(Minneapolis, Minnesota) I leaped awake immediately checking my watch, which glowed dimly in the dusk-lit room. 7:16. Shit! Overslept! I scramble to the bathroom and on my way yank a random shirt off the closet rack while also attempting to navigate into my jeans. My kitbag was already prepared at least. Grab it and go. Doors opened at First Avenue at 6:00, but the show didn’t start until 7:00, so the opening band had only been playing for 15 minutes. And there’s two opening bands. If I call the Uber right now, I thought, I might make it there before Baroness takes the stage, and I have to be there when they do because I only get the first three songs to shoot up close, and after that third song my photo pass turns into a souvenir (I wallpaper the side of my film fridge with them).
Shoes sherpa knotted, new jacket on, keys found, phone luckily mostly charged, and up pulls my driver. I’m in the back seat opposite him. He’s a polite, quiet driver. I slam a Red Bull and start framing road pictures out the window just to get my brain out of it’s sleep fog and creating things.
We were well clear of my neighborhood and gliding down the open freeway when I noticed that the sun was on the wrong side of the sky. It was the morning of the Baroness concert. I smiled softly and relaxed, for the possibility of being late had evaporated. I decided to say nothing and arrive twelve hours early. As the car drove off and I stood beside the famed star-studded building, looking at Fugazi’s star on the outside wall, where it definitely belongs. I decided to shoot the large Baroness concert announcement poster in daylight, instead of later. Then I walked away to go shoot some street, and get my Uber’s worth.
Later that evening, I returned before doors and while milling around outside with those in line I was summoned by the smell of burning cannabis to a place further down the line. Fun conversation that I cannot remember. Just the laughing. And then the line funnels into the place and I’m in the Mainroom. I slap on the photo pass and wander. Soon finding myself in a conversation about the state of Metal these days with another photographer who knows a bit on the topic. I am not a Metal listener, only because I spent time on that back in the 80s (loved it) and I don’t often revisit ground I’ve covered.
The photographer tells me he believes Baroness is the heir to Metallica. I decided not to argue the point, simply because how would I know? There’s about a thousand truly great bands for every one you’re aware of. Probably more than that.
“You’ll see what I mean,” he promised back to me over his shoulder as he headed toward the bar. I flashed a smile back at him and followed him to order a PBR and a Red Bull, a depressant and a stimulant. Let them fight it out with the THC and we’ll see how the pictures wind up, I mused, amused.
The place was filling up fast and the energy level of the room rose when a guitar tech onstage noodled a bass guitar for a moment, followed by a tappity-tap THUMP THUMP from behind the drums. Then some squandered feedback. People started staking their places early in the front row. About a fourth of them seemed to be wearing the same Baroness t-shirt and leaned against the barricade looking at each other, and up, and all around the huge space. Waiting.
I found a table and got my many lenses out of their pouches and caps and into their memorized pockets on my person. Then the volume level of the room rose dramatically so I put in earplugs and made for the barricade entrance in front and waited with an enormous security guy as at least six or seven other photographers arrived with their chubby “pro” cameras. Mine is a little M rangefinder, which earned me some odd looks. One guy with a zoom lens roughly the size of a fireplace log just couldn’t help himself.
“Cute,” he said, clearly mocking my weapon of choice. I nodded and smiled, pretending to be oblivious to his sarcasm.
“Big lens,” I countered after a minute. “You must be so proud.”
He tried pretending that he was oblivious to my sarcasm, but failed. And then was off the hook because Spotlights, the first band, filed onto the stage and the security giant stepped aside and in we went, moving low as if under fire, each person taking up a position, glancing through their lens and then revising their position. I chose a place completely at random. These guys are all local pros and I had wandered onto their competitive playing field. But art is not a competition (except, I suppose, when it is a juried one).
Spotlights is an excellent three piece Metal band from Brooklyn, a married couple working with a seriously good drummer. Their technical skills and immense creativity were manifest and potent. Their sound, at turns, wheeled from crunchy and jagged to lush and soaring, or both at once. A very versatile band.
