Upon hearing that my friends, Derry alt-rockers The Wood Burning Savages (henceforth TWBS), were supporting the colossal riff-masters Death From Above 1979 in Dublin, a commonly used idiom sprang to mind – “If you don’t ask, you don’t get”. I opened up the messenger app and proposed an idea, that I’ll document the whole day since this is the BIG show. Due to administrative and promoter dynamics beyond their control (the bain of all promoters, regardless of size), the green light was given and my place in the van was secured.
I’ve photographed TWBS a few times in the past, most notably in the Belfast Empire with Tom Robinson Band. At the time I was the editor-in-chief of my own publication, Treason Magazine, which focused on local music news and documenting the scene of the time through mixed methods. The magazine ran for 5 issues and a special issue, Public Address, in association with Spectrum Festival 2017. Upon reflection, it was a great venture which prepared me for future prospects. Who knows, it might even come back. Excusing my tangent, TWBS radiated such a great energy matched with a strong aggressive stage presence and melodious songwriting that made me instantly gravitate their way.
The Journey Down South:
For access to the full gallery – click on any of the images!
It was Wednesday 14th, at 12:45pm. The rain was particularly heavy this day with gusts pulling even the strongest of bodies towards the nearest fence (or in the case of one unlucky individual, a cyclist), and there I was standing in the foyer of the Belfast Metropolitan College sheltering from the elements. Dan Acheson (Bassist, TWBS) just finished teaching a music class, rushing to the black van in the parking lot and so the journey to the Ormeau area of Belfast started. Low sounds of BBC Radio Ulster accompanied conversation of teaching, a profession Dan and I shared. Along the way, we collected Paul (Frontman, TWBS) and Elliot (Drummer, TWBS) from their doorstep before venturing to West Belfast to meet Michael (Guitarist, TWBS) at TWBS HQ to account for instruments and load up the van. Many people know me for being quite vain about my hair, so the idea of lifting gear into a fan whilst it, to use the illustrative colloquialism, “pissing down”, was not on the top of my list. It’s stuff like that I enjoy reflecting upon, the scurrying to get into the van to begin the 2-hour drive to Dublin with excitement and anxiety running through veins.
This was a big deal for TWBS. The opportunity had arisen, according to Peter Cinnamond (Radio personality for BBC Radio Ulster and Manager, TWBS), from a (very) hungover dander around Hamburg, Germany. Following a few days of shows, Peter and Paul found themselves wandering the city, to come across Death From Above 1979 (henceforth DFA79) performing an in-store show. Chatting with the duo later in the day, the Canadian riff-masters curiously enquired as to why two Irish lads were kicking around this side of town, on this continent. An exchange of information led to an email two days later asking TWBS to support them in Dublin. That’s the power of a good online presence and the confidence to shake hands in action. When in Hamburg, eh?
The two-hour drive wasn’t particularly eventful, the sparse conversation between some was matched with other members just relaxing the band. I found myself in a rare moment of just kicking back and breathing. I say it wasn’t eventful, but for Dan, it was a driving challenge facing dreadful winds, spray from 18-wheelers covering his windshield and torrential storms ensuing relentlessly. A stop at Applegreens led to a quick lunch. Dan was disappointed that we didn’t stop at the franchise at Lusk, where a burrito place (or whatever it is…) “Freshii” was located. I’m sure Peter, who was travelling separately in his limousine sipping expense French wine, could’ve stopped and got him one. After all, isn’t that what managers are for?
Landing at The Tivoli:
Landing at The Tivoli, I was really diggin’ the vibe of the venue. It wasn’t clean, it was sterilised by modern retrofitting. It was dark, it was very large and architecturally perfect for a show like this. It also had an interesting stage-lighting system and a historic PA system made apparent by the old cream speakers. Apparently, it’s the home of OTT-Wrestling, or that’s what I heard in passing anyway. It just oozed character. We loaded in the gear and met Pooch. Pooch was the sound-tech for DFA79 and was a very friendly character. Banter was exchanged, and TWBS were shown to the upstairs dressing room by Brian, a rep for MCD. While this was happening, Sebastian and Jesse of DFA79 were on-stage configuring their set-ups. They did a cover of U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ in their colossal style. That made for some, fascinating listening… [laughs]
The dressing room was small with purple walls (I apologise, I vouched for monochrome in post) and a toilet which wasn’t closed off at the ceiling. There were beers and water on the table, next to the mirrors that were surrounded by old-fashioned bulbs which made for some interesting lighting. Paul and Michael laughed whilst changing guitar strings, Dan was threatening to use the toilet to its full capacity (which apparently more common than suspected) and Elliot just kicked back before venturing outside to get snacks for everyone. For the first time being in a dressing room as a documentarian, it was an interesting observational experience. You notice everyone’s subtle rituals and can feel the anxious energy at the frontier of a milestone.
Soundcheck, compared to my experiences anyway, was rather long at this show. It shows well how much care and attention the sound techs took that night with the proceedings. The result was immense. TWBS took to the stage with multiple amps and instruments, taking the time to set up and make themselves comfortable. Lights were also checked at this point, monitors tested and DFA79’s backline moved back. Sebastien’s [Grainger] kit remained in the same space. We all commented on Jesse’s [F. Keeler / JFK] massive bass rig comprising of four 4×12 Orange cabs and Sebastien’s spiralling drum skin for ‘OUTRAGE IS NOW’ – their new album.
