A HISTORY OF OVERCOMMITMENT
Growing up, my parents always chided me for burning the candle at both ends. It’s a habit that really kicked in my late teens and early twenties. In the summer before my freshman year of college, I joined the band Langus after their bassist moved away for college. We rehearsed, I learned 3 sets of covers and an album of originals and we were ready to take the southwest Ohio music scene by storm. My first gig with the band was at a sportsbar/music venue in Middletown, OH called BC’s Home Team Grill. As we drove to the sleepy steel town, conveniently located midway between Cincinnati and Dayton on I-75, I was trembling with anxiety and buzzing with excitement.
I’ve played a lot of stages in my years as a gigging musician… but this is the only stage I’ve ever played with railing made of Louisville Slugger baseball bats.
I had imagined my first show with a professional working band to be on some really nice stage with a cool light show and a bunch of adoring fans. Instead, we pulled into the gravel parking lot to see a giant barn-like structure with a faux water wheel like on old mill on the side. It didn’t exactly scream “rock and roll” from outside. When you entered, there was a large central bar, a bunch of tables in the middle surrounded by booths lining the walls. There were TVs everywhere playing Sportscenter or some other random sporting event. Mind you, these were the days before flatscreens, which meant large projectors on the walls and cumbersome, clunky tube televisions hanging precariously from ceilings and in corners. To the right of the bar were a few pool tables and dartboards, but to the left was what I was really interested in… the stage. I’ve played a lot of stages in my years as a gigging musician, but to this day, more than 20 years later, this is the only stage I’ve ever played with railing made of Louisville Slugger baseball bats lining the entire front.
I’ve tried for the life of me to find some pictures of the place, but it appears to all but have disappeared from the internet and the Google Streetview shows an empty lot and the remnants of a parking lot where the venerated BC’s once stood. It may not have been exactly as I had pictured it, but, on that baseball bat lined stage is where my music career began.
As time went on and we grew our fanbase and branched out to more venues and cities, we ended up with regular weekly gigs on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, plus usually another gig or two on Friday or Saturday. Playing four or more nights a week while working as a line cook on our off nights, delivering TVs on Saturdays, and attending classes when I wasn’t too exhausted or hungover meant I rarely slept more than three or four hours a night. I was so afraid to slow down for fear that I would miss the opportunity that could lead to our “making it.”
I never really had the “normal” college experience. I never lived on campus and as soon as classes were over, I was headed to rehearsal, soundcheck or a road trip to play a show in another city. I missed out on a lot of extracurricular activities, friendships, dorm life, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret one second of it. I tell this story to illustrate my penchant for obsessively chasing a dream, come hell or high water. My years as a professional musician gave me so many amazing experiences that many musicians only dream of. I’ve done record label showcases with Langus, played SXSW twice and toured the country with Peter Adams & The Nocturnal Collective, been featured on magazines, played on live tv, recorded albums, and offered record deals… but most importantly, met some amazing people and had my mind opened to a wider world than I ever would have otherwise.
The years went on and successes came in smaller and less frequent steps than I had hoped. My music career had been taken over by all of the non-music parts of being in a band. There was so much time spent sending emails to venues and bands to try to get a show on the books, making phone calls to introduce myself to promoters and venue owners, designing fliers for the shows we managed to get booked, hanging said fliers to try to get people to come see us, rehearsing for the show, traveling (sometimes many hours), and breaking our backs and knees during load-in and load-out… all for the hour or so onstage. It began to feel an awful lot like work, but it was still better than any other prospects for employment I had at the time.
After I played my last show with Peter Adams & The Nocturnal Collective on May 5, 2007 to go back and finish my degree, I thought I would miss playing shows terribly. Instead, I felt a weird sort of relief. I was burnt out. The sudden relief of the pressure of trying to “make it” was gone and I had the freedom to focus on other things (namely, my mental health. See below). With nearly fifteen years of perspective, I can see that my relentlessness made me stop enjoying the thing I had loved since I was ten, which I have only in the past year or so, begun to rediscover.
I was able to pack away my camera gear and take some time to recharge, guilt-free.
