May 13, 2011 – Detroit, MI
WYCD-FM Downtown Hoedown
May 13, 2011 – Detroit, MI
WYCD-FM Downtown Hoedown
Once again, I had the opportunity to hang out with my son and the rest of the Joe Nichols band and crew during a recent show in Ohio. Sure, I enjoyed visiting with everyone and shooting the concert. But I was also asked to shoot a few artist endorsement photos with several of the band and crew with various pieces of gear that they use. These photos are typically used on a manufacturer’s website or in printed catalogs, showcasing their product being used by a touring musician. I had done a couple of these (Egnater Amplification and Flatline Guitars) during my last hang with the JN gang and they were received quite well.
So, below are some of the endorsement images I shot that afternoon, after soundcheck but before the show.
When I started my last blog post “Avon Calling“, I had no idea it would end up where it did. So I ran out of room for some of the other text and images that I wanted share from Thursday night’s Joe Nichols show in Avon, Ohio. Don’t worry, this post will be like lunch the day after Thanksgiving – lots of unrelated leftovers that are still good after the main meal.
The previous post focused on people working behind the scenes, so I thought it only fitting to highlight the unsung heroes of Joe’s crew. There are several people involved with Joe’s career and tour (agent, management, publicist, record label folks, and tour manager), but I thought I would focus on the guys in the trenches at every show. You’ve seen them at shows – cargo shorts, black t-shirt, walkie-talkie – scurrying about like ants moving a giant sequoia tree, one leaf at a time. They are usually the first ones in the venue and the last to leave at night, often putting in 12 – 14 hour days. Without them, the show simply would not happen.
If you’ve been following my blathering for any length of time, you’ll know that my son, Chris, has worked for country artist Joe Nichols for a couple years. During that time, he has served as the Front of House Sound Engineer, and last year became the tour’s Production Manager, as well. I won’t begin to pretend that I could list all of his tasks and duties, but I’ll try to cover what I know. Chris’ work for a specific show begins weeks before the show date. As Production Manager, he interfaces with the venue, the contractor supplying the sound and light systems, and any other necessary parties to go over all the technical needs for that show (sufficient power, the kind of speakers, any needed backline gear for fly dates, stagehands, etc.). He also works with equipment companies to obtain endorsement or discount deals for specific products they use. Chris also handles their own equipment needs (mixing consoles, microphones, direct boxes, wireless systems, interface equipment), as well procuring expendable items for the band and crew (batteries, guitar strings, picks, gaffer tape, parts, etc.).
On show day, all three crew members unload their equipment trailer, with the help of the locally-hired stagehands. All of the cases are rolled or carried to the stage and set up, or put in a staging area if another act is headlining and sets up first. When they are cleared to take the stage, all the gear is set up – drums, keyboards, guitar amps and pedal boards, mic stands, microphones, monitor console, and the front of house mixing console. Hundreds of cables are run to and from the stage, and between items on stage. Once this is complete, Chris “tunes” the PA system. This is where certain test signals and various reference recordings are played through the system, as he evaluates the characteristics of that particular system in that particular venue. Every day is different, so tuning the system to get a good starting point is critical. Once he has dialed in any needed adjustments, band members take the stage with their instruments and begin the soundcheck. Since most of the settings on Chris’ console are saved for each song, much of it can be recalled at the touch of a button. But it is still necessary to run through a few songs with the band, to verify everything is working properly and to fix anything that isn’t.
Once the show begins, Chris’s primary task is mixing the dozens of signals coming from the band’s instruments and microphones to create a pleasing mix for the audience. While the show is underway, his hands are in constant motion, adjusting levels, switching effects on and off, and dialing in the perfect blend of all the elements. After the show, Chris and the rest of the crew pack up the gear, load up the trailer and prepare to do it all again the next day.