I was only assigned to shoot Baroness, so the opening bands were bonus practice runs of getting it right for Baroness within the pressure crucible of the three song policy. The photographer’s run in front of the barricade was packed with shooters, all of whom were always on the move, and never getting in each other’s frame (doing the duck-under pass). And if any of them even slightly bumped another, polite unspoken insta-apologies were always exchanged. None ever crowded another trying to get the same shot. Watching us, you would note a stealthy, hustling dance of visual concentration and politeness. But until you come across a page similar to this one, and see, you have no idea what they’re seeing – what they’re capable of seeing. They just look like another bunch of busy picture-takers. But every one of them is passionately putting as much of their being into what they are doing as the people making music onstage.
Spotlights’ set ended with roaring approval, and I slipped outside for some conversation and decompression. The moment my feet hit the sidewalk so did a beer bottle. Tires squealed and brakes burned and everyone outside the club was yelling and swearing at a Red Camaro, which was trapped at the stoplight. Someone in a green shirt lamely returned fire with an empty plastic water bottle which landed a good six feet short of its target, making the Camaro people laugh so hard the car rocked a little as the light turned green and screeched off.
“It was worth a try,” said Green Shirt Guy to everyone outside, who were also drowning in hysterical laughter. Someone saw my camera and offered me a joint.
“Ahhh! Camera lubricant!” I said smiling. “Thank you!” She sparked me up and lit one for herself and we chatted and laughed about the bottle incident.
By the time I slipped back inside and sat down for another PBR/Red Bull bump I was sky high, waiting for Chat Pile to start, idly watched as their stage was being set, before reviewing the Spotlights photos in-camera to see which lenses were giving me the best results in this particular space and from where.
Some minutes later I had Raygun Busch of Chat Pile three feet away in my viewfinder. Waves of sludgy guitar rolled over me pregnant with anxious doom; the real doom we all face, collectively and individually. One song, “Why,” needs to be listened to by this entire country. And not for its entertainment value. Why indeed.
At some point Busch had lost his shirt, and his shorts didn’t quite fit and looked like they were going to fall off, His hair was lank, and his small beer gut wobbled with him. Between that look and how he behaved while singing, he reminded me of Joe Cocker in his Woodstock heyday, or at least John Belushi’s impression of that. A sort of high-energy slobbo-rocker with an incredible voice. It was simply riveting. Busch has acknowledged that Big Black is his main influence, and strong shades of Steve Albini are there to be heard, but Brian McMahan of Slint is in there too. It depends on if Busch is speaking lyrics (McMahan) or yelling them intensely (Albini). But his general attitude is neither Albini-pissed or McMahan desperate. His overtone is I’m-about-to-fucking-die. And the band behind him also has a Slint-like post-punk feel in certain songs, so for me it was like discovering a perfectly servicable, if sludgy, Slint substitute (and God, do I need one).
(Yes, I do realize that there are more than two bands influencing Chat Pile, probably more than they’re consciously aware of. I only named two: One they acknowledge and are compared to ad nauseum, and another only a Slint fan like me would notice and glom onto.)
I streamed Chat Pile’s album God’s Country when I got home and, yup, not a copy-cat act at all, but welcomely similar in sound (not message) to Slint. Chat Pile’s God’s Country is vinyl worth buying even though Music can blast it through my system with arguably the same fidelity and punch. But if I own it physically, the music on it will become a part of my life. Even though albums on Music are endless and sound flawless, I still think of them as internet cheese until I see one twirling under my needle.
After three songs, we obediently filed out the side, and I took in the rest of the set with my camera put away, my eyes bugged, and my jaw dropped open. I don’t remember anything in the trancelike gap between Chat Pile and Baroness. Chat Pile was that good. The weed might have contributed a little to the trace. Maybe.
When Baroness began I was already positioned and framed up at the lip of the stage. I knew which lenses I was going to use and how and where they would be used. The experience of shooting an energetic band up close using the narrowest depth of field possible without autofocus is worth trying to describe. The only thing harder to shoot that way is a bonkers toddler running around the house. It requires rapt attention. Much of which is paid to maintaining focus at all times. The name of the game is Always Be Focusing, so you can squeeze on any decisive moment and score. The squeeze-timing part requires as little of my attention as anything else that’s purely instinctual.
I was hearing Baroness for the first time, and since knowing their songs helps the photographs (you can anticipate peaks), I spared some of that attention to understanding the musical gist of each song quickly so I could fall into sync with them to whatever extent possible.
