The host to Chuck Berry's monthly residency, Blueberry Hill's Duckroom, is filling up with bodies and smoke, but tonight, the rock'n roll legend has the night off. By the time Hamilton Leithauser and crew take the stage, it's just past 11pm, one of my new front-row friends is on his fourth round of Jack, and the crowd is ready for the incendiary rock. The Walkmen are happy to oblige.
The Walkmen delivered their signature sound of what's been called Dylan meets indie rock, carved out by singer Leithauser's languidly raspy vocals and instrumentation which is at once raw, soaring, and spare.
Just like drummer Matt Barrick's stripped down kit, the performance was a lean, no-nonsense run through a number of tracks from their 2006 release, A Hundred Miles Off, as well as a sprinkling of new and old material.
Onstage, the performance was dominated by Leithauser, whose towering physical presence and gravelly tone seemed to cut through the darkness of the small venue to draw the crowd closer to the stage with every croon and howl.
While some might be disappointed by such a short set, I'm personally always impressed by when a band dispenses with the stage banter and just sets to their craft.
As they were setting up, a fan in the audience shouted to Leithauser, “Go to work! Earn, son!” The frontman just seemed brush off this suggestion with a sheepish grin. These things are understood.
Concert Photography Notes:
The Duckroom is a dark, smokey dive. While I usually cringe at the thought of shooting in the venue, the place books a mean line-up, so I packed the Nikon D3 and a bag full of lenses.
I was interested to see how the D3 did under the worst-case situation of shooting in this basement venue, which has the nasty habit of dimming the lights to a gasping flicker for the headliners.
The Duckroom is basically a narrow bar that features a long, low stage along one wall, and as always, the show was all general admission. There's no song limit and no pit.
Having photographed the Walkmen at the 2006 Pitchfork Music Festival, I knew the best spot to photograph lead Hamilton Leithauser would probably come from stage-right. The singer's lanky frame and propensity to hold the mic with his left hand in profile to the stage cemented this decision.
It was dark. Suffice it to say, there were some lights, and they were dimmed to within a breath of fizzling out. How dark was it? Let's just skip to the exposure.
I was shooting between ISO 12800 and ISO 25600 at f/1.4 and f/1.6 with big-eyed primes, and the shutter speeds hovered around 1/100. Yeah, pretty dark. I have to wonder what to expect from the Duckroom for the upcoming show with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.
Lenses and Gear:
I brought out all the primes for the Walkmen, but the two most useful lenses were the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 and the Sigma 30mm f/1.4. While I also used the Nikon 50mm f/1.4. the lens was just too slow to focus under the failing light.
The standout lens of the night was certainly the 30mm, due to its wide field of view and surprisingly nimble response under the circumstances. While the lens is made for the smaller DX (APS) format, the lens worked perfectly on the FX, “full frame” sensor of the Nikon D3. The lens actually covers quite a larger portion of the larger sensor than one might expect, and fairly minimal vignetting occurs in the corners of the frame.
While this sort of performance would be fairly unacceptable for many applications, I found the results very suitable to low light scenes without even illumination (ie, concert photography). Given the same options for a different show, I'd do the same thing and let it fly.
I processed these shots from RAW using Nikon Capture NX. Since I planned on converting the images to B&W, I turned off noise reduction in these files before converting them to JPG. For color shots, I often find digital noise intrusive, but for B&W work, I actually prefer a little grit. One thing I've really appreciated about the D3 is its very tight noise pattern, which is – wait for it – kind of film-like.
Bringing them into Photoshop, I converted the images to a warm monotone with a slight s-curve to add a little snap and separation to the tones. I found this last step necessary given the weak, dull lighting.
The Nikon D3 is a champ, and the music was solid but at the same time, this gig made me remember why I don't shoot dive bars but a few times a year. Still, when a club like the Duckroom books a band like the Walkmen, the choice is pretty clear.
Aside from the music, there were some great folks in the crowd, too. Tom and Mark, thanks for the beers. I'll see you at Drive By Truckers, you've got a few rounds coming on me.