Ryan is the monitor engineer for Joe’s tour. Although he is also involved in all of the unloading, set up, connecting, and tear-down of the stage gear, his primary function at soundcheck and during the show is to mix all band’s instruments and vocals into separate feeds for each of the performers’ in-ear monitors or floor wedges. This is an important task, since much of the way an artist performs is based on how well they can or cannot hear what is going on. Imagine trying to mix all the inputs from a band, in real time during a show, to get a pleasing balance. Now multiply that by 7 or more, and you get the idea of what the monitor engineer is up to over on the side of the stage. Another one of Ryan’s tasks at each venue is determine what radio frequencies can be used for the wireless microphones, wireless guitar setups, and wireless in-ear monitor systems. Once all the necessary units are adjusted and tested, they are handed out to the band for use during soundcheck and the show. Also, if anything goes wrong with the band’s gear or sound system during the show, Ryan is the one to dart onstage to swap out a bad cable or troubleshoot a problem.
The third member of Joe’s “men in the trenches” is Taylor. Like Chris and Ryan, Taylor helps with the gear load-in, setup and connection. But later in the day, Taylor is found at the merchandise table in the venue, selling T-shirts, and other “merch” to the loyal fans. Besides just selling these items, Taylor is responsible for all aspects of the merch part of the tour – procuring the items (which can often be tricky when you’re in a different city every day), sorting and tracking all the items, and dealing with the promotor or venue regarding any percentages they are owed. At some shows, the venue’s staff sells the merchandise for the artist, so Taylor often hangs out near the stage to help out with any issues.
So as you can see, this triumvirate of titans handles way more at each show than most people will ever know. Ironically, when they’re doing their jobs well, you don’t even notice them. So if you happen to see Joe live someday, show some love for these guys out there working hard, gettin’ it done for Joe, his band, and especially for the fans.
As always, thanks for visiting the blog!
OK, I’ll admit it. This is going to be another post about me and a recent Joe Nichols show. But the angle may be a little different than what you might be expecting. And of course, I’ll throw in some visuals along the way, for those who get bored with all those silly words.
Unlike the last couple years my son has worked for Joe Nichols, their tour has made several stops in the area so far this year. Like any proud father, I make it a point to visit with Chris and the guys whenever the schedule permits. So this past Thursday, I headed off down the Ohio Turnpike to Avon, Ohio. Joe was opening for country superstar Alan Jackson at All Pro Freight Stadium with ticket proceeds benefitting the Boys & Girls Club of Lorain County. It didn’t really hit me at first. But as the day went on, it began to dawn on me just how much work had to be done to bring this event to fruition – much of the work being done by volunteers. Now, I’m not saying a great deal of hard work isn’t required for every concert event. But most of Joe’s shows that I’ve attended, were held at dedicated music venues or fairgrounds, where much of the needed infrastructure was already in place. In contrast, this show was being staged in a Frontier League baseball stadium. So virtually EVERYTHING had to be procured, brought in, setup, staffed, and struck in a very short time frame, while protecting the delicate field and grounds, and all on a minimal operating budget. No small feat, to be sure.
This year, Father’s Day was extra-special for me. I received a gift no amount of money could ever buy. Of course, 4 years of tuition payments to Belmont University didn’t hurt.
On a beautiful Indian Summer day in November of 2009, I made the 2.5 hr. drive to Columbus to hang with my acquaintances in the Joe Nichols entourage and shoot their live show. The venue was a small club there called Whiskey Dick’s, with far too little room for the hundreds that were to attend the show that night. The club’s lighting was about the worst I’d seen – I think there were 5 or 6 small PARs with lovely gel colors like red and green, and a small spotlight which reflected off the plexiglass drum shield and blinded everyone in the middle of the room. So needless to say, shooting there was a challenge. (Plus, that was the day of the infamous Ohio State vs. Michigan football game, and here I was with the only MI license plate in a Columbus parking lot.)
All of the images were shot with a Nikon D300 using two lenses for the most part – the 28-70mm f/2.8 and the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR. Due to the low light levels, I was cranking up the ISO (around 2000 – 2500) for most shots. I used a little fill flash on some of the images taken from the side of the stage. But it was tough getting a good balance of ambient light and flash, so I went back to just using available light.
(Click the link right under the slideshow above to view full gallery.)
OK, I know that in the last post, I said that was the end of the story. And quite honestly, I thought it was.
Last Thursday evening, I received an email from someone asking if they could use one of my Joe Nichols photos for a magazine. They had received a link to a small online image gallery from Joe’s publicist, who had gotten it from Joe’s day-to-day manager, who had asked me to post any images I had of Joe with fans during a performance. He was looking for something to blow up and hang on the walls of their management office. I was flattered and thought that would be cool. But back to the email.
