When few years ago chatting with a sceptical friend I coined the term “sadcore”, to describe one of my favourite bands, I was kind of insulted. That band was Sophia.
Sophia have been formed by Robin Proper-Sheppard after his precedent band, the heavy-goth-metal trio God Machine.
I am back in time in the early nineties, God Machine had moved from sunny San Diego to rainy London to record a couple of unknown, rare but very influential albums, before being hit by a drama. Jimmy Fernandez, their bass player, died abruptly because of a brain tumour.
Shattered, Robin Proper-Sheppard left behind God Machine’s harsh sounds and moved to Sophia’s sad, melancholic, heartbreaking and almost acoustic songs, occasionally permeated by slices of edgy, noisy electric guitars to keep a link as well as healing from the past.
Sophia debuted in 1996 with Fixed Water, since then they have produced four brilliant studio albums plus a live with a string quartet. All of them are secret treasures of the indie music scene.
The National origin from Ohio but now are a Brooklyn based band. They set off in 2001 with a remarkable self-named debut, but it was in 2005, signing to Beggars Banquet and publishing Alligator, that conquered the indie-blogosphere. Their latest record, the profound The Boxer, shows that the band rise hasn’t stopped.
Uninspired analyses associate them to Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Morrissey and the usual lords of darkness. These are pretty surface comparisons.
The National fusion of intense, melancholic melodies with grand arrangements and, even more, their literate lyrics clearly come from those big names legacy.
Their members, frankly declare love to Dylan, Springsteen, Grateful Dead and the Band.
Quite an interesting blend, but if I had the chance to interview the National I would simply ask what they think of Sophia. I expect they know, admire and get more than a few influences from Proper-Sheppard’s songwriting.
Surfing the net to learn more about their biography, I fortuitously noticed that AMG indeed considers a sadcore genre and, even more interesting, it uses it for both Sophia and The National. What an injection of self-confidence for my music instinct! I am trying to remember who the sceptical friend was.
Unfortunately I haven’t interviewed The National but I managed to gain press access to their London gig.
Quite excited, I ventured the collapsing, third world English Railways and headed from Cambridge to London aware that the journey back by “replacement bus due to engineering works” would have taken over 3 hours to cover less than 100 km. Yes, I am complaining! I got back home 2.05 AM and the concert ended 10.50 PM. A similar journey which I did from Varanasi to Allahabad, India, took roughly the same time, but ticket was 300 times cheaper and the company 300 times more entertaining.
By the way, it was worth the effort. Truth is that I am a big fan of obscure, enigmatic, sophisticated songwriting. The National don’t only thick all these boxes but left me with a sense of actuality, a desire of being there because they indeed have, words and music, something to say.
They are fresh, they remind me of Sophia more than Nick Cave, of the Devastations (another tremendous Beggars Banquet band) more than Cohen but, keep it simple, they are nothing more than The National, one of 2007’s best acts.
On stage the music differs slightly from the albums, live they give their sound a steer.
The whole thing rotates around Matt Berninger, a thick baritone voice in a slim figure. He sings his mysterious verses hanging to the microphone pole, the rest of the brothers surround him both physically and musically. Two leading guitars, bass, drums. Keyboards are more ephemeral compared to studio records, mostly due to the fact that the same player shares violin duties.
It is remarkable to see how many bands nowadays include strings in their ensembles. Something that few years ago was relegated to folk and country is today mainstream for most of the indie-pop act from North America.
The music is strong and the songs are their strength. A repertoire with so many groovy tunes that they flow smoothly through a setlist without a single weak point, culminating with the perfect Fake Empire.
I love listening to good live bands, but there is nothing catchier than enjoying good live songs. So good that I stayed until the very end, when the drummer, alone on stage, decided to disappear after the second encore. It was around 11 PM. You know the rest of my journey back home.
First thing I noticed entering Shepherds Bush Empire is how low the stage is.
Photography wise the height of the stage can dramatically change the effect of your images.
Low stages, or stages which are at your level (as happens in very small venues), are rare. They don’t help the audience to see although give photos a unique sense of presence.
When it occurs, step closer and mount a wider angle lens in order to emphasize this effect. Images will give your viewers a sense of being there, together with the band.
Be sensible, unless the band is your friend, I wouldn’t dare to go that close, security guys usually are not as friendly!
An ordinary higher stage, on the contrary, put you far from the artist. Your lower position gives your subject an aloof effect. The musician is in fact on a pedestal and a sensation of superiority will be evident in the portraits.
If you want to stress it, kneel down. When I photographed Morrissey in Kings Lynn the stage was so high that I decided to make use of it giving some pictures that sense of grandeur that the personage deserves.
Seldom you have such a character in front of you, more often high stages are a pain.
To minimize it, best option is to step on the barrier that separate you from the crowd. It usually has an elevated point to stand. Wait for the right moment and be quick. In a while either you are going to be pushed back to the pit by first row fans or, worse, pulled down by that surly, big security guy.
An alternative is to raise your camera and shoot without looking into the viewfinder. Errors are likely so better if you have a digital SLR, to take as many shots as you want, best if you put on a wide-angle to minimize the risk of not framing the subject.
Safer option is to step back and use a telephoto, even if an unpleasant sensation of distance will be in your photos.
Don’t even think of stepping, sitting or standing on the stage, you will find yourself kicked out of the venue, guess by who?
As Jim Marshall remembers, that is a thing of the past when concerts were safe, rules were not strict and even photographers were left free to move around. Can you believe it?