Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Live on 35mm is 5 years old this week, since the day I posted some film photos of David “Honeyboy” Edwards at the Spitz in London. Both Honeyboy and the Spitz, now rest in peace.
Thankfully, I am still alive, kicking and shooting concerts. Songkick tells me this show marks my 500th live gig. Counting festivals as one, quite a lot of live music.
Once upon a time, about 20 long years ago, I was about 20 and I had probably been at 20 gigs, lazily zapping TV I landed on an Italian Music channel broadcasting a video by a trio. I was caught by the energy. They were playing in a large empty room, lit by a dim blue light. I cannot find it on youtube, I don’t know what song that was but I know it was The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I noticed two things. The presence of two guitarists without a bass player; the discordance between the music and the band’s name. That groove had nothing to do with the concept of blues a twenty something guy living in Rome in the 90s could link with the genre: it wasn’t wrong the band name, it was limited my concept of blues.
The music panorama, at the outskirts of the Anglophone empire, still resounded with echoes of 80s pop. The roar of Seattle’s bands was approaching; basses were slapped hard in California by hard-rockers trying to get rid of the megalomania of stadiums by inflating their song with funk. In some colleges of minor University groups of nerds were trying to claim ‘indie-pendence’. Their screams, filtered through UK which at times was the inevitable bridge between Italy and USA music, arrived feeble. Deafened by the Madchester discos and stoned by ecstasy, Brit bands were looking for a solution to make the Beatles cool again.
The Blues Explosion was born in New York. New York was neither what it is today, 15 years later, nor the one of CBGBs revolution, 15 years earlier. The Big Apple suffered an economic crisis and huge unemployment rates. Crime was so out of control that Manhattan wasn’t a safe area. The Subway was gangs’ territory; Harlem and the Bronx no-go zones even for the cops. Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Dumbo and the hip avant-garde galleries that in a decade will revolutionise the art and the music scene once again, were not even a mirage. Sheriff major, Rudolph Giuliani was yet to be elected.
In this sticky mix of poured beer and grime, the Blues Explosion crackled its first stirrings. Jon Spencer got bored of Pussy Galore, his hardcore/garage band. They debuted few years before re-recording the entire Exile on a Main Street by the Rolling Stones on 500 limited edition tapes. He met Judah Bauer and Russell Simins and the three will embark in a journey that is still going.
It was clear to me since that video that I was in front of a band whose result was more than the sum of its parts. Jon Spencer brought the rock’n’roll, including leather trousers and gel; Judah Bauer the blues, the dirty one electrified in a Mississippi that ain’t got cleaned-up in Chicago, plus the leather jacket; Russell Simins a three pieces drum-kit rigorously lacking tom-toms, plus greasy curls and a worn-out t-shirt.
It’s twenty years since those days and the Blues Explosion is still here. It was abandoned, neglected, deserted but never forgotten. Neither by its fans nor by Jon Spencer. An endless queue of musicians never stopped the pilgrimage to study their lesson. They washed-up, made-up, dressed-up the music. They removed the gel and used eyeliner. They got rid of the black leather and wore stripes. They have become rockstars and have won Grammys.
A revolution that rejected the minor pentatonic and freed the scene out of the garage. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion has been a catalyst, a lifeboat to cross the heart of the blues into the new millennium. They left the unnecessary: the 12 bars, the cotton fields and the bass player, and kept the essential: the punk spirit, the energy and the leather boots.
Without Extra Width, Orange, Now I Got Worry and Acme rock music wouldn’t have the White Stripes and the Black Keys. Fat Possum wouldn’t sign Crocodiles, EL-P and Dinosaur Jr. Their talent scouts would still be strolling Nelson’s Street in Greenville to spot a late 80 years old bluesman stomping in a brothel.
Now that R.L. Burnside left, to bring the blues back to the Devil and Jack White and Dan Auerback fly business class to collect Grammys at a big red-carpet galas in LA, the Blues Explosion has interrupted a 8 years hiatus. Spencer, Bauer and Simins are back in town to showcase Meat and Bone. Their first new material since Damage. It is not an essential record, none of Blues Explosion albums is. Not even Steve Albini managed to record the momentum they produce live. Blues Explosion albums are sketches to be developed into thundering ideas on stage. Meat and Bone is not exception.
The album launch is happening in the basement of a bar in Dalston in the Northeast of London. Here a wave of hipsters, loaded with DJ sets and organic juices, are kicking out a Turkish community who dwelled the area for a long time.
Birthdays is a new London bar that replaced a reggae venue. I am early. On the street floor, along a road packed with kebab restaurants, hairdressers and more bars, few youngsters queue for a pint of Guinnes at 4.2£. Audacious haircuts and All Saints accessories, they sit at small tables tasting organic novelle cuisine, entertaining in deep conversations as: “nice singlet!” – “I found it at a charity shop for a fiver, mate” (yes sure, I bet you did). Grizzly Bear new album airs.
Jon Spencer doesn’t have anecdotes from a big theatre stage to tell and I doubt’s he cares of a new organic variation on guacamole recipe, but in 25 years the band built a solid following. To photograph the show in a room with a capacity of 200 people who have been waiting for 8 years to listen to some new stuff, means to fight to get to the front.
I am standing next to the toilets, in front of a door still closed. I peek through the slit. There’s a bar on the left and a tiny stage at the back. While I wait the girl at the box finds my name on the guest-list, I read the program of events at Birthdays. It’s as if the summary of the latest issue of Vice Magazine materialises. Unsurprisingly Vice sponsors the venue.