As I skimmed over the short request, I landed on the person’s email ‘signature’ at the bottom, where my eyes immediately stopped on the words “People Magazine”. Wait, what? (I think I might have even made the Scooby-Doo sound of surprise.) I re-read the last couple of lines and confirmed that the woman did, in fact, work for People Magazine. Needless to say, I replied promptly to find out more information.
To make a long story short, I ended up licensing one of my images (right) to People, to be used in an upcoming issue. I don’t have many more specifics right now, but when I find out which issue will contain my photo, I’ll let you know.
Ironically, this image is from September, 2008, and not a product of my recent road trip with Joe and company. This is not one of my best shots by any measure, but apparently, it is what their photo editor was looking for.
More news as it develops…
So, before we continue with the final installment of the series, let’s go back to the beginning for a second. At the end of Part 1, I outlined the all the “baby steps” I had worked out to get me from home to Fremont, Fremont to Nashville, Nashville to Minnesota, and Minnesota to Detroit. But the missing link in my master plan had not been locked down – getting home from Detroit. I had talked to a friend (and fellow musician) about coming to the show and giving me a ride home afterward. But by the time I had embarked on the first legs of the trip, I hadn’t gotten confirmation that he could make it. My back up plan was to have the tour bus drop me at a truck stop near Toledo on the way back to Nashville, and have my brother pick me up there. But seeing as how it would be roughly 1am by the time we would get to the truck stop, and my brother had to work in the morning, I wanted to spare him that misery. So I kept my fingers crossed that my Plan A would come together. And sure enough, somewhere along the line, I received a call from my guitar playing pal, Dan Searles, saying that he would definitely be able to come to the Detroit show and give me a ride home. Whew.
Fast-forward back to the evening of September 2 at the Michigan State Fair. The sound check was done, we had visited the Motown Museum, dinner was consumed, and the band was prepping for the show. Opening act, Chuck Wicks, was taking the stage and beginning his set. The sun was setting on another beautiful, late summer day. Dan called to say that he had arrived at the fair, and we began the process of figuring out exactly where he was and how he would make his way to the stage area. This proved to be a little tougher than it sounds, since every visual landmark he referenced was meaningless to me. I had only entered the fair through the “back way” and remained mostly in the backstage area, so I was completely unfamiliar with the rest of the fairgrounds. But after about 20 minutes or so, Dan had parked and found his way to the entrance of the music venue, where I was waiting with his backstage pass. We chatted for a minute or two, then headed toward the bus area for a “nickel tour” of the backstage area. While we waited for Joe’s part of the show to begin, we hung out near the bus, where Chris and the rest of the band and crew came and went, as they prepared for the show. I was going to give Dan a quick inside view of the bus, but I thought it would be best to wait until later, as it was somewhat hectic at the time. The last thing I wanted to do was bother any of the tour personnel. They had all been so accommodating to me throughout my brief stay with them, and I respected that.
Finally, Chuck’s set was done, and Joe’s crew (Josh, Taylor, and Chris headed for the stage to help with the setup changeover. I gathered my photo gear, threw on a dark-colored jacket (to be less of distraction as I wandered along the front of the stage), and escorted Dan out to front of the stage. I had apologized to him up front, telling him I would be shooting the show from the pit and that I couldn’t really ‘hang’ with him during the show. He was fine with that, and just thrilled to be there, getting access to all the areas of the venue. For free. During the show, he moved back and forth from the edge of the stage near me, to the front of house position near Chris, to a spot in the audience near the entrance.
This show for me was going to be bittersweet. I was looking forward to shooting the third show in 5 days, because I was now quite familiar with the set and the movement of the players. But I was melancholic, because I knew my show biz road show fantasy tour was about to be over. But as the show started and I began shooting, I became totally immersed in the moment, and any negative thoughts soon vanished. The interesting thing about this show, was that the band members were so conscious of me shooting them, that they actually started to “mug” a bit for my camera – making more direct eye contact, getting a little more theatrical with their movements or antics. It made for some great shots, too.
Thanks for following along with my ramblings. This experience was one I will always remember and cherish.
