mission XXV gig in Brixton and the lighting was really tough. The gig had a similar 'event' feel with folks meeting up in pre-determined pubs in a celebration of a bands rare appearance. The line-up for this gig was simply brilliant, with Salvation and the newly renamed Skeletal Family appearing.
Salvation have played a few gigs since their reappearance at the Mission XXV gig in Leeds last year. They have always pulled in a crowd of devout maniacs who just throw themselves into the gigs. I am really lucky to have seen all of the gigs they have played and can see why the group gets a bit bigger each time. Despite the technical difficulties with bass amplification the set is a cracker and significantly sharper then the Mish support slot a year before. Unfortunately, the lighting was tough and had me feeling really nervous about the upcoming headliners.
The Skeletal Family eased my fears a little as the ripped though a Skeletal Family, Ghost Dance and Anne-Marie Hurst mash-up under the new/old banner. Lighting was great, smoke machine smokey, wind machine windy and was really nice to see them on the bigger stage.
Of course, all the practise and preparation for a gig can go out of the window pretty quickly. Fields of the Nephilim appear in the expected darkness and smoke combination, but without the main subject of Carl McCoy. Of course, venues should make allowances for Shroud, but they don't. One of the three songs gone without a lead singer to snap out. With one third of the photo opportunity vanished in a puff of smoke my nerves were jangling. McCoy finally appears and it is time to put all that practise into effect.
There are some bands where you need to get a shot of each member of the band, but there is really a 'must have' feel to shots of McCoy. He is the figurehead of the band and you really need to nail that shot. This one comes during 'Straight To The Light'. I usually struggle to remember the song when I am doing pics, but this was a song with some significance for the photographers. The reasons are still a little unclear, either crowd surfers or production decision, but the photo pit was cleared 3/4 through song two! Planning and practise go to hell in a hand-basket when this kind of thing happens. There was effectively less then two minutes to get a shot of the main subject. Tricky lighting, loads of smoke, security guards, jostling togs and loads of other things conspire against getting the one shot you need. Having a radically shortened window of opportunity did not help.
It is moments like this that I start interpreting the rules of photography. The three song rule at the O2 Academy usually means you get three songs and then you put the camera away and take no more shots. These are usually taken from the photo-pit. In the heat of the moment when the security guys are clearing you out there is little time to ask clarifying questions. So I made a decision to attach the long lens (70-200mm F2.8 L USM IS II) and drifted to the back of the crowd for a song (or two). It is really tough to take a good photo from distance, really, really, tough! I was not convince I had the shot I wanted so had a crack.
The pic (above) was taken from the side of the venue (by the door between the two bar on the right of the venue). It is a long way away. It doesn't look a lot like this on the camera when I took it. I had a point of reference for Neffs pictures from when I was a kid. This comes from Sounds/Melody Maker/NME pics back in the day where photography and printing techniques combined to create quite a specific grainy/newpaper feel. This is not an easy effect to recreate, but I feel like it was worth the effort to create a pic that felt like something I aspired to when I used to devour live reviews.
I didn't really appreaciate just how good the Neffs were during the Mish support slot. I think this is mainly down to my adverse reaction to the 'Neffs where better then the Mish' attitude. I hope that this doesn't colour my judgement if they should ever play together again, as if that could happen next December!
I have spent a load of time trying to help out with a couple of video projects for The March Violets recently. I am pretty new to video and spending as much time working out how to get the best out of the Canon EOS 5D Mk II and Canon EOS 7d as I can. The capability of both cameras looks pretty good when filming from a static position with a fairly fixed subject. The autofocus system of both cameras is not up to much more though without loads of manual wrangling.
Of course the one thing that a learner video maker should never do is start making videos with folks with wild imaginations. This would mean never making a March Violets video, so that particular rule book has been chucked well and truly out of the window. Si Denbigh is not short of creative and interesting ideas when it comes to the music he crafts with the rest of the band, or the imagery surrounding it.
I am not going to share anything about the first video, other then to say that I am fairly convinced that it captures something never seen before on either video or still photography.
The second song involved a video and photo shoot at the fabulous Club Lash in Manchester. I could write the longest blog in history about this particular event and the mistakes I made, but the more I try promo work the more I realised how important the experience of the subject/model is. The willing volunteers for the video and photo shoot all asked for direction, and that is a really tricky thing to give to an inexperienced model (no matter how fabulous they looked). It took a while to get into the swing of it and give the right level of direction. Each of the volunteers did brilliantly and I think we came away with some really interesting footage.
