This report is different from the other 230 band monographs you can find on this blog. If I could cover concerts as this I surely would but it is not the case. It hasn’t been possible often. Why? Follow me.
It all started the usual way, I check the upcoming concerts, contact the promoters to get a photopass for the ones I am interested.
Summer, apart from festivals, isn’t a busy time so My Jerusalem, coming all the way from Austin, Texas on a quiet Wednesday to play at the Portland Arms few hundred yards from where I live, sound a too good occasion to miss.
I got the reply, but the news is the line at the end of the e-mail that says:
“Also, would you be into shooting a bit of the band backstage prior to stage time?”
I jump on this.
Concert photography is ‘samey’ nowadays. The seventies are over. The rules we face are stricter than boarding a Ryanair flight.
We all stay in a pit with pretty much the same lenses and the same (three songs) time slot. The space for creativity is limited and to cut a different concert photo isn’t easy when at all possible.
I shared about 200 tips and secrets on this website to help fellow photographers but none of them is about an opportunity as this one.
I have a photojournalist attitude, you may know if you know my travel and documentary work, and I like to tell stories with images.
I had a blank canvas. I could have asked the band to pose for some promos along the river Cam, but it would not be my style, my personality. Rather, I asked them to ignore me, to think as if I have never been there.
But I was.
If my scooter hadn’t decided to break down last minute I would have got to the Portland Arms before the band van, so to get some pics of the load-in of the instruments. Instead they arrived before I could push my non-engine-powered bike there. Thankfully the Portland Arms wasn’t far from where I was.
“The bands is in there” indicates the guy at the door. I find them having a break in the brand dressing room built in a loft. I introduce myself, they know I’m arriving. Sitting on a couple of red sofas they dip carrots stick into a humous pot. Warm beer and a bottle of “produced exclusively for” Tesco’s whisky suggest a visit to the supermarket. I decline a beer for some water, still panting.
They call me in, I enter the room and I feel at home. They are 4 in the band and there are four in the room. Jeff Klein is the man behind the concept, the singer the guitarist the main composer as well as one of the most easy-going musicians I’ve ever met. Jon Merz is the one that play every instrument. From guitar to trombone and several keyboards. The man every band would want.
Grant Van Amburgh is on drums and cigarette break. Great drumming and Marlboro. Hope someone advised to bring them from Austin. UK cigarettes are very expensive. Kyle Robarge replaces Geena Spigarelli on bass, she couldn’t make this tour. (Stereo)typical, the bassist is the funniest person in the band.
First chats are introductory. I feel they are trying to understand if I am really a music photographer and why I’m at the Portland instead of some stadium. Good point, answer is simple. Yes I am, someone says. The day I understood I was not going to make a living only with concert photography, even if I followed Beyonce and Robbie Williams every night, I take only the photos I love.
They ask about Cambridge scene. Midlake and Low concerts at the J2 come to mind. They love Low, which is a good way to click in. They are as annoyed as me hen I mention the comparison with Morphine or the Doors or Nick Cave. Lazy journalists dip into those same names anytime a baritone is on vocals in a new band.
Jeff Klein mentions some collaboration with the National and love them, and I can feel it. When I listened to Mono, the fourth song of the latest album, Preaches, it made me think of Secret Meeting, one of my top 3 National‘s songs.
Carrots are over, beer still hot and soundcheck about to starting.
Every band, every concert has to go through this. It must be boring. “One, two… check check” repeated relentlessly. It’s essential, I know, still it must be boring.
“Drums please”. “Guitar”. “Top keyboard. Low Keyboard”.
“Can you please kick my voice on the monitor”. “I can’t hear my guitar”. “Mic must be way louder than this”.
“it’s already at 9.5!”
They play a couple of songs, I feel privileged. Preachers the album and concert opener. With a catchy chorus. They sound good. The girl sitting next to the stage is the guitarist of Mammoth Penguins, they will open for them and she tells is their first gig ever.
There is another band playing before them. One of them wonders how comes that a band can open for a band playing a first ever gig. Or… how can a band playing a first gig have a support!?
The soundcheck is over. Food is ready. I start feeling a bit intrusive. I know I pretend to be transparent but I am not. I leave them having their nice Brit pub dinner while I take a walk, get some cash (to buy the CD, yes, I still buy CDs), make a couple of phone calls and look for something to eat as well. My original plan was to go back home, not happening on a push bike.
There’s a back garden and this year the UK summer is pleasant. Between a beer and another, we chat about touring, I take some snaps. The ‘factotum’ guy driving the van, selling the merch, booking the hotels, reads a book. And tells stories.