Still queuing at the door, now with a black bold B stamped on my hand, I chat with a group of die-hard fans. There is the one who saw the Blues Explosion live countless times since 1994, the one who has been at the New York party of the album. I also meet Adam the owner of Pop-Catastrophe that I have known for a long time and it is by far the best unofficial site of any band.
To get as many friends as possible it is essential. When I will stand in the way, between them and their idol, knowing who I am instead of bringing me hate will bring me support. They want me to take good shots.
Eventually that door opens. I walk pass the bar and sit on the small step of the stage studying how to survive the lack of lights. A man touch my shoulder, he needs space to put an amplifier on stage. It’s Jon Spencer. For the next 30 minutes, as a good electrician, Spencer will sort out the mess of cables to assemble the devices which deliver one of the most sought sound in rock. Satisfied, he fades in the changing room.
Judah Bauer his ready and stands next to a column, left of the stage, chatting with a friend. He hugs his telecaster as it was his girlfriend. Russell Simins doesn’t seem too bothered. He appears in sunglasses, gives a quick look at the tiny drum-kit and disappears. He will pay the price of negligence midway through the set when the music must stop to repair a faulty stool.
It’s 9:30pm. Jon Spencer appears from the backstage. He changed his skinny jeans with super skinny leather trousers with a sort of Starwars style boot-cut. Shirt is black. I’ve been close many times but never that close. Jon is incredibly fit. A photo of Marcus Mumford I saw in the afternoon comes to mind and I am convinced forties are the new twenties. In recession times, to sell the soul to the devil is a much better investment than to sell it to Island Records.
My last concert of the Blues Explosion was in Barcelona at Primavera Festival 2011. It was an incredible, unexpected show. It started slow and grew into an apotheosis 2 hours later with people still gathering on the hill surrounding the small stage despite the approaching sunrise.
It isn’t always like this. Jon Spencer live can be stellar and can be very disappointing. I remember when in a tour they supported The Hives, in 2005. He was so pissed off (to open for an upcoming Swedish garage band, maybe?) that the show was a total let down. Bad management strategy.
Tonight the the fish swims in his favourite reef. It is a long time Spencer doesn’t play in such a small place, not in London. Even Heavy Trash, the side project that reinterpreted rockabilly and kept him busy in the last few years, could book larger venues.
The electric guitar, the mic swallowed by half, the sweat. The ability to mould, from the discordant mix of punk and blues, his impure rock’n’roll.
Besides the lighting, everything is perfect. In a short set of about a hour the Blues Explosion play most new tracks. On a video emerged on youtube there are Black Thoughts, Bottle Baby, Danger, Black Mold and Bag of Bones. Another one followed with Tell Me That You Love, Bear Trap and Get Your Pants Off . There are more pearls mixing with the new music to demonstrate the well-known theorem: never judge Jon Spencer Blues Explosion from the albums. They are born to live on stage, as Iggy Pop they need the audience. They need the performance. They feel the transfer. If there is nothing that gets in the way a Jon Spencer show can be your concert of the decade.
He walks down the step, with the guitar and the microphone. Jon Spencer he’s back and has brought the Blues Explosion with him. He sweats the shirt, he oozes rock’n’roll.
I’m fed up of taking dark photos shot at 6400ISO @ 1/30s – f2.8 that come out blurred because of the total lack of lighting. I am not here to complain today.
“You have to make virtue out of necessity” an Italian proverb goes.
When I understand that this show, as any other I saw of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, is not going to change light-wise from the traditional darkness, I opt to exploit the advantage of not having only three songs and play with the odious flash on top of my camera to sort this gig out.
Slow shutter speed flash isn’t rocket science, not at concerts. It is difficult to predict what the results will be and to reproduce them. The most important condition is to have quite a lot of time to experiment and quite a lot of power left in your battery.
The advantage of using flash is obvious: it adds enough light to the scene and freezes the movement, flashlight is very very fast. It is possible to stop down the aperture even in complete darkness.
The disadvantage is that while the rest of the frame comes out dark the subject is lit with an unpleasant bright front light.
Slow shutter + flash combines the advantage of flash light with enough exposure time for the dark areas of the stage to emerge. Due to photographer’s shaking and people moving there is blur but the instant the flash goes it’s sharp. Out of many images some come out nice. It gives a great sense of dynamic that fits pretty well with the hyper energetics Blues Explosion show.
Unfortunately there is not the ideal setting to the ‘perfect’ photo, using this technique.
I always try different approaches. As an old film fan I am not used to chimping but I admit here it is useful to check how things are going.
My favourite setting is a quite long shutter speed, around one second, with the aperture around f8-f11 to allow enough depth of field. ISO around 800 are good quality which would allow some cropping if needed (it will be).
I enjoy zooming during the second of exposure, while the shutter is open. Give it a try. Zoom in to zoom out or zoom out then zoom in. Both can deliver good or crap photos, there is no rule either. Coupled with front or rear sync it also changes the results. Rear sync flash is not essential, rockstars are not motorbikes so to predict where they are going next isn’t obvious.
Using faster shutter speed gives less blurred (and darker) surrounding but the image points to dullness quite quickly. With anything faster than 1/15s you’re close to get those out-for-dinner-with-friend-posted-on-facebook kind of images. You know what I mean.
If you don’t like blur and want to use flash with fast shutter you have to get an external one and at least point it up towards the ceiling to get diffuse light. It would be better if you can put it somewhere away from the hot-shoe of your camera (have a friend happy to hold it?).
It is not always possible, actually it is quite impossible to go to a gig and have the opportunity to mount flashes somewhere on stage but if you are allowed and want to know how, browse Todd Owyoung IShootShows.com website. He’s the flash master.