Baroness frontman John Baizley’s appearance is essentially that of a Heavy Metal Zeus. He’s fearsome to behold. His guitar probably actually HAS killed fascists. I would love to shoot him as Atlas holding up the world. He’s also an incredibly talented visual artist. I think I was informed at least three or four times that night (by people in Baroness shirts) that he creates the marvelous illustrations that grace their album covers. So while he looks like a pitiless brutal MMA fighter, he’s an artist in more than one discipline which means he’s likely actually quite sensitive. Real artists usually are. And both of those sides were reflected in the music I heard.
He appeared onstage with his arms wide open; a gesture of welcome to an audience screaming and shouting applause, a gesture of welcome to a performer. Then, ironically, they started with “Last Word,” the very beginning of which is reminiscent of the hard charging “Animal” by Pearl Jam but quickly becomes something completely else, smooth and melodic while maintaining that fast tempo.
“A Horse Called Golgotha” was next from 2009’s Blue Record with its machine-gun drum bursts and cutting rhythm guitar. Fast as the first song and the audience became like a tossed sea with searchlights scanning the waves from the rafters.
I was up front, moving from place to place with care, for part of my job is making sure I don’t interfere with the other seven doing that same job. And yes, it is possible to bob your head to the music while making photographs. Important to, even. If I tune it out with too much visual concentration the results are less inspired. It’s a magic ingredient (I street shoot with Joy Division in headphones, for example) because your emotional state is a big part of the calculus turning out your art and making it look like yours.
Lead guitarist Gina Gleason was standing over me near the end of the song when she attacked a quick solo. A very complex and blindingly fast sequence of hammer-ons and pull-offs that made my brain spin in place. I was photographing this from perhaps a meter away, below her. She was having heaps of fun which was evident all over her face.
I had worked through four lenses by the time it ended and then the pulsating, chugging “March to the Sea” began with a brief soft intro, and I went for the then next lens and yet another position. The song was shaping up to be a great one. (Hearing all of this for the first time was a revelation.) It doesn’t matter how talented a band is with their instruments and voices if the songwriting is stunted. Listening to their discography as I write, it is becoming clear that Baroness’ songwriting is polar opposite of that. Their songs are consistently extensive, developed, and mature.
Midway through that third song, I realized I hadn’t photographed the drummer and needed to while I had close proximity, but the lighting at First Avenue wasn’t doing Sebastien Thomson any favors at all. He wasn’t directly lit and my low angle vs his drum riser platform wasn’t doing me any favors. Luckily I could see his face so I rattled off several shots to give me choices later, all of which would be mediocre, but every band member should be included in the work. You get what you can. You don’t what you can’t. Hopefully someday I’ll have an opportunity to do him justice (drummers are best shot from the side) because he is a stellar musician and I have a trace of Indiana Jones in me. When I notice someone or thing that is extraordinary I need to preserve it in the photographic record like Jones insisting “It belongs in a MUSEUM!” (not that Thompson is an ancient artifact).
And then the song ended and I was back out in the club. Immediately I took to the balconies to get that perspective, then I descended and gently, without disturbing anyone in the dense crowd, slipped through all the way to the second row center. I could’ve moved up further but I wanted to include people in the foreground looking up at the stage. “Beneath The Rose” had just ended and “Green Theme” had begun, an instrumental that begins with a gentle intro with a eerie undertone before demonstrating that power chords with a generous amount twang should be more of a thing in Metal, before closing with an unadorned stretch of that droning eerie undertone.
As the songs came one after another, my concept of their essence – their sound – took shape. It’s Metal, but much more complex than it was in the 80s. So much has happened since then, both in music and in the world it reflects. Baroness has elements of post-rock, as some passages or elements reminded me of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai. Metal has gathered a great deal of complexity, both musical and emotional, from the other many corners of Rock when compared to the juvenile Metal I listened to as a juvenile.
Once I had a grasp of their sound, they upended it with “Under The Wheel” which builds and hits a point where suddenly a very Metallica feeling grabs hold. Baizley’s voice becomes less clean and melodic and more hard and overpowering, the rhythm guitar is controlling the song like very traditional Metal and Thompson’s drums are stomping on you. It was more in line with my outdated idea of what Metal sounds like.