Touring is boring. This is the message. you have to make it interesting in the many empty moments sitting and waiting, when a beer is your only friend.
Wi-Fi would do, though ‘The Cloud’ (a free UK wi-fi service) never works and all of the band is imprecating while staring at their iPhones. Facebook, followers, Twitter, real friends, girlfriends all waiting for a message, two fucking hours to fill and no signal. Addicted as I am, I am sympathetic.
The first band starts. My Jerusalem are offered a tea. English tea, warm with milk in a paper cup. Rock’n'roll.
We talk about Austin and the pleasure of sleeping in your own bed at home. A London gig tomorrow and it’ll be home.
I carry on chatting about photography and music in London but there are two cute girls in short sitting at the next table, my words aren’t really caught. their eyes have other lips to follow than mine. Cliches.
Among the duties of a rockband, unless you’re Roger Waters playing The Wall, there is the writing down of the setlist. I’m curious, I ask. How do you change it and how do you select the songs? There are key moments, the opener, each band has its reason, My Jerusalem go for the opener of the latest album, Preachers. There are closers. There are encores. You don’t know in such a gig if there is space (or reason) for an encore. It won’t be.
I may ead too much into it but always considered the song that closes a concert key. U2 have been closing their shows with ‘40′ for ages, always the same to have people going home singing along the “how long to sing this song”. Manic Street Preachers’ Design For life it is crowd-pleasing closure. Some artists end with their most famous hits, some other as My Jerusalem will do, with the last song of the latest album.
It’s not casual. I believe that to choose a new song send a message ‘I’m still in the game’. If you choose a most famous hit the parabola has probably peaked an the curve of your career it’s on the downslope. Or it’s a one-hit wonder. It has to arrive at the end to avoid half the audience walks out.
Why? The last song leaves the freshest memory. It has to be the best live song, it has to be the one people must remember.
The rest of the setlist isn’t as straightforward. From the second to the penultimate, it is pondered. Songs are put in and cancelled, some are forgotten and slip back. I observe the black marker writing the titles on a piece of paper.
It is the moment to buy my CD. I get my copy, signed. Jeff borrows it to check he hasn’t forgot any song.
The list needs to be copied in as many band members exist plus one. Is Kyle’s job. People collect setlists, they want them autographed. Better you have a spare one.
Meanwhile the others are dressing up.
Yes, it’s not David Bowie still… two bright red shirts two grey, kind of denim. It’s indie rock’n'roll. It’s all about being real, genuine.
I join them again in the dressing room. Last sip of a Red Stripe, finally cold.
It is nice to witness the encouraging moment. It’s exciting to see the passion of a band. the moment when all the tension culminate in a group hug.
Even if it is just another gig, even if it is in a tiny venue in small Cambridge there is the heart that goes into it. And it is sincere.
At this point I am even more invisible. They’re concentrated.
The sound engineer knocks on the door, calls them, “It’s time” and adds “However it goes, don’t forget to have fun guys”.
The four walk down the stairs, up on the stage. Preaches opens, the back choruses make it a jolly song. The sound is good from the start.
I didn’t say much of My Jerusalem music. IN the last 3 years they have an EP Without Feathers and two LPs. Gone for Good and the newest, darker, Preaches out recently.
Jeff Klein baritone, I love deep voices. He recorded three solo albums too. He is a great songwriter and a collaborator with many bands. As Mr baritone in person, Mark Lanegan when, with Greg Dully of Afghan Whigs, were the Gutter Twins, I had another ‘different’ experience with them if you still feel like reading me.
As often happens, the live show is even better than the album and, goes without saying, of the soundcheck.
I am transported by the music, take photos wandering around the stage for a different angle but the ears are on the tunes. Back to standard gig photography and bad lights, it is not this the photographic moment of the day.
The band is strong. We discussed earlier how USA bands are usually formed by better musicians. They said it isn’t as true as it was, yet… yes. There are moments that recall the National, moment reminding me of Okkervill River, but overall is the high level of the songwriting that makes the show.
One of those secret moments that I witness with few people and I would like to share with millions.
A great evening, that left me with just one doubt. I forgot to ask why they’re called “My Jerusalem“.
This entire post is a photo tip, so no much to add here, but as tradition wants, I’ll have it and use these last few lines to highlight a difference between shooting a concert and doing a reportage as this. Time.
I haven’t been in the pit for the fifteen minutes of the first three songs.
I have been with them from 5pm till well beyond 23pm. They allowed it, I loved it. Still, it is a job.
Requires at least as many hours on the computer to work out the photos.