Princess Nokia (photo: Ian Young)
It was another year of incredible live music, from catching my favorite artists playing at my favorite festivals to discovering new acts playing in new cities and new venues. In total, I photographed 104 shows and 9 festivals, seeing a total of 394 performances. (Thank goodness for earplugs and insoles.)
It was also a year where I explored new ways to express myself artistically, expanded my photography comfort zone, met some amazing new photographers, and of course had a helluva time in the pit. It may only last for three songs, but the photo pit is the best seat in the house.
Here are some of the favorite moments I captured this year. And if you want to dance along while scrolling through this article, here are the 2019 songs that soundtracked my year.
Sometimes you create your own luck, and sometimes you’re just damn lucky. Childish Gambino didn’t approve any photographers for the pit, so a few of us stood behind the barrier next to the soundboard, resigned to the fact that we were there just to watch, not shoot. But suddenly this hooded figure appeared out of nowhere, climbed on top of a small circular platform and then ascended into the night sky amidst lights and fog. Praise be.
First time I photographed Billie: 2017 at Rickshaw Stop, capacity: 400
Second time: 2018 at The Fox Theater, capacity: 2,800
Third time: 2019 at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, capacity: 8,500
Billie’s trajectory has been mind boggling and shows no signs of stopping, with her next SF concert scheduled for the 18,000-capacity Chase Center. I’ve been lucky enough to follow along from the pit.
This photo was made possible for a few reasons:
- Hatari is known for their jaw-dropping shows, which feature a healthy dose of bondage wear, dancers, dramatic performances, and the occasional pyrotechnic.
- The somewhat-more-lax attitude to photographer safety, aka I could get as close to the spark-spitting machine as I wanted, to the point where I thought my lens hood was melting.
- Me having ingested enough whiskey to not care that my lens hood might catch fire. Anything for the shot, man!
“I got punched and shoved and my camera was covered in dust and sweat and all I have to show for it is this photo.”
Sometimes standing shoulder-to-shoulder with 15 other photographers in a tiny, packed pit is a terrible situation. Other times Princess Nokia jumps into the crowd right next to you during the first three songs and you actually have the right lens on your camera and even though you kiiiiinda miss focus the shot still makes you yell out fuck yeah.
Mutek, the multi-city music, art and technology festival, returned to San Francisco for a second year with a huge roster of international artists including Italy’s fuse*, whose Dökk show was so mesmerizing I’m pretty sure I didn’t blink for 60 minutes straight. On stage was a dancer with sensors on her body. The sensors detected her movements, causing the visual projections in front of and behind her to react in real time. (According to their website, there are like a hundred other things going on at the same time, too.) She became airborne midway through the show, and watching her spin and control the visuals and sound with her body was a sight to behold (and photograph).
I knew the confetti would come eventually. No Girl Talk show — nay, spectacle — is complete without confetti, toilet paper cannons, and dozens of people on stage losing their minds to the sounds coming out of Gregg Gillis’ laptop.
There’s a lot to discover at SXSW. An overwhelming amount. But sometimes you just have to go see what you love, and in this case it was Japanese Breakfast… three times in one week. For this photo, I ran from Lizzo, who was playing down the street, to see JBrekkie’s set and arrived just in time to see Michelle Zauner jump into the crowd.
I dare you not to have fun at a Charly Bliss show. From the stage acrobatics to the fun-infused power pop, Charly Bliss is the sound of a good time. This photo of singer Eva Hendricks is basically how everyone feels after seeing them live.
If you know me, it’s no secret that I love Iceland Airwaves. I also love Kaelan Mikla, the dark wave/no wave/post punk trio of Icelandic witches. And I love Harpa, the multi-colored geometrically delicious performance space in Reykjavik. So when I got to do a portrait shoot of the band, inside Harpa, on a winter day where you could actually see the sun, everything felt in its right place.
I was invited to attend a dress rehearsal of Post:Ballet’s Incandescent Body, a dance/musical performance based on Star Amerahsu’s deeply personal music. This ended up being one of the most moving, emotional performances I’ve seen, and I wanted to capture some of that intimacy while shooting the dress rehearsal.
Another artist I’ll never tire of photographing, Aurora always performs with such zeal and abandon that you can’t help but get carried away on whatever journey she wants to take you on.
As a photographer, there are certain levels of hell that you face. Around the third level is realizing there’s no photo pit when you expected one. Around the fifth level is showing up at a show realizing you forgot to charge your battery. Seventh — a show that uses only strobes. I’m looking at you, HEALTH. But when it happens, and you’re able to capture something that you actually really like, it feels a little bit like cheating death. (What are the eighth and ninth levels? I’ve no idea and I hope to never find out.)
Meernaa released one of my favorite albums of the year, the stunning Heart Hunger on Native Cat Records, and I was lucky enough to see them perform four times this year. Their album release show, which featured CAPO, a string chamber ensemble, was the most spectacular. Starline can be a bit challenging to shoot with limited lighting and no photo pit, but things worked out for this shot.
Confession time: I don’t really “get” this band or their music. But photographing them is a different story.
This was one of those nights that felt like it was falling apart only to miraculously work out in the end. I booked two shows thinking Kishi Bashi would be an early one (no opener listed) and Little Simz, who was playing at Slim’s, would be a late one. But when I showed up at August Hall to see two people I didn’t recognize on stage, I knew that wouldn’t be the case. Kishi Bashi took the stage an hour later than expected and I quickly shot the first three songs, then zoomed over to Slim’s just as Little Simz was taking the stage. I stayed for her full show (she’s amazing) and then decided to jump back to August Hall. As I arrived, Kishi Bashi was making his way into the middle of the crowd for the encore. Thank you photo gods for aligning the stars for me.
I vividly remember regularly testing the limits of both my stereo and my hearing by blasting the CD of Metallica’s first show with the SF Symphony, which took place way back in 1999. So when I heard they would be reprising that show 20 years later as the first event at the sparkling new Chase Center, I knew I had to go. And with tickets going for over $400 each, I’ve never been so thankful for a press pass.
Photographing DJs can be — yawn — pretty boring. Half the time it just looks like someone on stage doing their taxes, and half the time it looks like someone raising their hand to ask to go to the bathroom. But the Chemical Brothers are a whole different breed. With an array of lasers, robots (who shot lasers from their eyes), giant balloons, and some of the most high-def visuals I’ve ever seen, that are also synced to the music, a Chemical Brothers show is a block-rocking feast for the senses.
CATQ at The Fox in Oakland was my favorite show of 2018, so I knew I had to catch them again when they swung by Concord Pavilion to open for Florence + the Machine. It was a harrowing two hour drive in pouring rain to get there, but Concord’s low stage allowed for some incredible perspectives.