The last person to step onto the backdrop was Rosie Garland herself. In her guise of Rosie Lugosi, vampire queen of Club Lash, she had to feature in the shoot. The difference when working with a seasoned performer is noticeable. The only direction needed here was 'Be Rosie' and fabulous shapes and poses appeared from nowhere....
Huge thanks go out to the amazingly undiscovered talents of the folks of Club Lash. They were gloriously fabulous!
Having had a very, very hectic run of three weekends on the trot with either a gig, video or promo shoot going on I was really pleased to have something a little relaxing to look forward to on Sunday. So Newton Faulkner at the O2 Academy in Leeds was just the ticket. I hadn't realised just how tired I was until I almost fell asleep on the couch before heading out. Luckily, having young kids there is little chance of actually cat napping and I was woken up just in time by my eldest (Little Racket) jumping on me and nearly fracturing a rib or two.
I headed off into the cold, wet and dark Leeds evening. It is always a bit hit and miss turning up to take pics at larger venues. They tend to have strict professional camera policies, and the reliability of actually being assigned photo passes is a little random. On this occasion everything went smoothly, which was a bit lucky as the first support was just taking to the stage as I entered the building. I usually like to have done a little research on who is who before a gig, but I have been so busy that I literally hadn't had time. I even managed to miss the artists name when they said it as I was chatting to the security chaps about rules, so still none the wiser. I even forgot my old writing/photographer trick of taking a photo of the running order and setlist from the friendly pit supervisor, schoolboy error! Of course, this is now bugging me as I enjoyed the young singer/songwriter's set.
A photographic nightmare though as our un-named minstrel sported a huge shock of curly hair. The modern day revisiting of the afro presents quite a challenge as the hair tends to disappear into the backdrop if there is limited light in the venue, and it also casts shadows over the performer's eyes (in this case the fro was big enough to cast a shadow over the entire face). So it was a case of waiting for the odd moment when the singers head was tilted back letting some light under the canopy.
The second support came from a band called Colour The Atlas. A stripped down four piece with a dual vocal set-up. Most of the songs were sung by Jess Hall, with the odd song being led by Alex Stone. It's quite a challenge to get deeper then 'Oh I quite like this' when you are their taking pictures as you tend to have a head full of ISO's, shutter speeds and apertures. So bands broadly fall into the 'Ouch, where's the exit?', 'When is the main act on?', 'Hmmm, would like to hear more of that' or 'Christ on a bike that is good, I need to stalk the lead singer!' categories. These fell into the 'Hmmm, would like to hear more of that' category. I am a big fan of acoustic music, well when I am in the right mood, but I tend to have to listen a few times before it really sticks. I do recall nice vocals and well crafted tunes though.
From a photography perspective there was some encouragement to be had with some nice lighting. A lot of it was coming from the back, but there was enough spot to make it relatively easy to get some lovely colour wash backgrounds by lining up the singer's head with the backlit source (see pic of Jess below). For straight colour washes this tends to give a nice pronounced outline to the person you are taking a pic of and is one of the wee tricks I always aim for. Of course, this can be even more dramatic with the big swirly lights (Gozos I think they are called)
I had never seen Newton Faulkner before and really didn't know what to expect. My first impression was just how popular he appeared and enthusiastic the crowd were. A real mixed crowd too, with folks from all age groups and music creeds too. I usually find it quite easy to pidgeon hole the O2 crowds (I know I shouldn't, but it is always useful to describe who was at a gig to fill upon a couple of sentences), but this was not easy.
Mr Faulkner had a nice clean stage set-up with 4 or 5 very nice acoustic guitars lined up behind him with a globe (I did debate whether this was one of the ones that opens up to reveal a collection of spirits with one of the other togs). The whole set-up was placed on a riser, which always makes me nervous as the stage is high enough as it is at the O2 in Leeds. It can make it difficult to get anything other then up-nostril shots. Fortunately the whole thing was placed back a bit so wasn't too much of an issue. The lighting during the first three songs was really quite nice. I didn't get to see who was on the desk, but should have gone and shook their hand. All too often the show is very dimly lit for the opening songs with the interesting effects being held back for later on. There were plenty of interesting effects to play with while we were allowed in the pit though.
I am not really intending writing reviews in these little blogs and rarely criticize folks anyway (my mum always said, 'It your haven't got anything nice to say then.....') Anyway, it would have been fun to actually write a review of the show as Newton Faulkner is clearly a very accomplished songwriter and prodigiously talented guitarist. He was also very engaging and witty in-between songs and it is really easy to see why the crowd were so well disposed to him. Well worth seeing if you get the chance and like acoustic music, probably one to miss if you only like Bolt Thrower!
LATE BREAKING NEWS: The un-named first support was called Corima Francis (thanks to Milly Shelbourn for that!)