(Link to Addendum below)
If you’ve been following along with the previous five installments, then you’ve heard plenty of nuts and bolts facts about places, events, and experiences. But what I’ve failed to communicate thus far, is the intangible side of things – my thoughts and feelings. After reading my posts, several friends have commented about how much fun this experience must have been. They don’t know the half of it. There were so many of my life’s interests converging in one galactic occasion, that it’s hard to relate in words. This was a gumbo of all things dear to me – music, photography, a pinch of travel, a dash of show business, a sprinkling of gracious band and crew guys, and most importantly, the opportunity to witness my amazing son in the early stages of building a career in a field he clearly loves. It was amazing how much more relaxed and positive I was throughout these 5 days. Of course, a great deal of stress was removed by having most things taken care of for us – meals, travel, scheduling, to name a few. But beyond that, I was able to “go to a place” mentally that I hadn’t been in some time. I had read some interesting theories about what is referred to as “a state of play”. This occurs when one is involved in activities where logical thinking is no longer needed, and the spirit of “play” takes over. One’s brain waves actually change, endorphins are released, and time seems to be accelerated. Everyone has heard the phrase, “time flies when you’re having fun”, and now you know why its true.
Well, that’s probably enough philosophizing for now. But just in case you didn’t get it yet, I had a freaking blast! OK?
So when we left off in Part 5, we were leaving Minnesota in the wee hours of September 2, beginning our eleven hour drive to Detroit for the next show. As usual, many of the guys were hanging out in the lounge area of the bus, watching satellite TV or surfing the web on laptops or iPhones. One by one, they headed to the bunks to sleep through a good chunk of the overnight drive. For some reason, I was a bit wired up that night, and ended up being the last to call it a night (after watching some lousy B-movie and consuming an entire container of Pringles.) I had a small moment of confusion as I was heading off to the bunk – I had no idea how to shut off the TVs, entertainment system, and the dozens of various lights in the lounge area. After fumbling with some dimmer switches, remote controls, and light switches, I had things satisfactorily shut down for the night. Although, as I headed into the bunk compartment, it was apparent the floor level strip of lights along the corridor must have been on the same switch as some other lights that I had shut off up front, because it was awfully dark back there now. Oh well.
It was about 2:30am by the time my head hit the pillow. And the next thing I remember is waking up around 8:30. I really wasn’t tired anymore, so I thought I’d get up and go see who else was already up and where we were. To my surprise, I was the first one up, except for the driver, of course. Judging by the clock, I figured we were in central Michigan somewhere.
But a quick check of the Maps app on my iPhone showed otherwise. We were just leaving Illinois on I-94 and heading through Indiana into Michigan. (I found out later that heavy traffic in the Chicago area earlier that morning was responsible for our delays.) In a similar but inverse way as the night before, each of the band and crew members emerged one by one, from the bunk compartment with sleepy faces and “bed hair”. The first thing out of nearly everyone’s mouth was “how far out are we?” After realizing they had some time to kill before arriving at the next venue, most of the guys settled in to watch “Men of Honor” on the satellite TV, while sipping their morning coffee, or enjoying the favorite road breakfast – cereal and milk in a plastic cup.
We finally rolled into the Michigan State Fairgrounds at Woodward and 8 Mile, around 2pm (about 2 hours behind schedule.) The venue was a stark contrast to the newer, cleaner Minnesota fairgrounds from the night before. This place reflected the general blight that was evident throughout much of Detroit. But as they say, the show must go on. Chris, Josh, and Taylor began unloading the equipment trailer, and with the help of the stagehands, began rolling all the cases out to the stage area. Setup began immediately after, and within about 90 minutes, everything was ready to go. The band members began filtering onto the stage and making final adjustments in preparation for sound check.
Once again, I spent much of the soundcheck roaming around the venue, looking for good vantage points for shooting the show. This location had a similar “pit” area between the audience seating and the stage, only much smaller than the Minnesota stage. I also brought my camera and various lenses to the soundcheck to verify what type of view I would get with each lens. This proved to be helpful later in preparing for certain shots. The sound check wrapped up and the crew for opening act, Chuck Wicks, took to the stage like ants at a picnic, moving their band’s gear into position in front of Joe’s setup, in preparation for their soundcheck.