“War, Wisdom and Rhyme” sounded like it was written for headbangers. While that term is often used interchangeably with “metalhead,” I mean it literally: that subset of metalheads who whip their heads up and down hard for the entire length of a song, or an entire concert. You’ve probably encountered this at some point (The famous Beavis & Butthead GIF of them doing that counts). But almost exactly one minute in, Baizley’s vocal enters and though the song demanded singing at the very top of his voice, he did not cross over into yelling. He adhered to the correct musical notes, that he’s cranked his delivery to full lung-capacity volume only made those notes and words more powerful. He wasn’t singing that loud to sound overbearing. He retained the vulnerability inherent to the act of singing openly without pretense, drawing the listener into the emotional space of the song, but all the more deeply because he’s tapping his louder reserves instead of pushing past them to something that would be much less effective.
Then “Anodyne” from the newest album Stone. Also a chugging, pulsating song but with long sustained vocals. I didn’t stopwatch it there of course, but I did at home just now, just because I was curious. The first line is: in dreams we fall together. On the album version, that line extends out across ten seconds, sung smooth and gapless. The song is an excellent example (among many) of what makes Baroness such a great listen. The contrast of the jagged, gripping Metal vs the sheer stretched-out beauty of John Baizley’s magnificent voice. Which, despite his body-built badass biker appearance, has an open honest yearning quality to it.
“Chlorine And Wine” is a highly dynamic song, moodwise. They began it with quiet, sparse, drumless, pensive major chords. Then drums enter to tighten up those same chords, which are dreamy and sad, dejected yet hopeful. Then those drums start hammering to signal that it’s about to get heavy and when it does catch fire those same chords remain the song’s foundation but with little mood lifts somehow injected. Happy moments. But only moments, and this comparison of slightly sad and slightly happy reveal how close to each other those moods are, because those changes were subtle, making my feelings a bit confused and disoriented.
Then a couple of minutes later the song suspends. It stops flapping its wings and just glides. It was as if everyone onstage stomped their pedal for drastically softening things at the same time the drummer laid off the big drumheads altogether leaving little more than a tick-tickety on his high-hat with some gentle fills. Guitars like whalesong. We all float with them for a spell and then the song comes crashing back, but in a different way. It was building to climax by juxtapositioning multiple moods, some too esoteric to pin down. Baizley would even bend his voice mid-word to a neighboring emotion, and then contrast both against another emotion. It kept my heart guessing to the epic end.
Then he roundly thanked us for “showing the fuck up!” and he gave grateful shout-outs to Spotlights and Chat Pile. Then he explained that on this tour they decided to work with nineteen different bands for opening these shows across the country.
My recording is a little muffled, but it sounded like he might have welcomed Chat Pile back onstage. I didn’t see this because at the end of the previous song I got pushed, hard. I turned and saw that a classic mosh pit had formed. A large round area had been cleared by the moshers. Moshing is a fun way to dance if you don’t mind risk and pain. A situation where you are allowed to dance with complete disregard for those around you, charge and crash against each other. Those on the inner edge of the ring took great pleasure in shoving thrown people back into the melee, hard. Everyone’s smacking into everyone, or accidentally hitting them and no one is getting mad at anyone. Everyone has the same goofy perma-smile. And if anybody gets knocked off balance and falls, they never hit the floor. Someone is always there to pull them to their feet in mid-fall. It’s just part of that dance.
Knowing I had enough good photos of Baroness to fill two of these articles, I decided to face the other way and shoot the action and the personalities in the chaos of the mosh. In doing so I missed the rest of the show, mostly, because I was now focused not on the music itself, but the effect it has on its fans.
I did catch the encore though. They ended on “The Sweetest Curse” and “Take My Bones Away.”
Before turning away from his mic stand to leave, Baizley let out a great “Goodnight Minneapolis!!!” and as he turned away he smiled self-consciously to a bandmate as if to say: I know yelling that is as cliché as it gets but I just can’t help myself.
I totally get it, because If I was a real-deal rock star like him, I’d get a huge kick out of saying hello, or thank you, or fuck you, or goodnight to entire cities at the top of my voice. Night after night.
Article and Images by: Joe Cunningham
1. Embers (entrance music recording)
2. Last Word
3. A Horse Called Golgotha
4. March to the Sea
5. Beneath the Rose
6. Green Theme
7. Under the Wheel
8. War, Wisdom and Rhyme
10. Chlorine & Wine
13. Shock Me
15. The Sweetest Curse
16. Take My Bones Away