As the lads checked various instruments and got comfortable, “Rat Race” was soundchecked first followed by “Don’t Know Why I Do This To Myself” to my recollection. All I remember that Paul’s mic check was probably the most annoying thing I’ve heard in my life. I honestly don’t know why my ears rejected it, but imagine how a dog feels around those whistles. I guess it really boils down to what works, so stick to what is best!
The rationale for Photographic Style:
The rationale for the colour and approach was inspired by old tour photographs and restricted by the lighting throughout soundcheck and during the show – especially for TWBS. I remember the night before looking around the internet at how other photographers have done candid work in the past. I even looked to local photographers such as Ciara McMullan and Matthew Patton for colour profiles. This was my first proper experience of acting as a non-intervening photo documentarian. During soundcheck and in the dressing room, the lighting conditions weren’t awfully bright which often utilised deep reds on the stage, and with the full-frame camera, I had that extra headroom to push the exposure without creating too much noise. Monochrome, I believe, characterises nostalgia and anxiousness very well, especially when the subjects are unsuspecting you’re taking the photographs. The exchange from monochrome to colour symbolises the excitement, the dream-come-true, vivid colours. TWBS in their actions and behaviour before the show accentuated pressure to perform well, an acknowledgement of how big an opportunity this was, and dare I say, they were overwhelmed by the experience.
I will reflect upon the usage of my D750 with the Sigma ART 35mm. For a first time user and experiencer of Full-Frame – I was out of my comfort zone throughout the entire day. This was very strange for me making the jump from Nikon DX to Nikon FX. Something I really wanted to do, but continuously had feelings of returning to the former. Maybe through time and with varying glass choices, I’ll get used to it. Contrary to the photography, it was excellent for videography, especially with the f1.4 aperture to work in all lighting situations effortlessly.
In processing these images, the use of the curve in Lightroom was significant in these colour profiles. The contrast was lifted to 100, with blacks pulled down to -100. Clarity remained at 20 at the highest, with highlights and exposure varying on the lighting conditions. Saturation was obviously removed completely where applicable. The curve lifted the blacks up to create this Instamatic/Kodak 35mm film effect. I’ve recently developed an affinity for such a profile, probably from working with Matthew Patton on a couple of projects and from observing the works of Megan Doherty and Wrapped In Plastic Photography. For the colour photography (to follow), a similar premise was utilised, with a high contrast and warmer approach to give it a vintage feel, the curve lifting the blacks and dipping the mids ever-so-slightly to achieve. Orange and red lights were used during the performance which created a warmed anyway. I also used the light blue filter on some to process the whites and the blue keys to smooth out the heavy blue flood lights used at various stages of the performance.
The Main Event:
The stage times were pushed back 20 minutes, meaning TWBS went on stage at 8:20pm and DFA79 were on at 9:20pm. This was a godsend to the band, meaning that the audience would arrive at 8pm and congregate in larger numbers for the opening act. Descending those steel steps to the backstage area was exhilarating. Final talks with Peter led to the group walk to the stage. Setting foot on-stage, fist bumps were exchanged with myself stationed in the pit. I was the only photographer present for TWBS, which frankly, I found very annoying since there were meant to be 3 photographers according to the promoter. If you’re going to photograph a show, photograph the whole damn show. One other photographer showed up for DFA79. As a former editor of a music publication and a music promoter, it’s both annoying to receive a lack of content or for a press agent not to show up especially since you’ve accounted for their presence in the books.
TWBS erupted into ‘Stability’, with the audience bopping their heads and some members of the crowd really getting into the vibe. The band were in the zone, working themselves relentlessly, throwing themselves around the stage and pushing themselves to the limit. With the large choruses and speed of ‘We Love You’ to the Manics-esque vibes of ‘Sisters of Mercy’. It was a perfect blend of political sensitivity, pop hooks and spitting vocals. Paul compared the freedoms of NI to the Republic on topics of equal marriage and abortion. Throwing his guitar to the ground, ‘Thoughts of You’ led to a three-piece band formation and a free moving, high kicking frontman who prowled stage front in the face of the large crowd. They were eating out of TWBS’ collective hands. From the pit, it was a sight-to-behold through the lens. On the rush up to the launch of their debut album, The band performed their best set to date.
Post-performance, we all congregated into the dressing room, smiles on faces and ready for a well-deserved beer. Marcus (?), who I assumed was DFA79’s tour manager, brought in large bottles of Peroni. They didn’t last too long in celebration. This was my time to back up photos and prepare for another stint in the pint. The joys of a mobile editing set up.
To round off the night, I was granted permission to photograph DFA79 for the first three songs. The industry standard for press photography. The stage was reconfigured with those massive amps pulled forward and a synth put at stage front. Jesse and Sebastien were already bulldozing the Tivoli with ‘Nomad’. That pit was drenched in bass vibes and pounding bass drums, and the lighting was fantastic whites and blues. Jesse had a certain swagger that made for some great posing amidst the heavy grooves, with Seb seated and bating the kick to death. The TWBS team found a place around the venue to enjoy tonight’s headliner, with a drink in hand and attendees approaching them with praise.
The night concluded with DFA and TWBS in the dressing rooms, posing for group photographs before we ventured back to Belfast at midnight. As lights passed, and conversations of cultural theory occurred – it was the end of the first proper music documentarian experience. In two weeks time, I’d be back in the fair city with Gary Numan. A dream come true for me.