By now, it was about 4:30. Since the guys were mostly free until 7pm, Chris decided to take me up on one of my earlier suggestions – visiting the Motown Historical Museum about 7 miles away. He and I had been there before and thought some of the other guys would enjoy it, also. Chris said he was going to talk to someone about transportation, and I figured they would call a shuttle or a taxi, like they had earlier that day for the guys that went to work out at the gym. A few minutes later, Chris returned and said, “Follow me.” After walking about 30 yards, he got into the passenger seat of a Lincoln MKX parked near the tour bus. Curious, the rest of us followed suit and started to get in the back seat, when he looked at me and said, “No, you’re driving.” Huh? After a split second of confusion, I had the sense to ask him whose car we were commandeering. It belonged to the show’s promoter, and somehow, Chris had sweet-talked her into letting us take it. So here I am in the heart of Detroit at rush hour, driving a total stranger’s new car, with the lives of 4 key members of Joe’s band and crew in my hands, and I’m clueless how to even get out of the parking lot, let alone get safely to our destination.
But with the help of a couple iPhones’ navigation and Googling abilities, we managed to make it to the museum safe and sound. (BTW, you really should check this place out sometime, if you ever wanted to know anything about the Motown music making machine.) After our tour of Hitsville, and a safe return to the fairgrounds, we headed to the dining hall to get what was left of dinner.
After dinner, the band headed for the showers and began getting ready for the show. However, I had another important objective to carry out before the show started – securing a ride home that night.
(Link to Part 7 below)
howtime had arrived at the Minnesota State Fair. The seats were filling up. The weather was perfect. Chris rolled the pre-recorded audio montage opener and the band members began taking the stage. At the conclusion of the short intro piece, guitarist Dan Agee seamlessly launched into the pick-up notes for one of Joe’s signature tunes, “Let’s Get Drunk and Fight”, and the show was underway. Being down front in the pit for this show allowed me to get more frontal shots of Joe and the band, in contrast to the Fremont, OH show, where I pretty much stayed on the side of the stage, behind monitor engineer Josh Reynolds. The other advantage to the pit was that I had unrestricted movement left and right, in front of the stage, without worrying about blocking sightlines for ticket-buying audience members. There were times, however, where I wished I could have backed up a bit more (to capture a wider view). So I ended up switching lenses more often, in order to get the variety of shots I was looking for.
The other down-side to being so close to the stage was the angle at which I had to shoot. For Joe and anyone else that was downstage (near the front), I was always shooting upward at a slightly awkward angle, creating a more extreme perspective to the shots. But this was still a pretty good vantage point, considering the options. (BTW, in my opinion, the ideal shooting spot would be about 20 – 30 feet from the front of the stage, dead center, and at stage height – pretty near impossible to achieve in any real concert situation.)
The other positive of shooting this show was the soft glow of twilight during a good portion of Joe’s set, which made for a little more consistent exposure readings, when combined with the changing stage lighting.
Joe seemed very relaxed and comfortable with the audience that night – engaging in some humorous banter with a few folks, and even snapping a shot of the crowd with his phone, so he could put it on Twitter. The audience was receptive, in spite of the fact that many of them were probably there to see the headlining act, Randy Travis.
After shooting almost 400 images at the show that night, I headed back to the bus to pack up my camera gear. Many of the band and crew members gathered outside the buses, as Randy’s portion of the show came to a close, to witness a sweet fireworks display presented by the fair. Afterward, most of us went back to the bus lounge to wait for Joe to finish up a meet & greet with fans outside. Some pizzas arrived on the bus magically, and we all helped ourselves. Joe returned to the bus, and soon after, a fervent discussion of politics, global warming, and health care ensued between Joe and drummer Wes Little. From the expressions of the other band members, this was not the first time for such a discussion, and probably not the last. I even managed to interject a few thoughts here and there when there was a break in the action. It was all in good fun, and both sides had some valid points.
Eventually, the merchandise guy, Taylor, wrapped up his sales activities and arrived back at the bus. We were relatively close to heading out, when someone knocked on the bus door and asked if we had left something near the stage. Turns out, the folding, plexiglass drum shield somehow never got loaded into the equipment trailer, so Chris and Taylor went to retrieve it. Once that was taken care of, the driver unhooked all the utilities, retracted the expandable portion of the lounge area, released the air brakes, and headed out on the 12 hour journey to Detroit.
(Link to Part 6 below)