As I mentioned in my 2019 Year In Review, I discovered my love for photography on the two tours I did with Peter Adams. With no band to play in, I poured myself into photography and through a number of chance occurrences, found myself in the photo pit for my first show on August 13, 2011. I attacked concert photography with the same fervor that I had playing music. In the busiest months of concert season, it was normal to photograph four or more shows a week. Much like in my music career, I was so afraid of missing the opportunity that might help me get to the next level, that I rarely took time off to recharge and relax. I was loving still being involved in the music industry in some way, but was making a lot of the same overcommitment mistakes.
When Covid unceremoniously shut down the entire live music industry, I was seriously bummed. But it was only supposed to be for a few weeks. As weeks turned to months, I began to feel that familiar but unexpected feeling of relief that I had when quitting music. The pandemic forced me to take time off that I would have otherwise never allowed myself to do for fear of missing a show or an opportunity to make a connection. Instead, I was able to pack away my camera gear and take some time to recharge, guilt-free.
GETTING BACK AT IT
This year began with a bit of optimism. Vaccines were coming, Covid numbers were declining and hope for the return of live music was on the rise. Quite a few festivals announced dates with confidence that by spring and summer we would be on the other side of the pandemic. Unfortunately between Covid mutations and vaccine hesitancy the numbers began ticking up again and we didn’t quite get there. One by one, the spring and early summer festivals and concerts either postponed or cancelled rather than gather large groups of people in a way that they didn’t feel was safe. I was bummed, but I totally empathize with the venues, promoters and festival organizers for the hard decisions they were faced with. The concert drought dragged on, month after month and I began to miss shooting shows more and more.
During the forced hiatus from my photographing shows, I had rediscovered my love for concert photography. This time, I was determined to have a more measured approach once things started up again. I was going to focus on the parts of concert photography that brought me joy. No longer would I shoot a show just to shoot a show or to pad my stats. I was going to shoot shows when I wanted to and because I wanted to. I was going to slow down and remember to enjoy these amazing opportunities while I was experiencing them.
Outdoor shows started popping up as the weather began to warm up. Bands, venues and festivals had adapted and enacted vaccine or negative test requirements to be able to put on shows as safely as possible. In July, I headed up to River’s Edge Amphitheater in Hamilton, OH to shoot my first show in 499 days with hometown songwriter and Oh Boy Records (John Prine’s label) artist, Arlo McKinley. It seemed a fitting return to shows, but don’t think I didn’t contemplate waiting one more day to hit an even 500 days, haha!
During the pandemic, the Cincinnati area saw two new venues open – Brady Music Center downtown and Ovation Music Center across the river in Newport, KY. In October, the 20th Century Theater sold to new owners. The historic theater in the Oakley neighborhood of Cincinnati regularly hosted intimate shows with an ambiance rarely matched. Recently though, the venue had been embroiled in controversy as it’s previous owner used the marquee to post political messages that alienated the arts community who supported it. No word yet on what the new owner’s plans are for the space, but I really hope they continue to host live music.
The way we shoot shows has also changed. Nearly all shows require proof of vaccination or a proof of negative test, and many require masks to be worn. A small price to pay to be able to see music, in my opinion. Another byproduct of the pandemic is that many artists have begun placing photographers at the front of house mix position rather than up close and personal in the photo pit. It’s been an adjustment for me as I’ve had to change my approach to shooting, but a welcome challenge that keeps things interesting!
Even in the less than six months of shows, there are so many highlights. From finally getting to photograph bucket list artists The Black Crowes, Elvis Costello, and Dead & Co. to reliving my emo angst with bands like The Used, Coheed & Cambria, Thursday and Taking Back Sunday, to a unique and incredibly beautiful collaboration of Bonny Light Horseman and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra… the one thing that always showed through is the resilience of musicians, and those who work in the live music industry. The devotion and adaptation is truly inspiring. The show must go on, and they are the ones who make sure it does.
Being reunited with photographer friends and venue staff as we wait for our time to shoot is one of my favorite parts of shooting shows. Talking shop, ribbing each other, laughing, giving tips, and sharing experiences with the only other people who can fully appreciate the joys and frustrations of what we do is always so much fun. The community we have built is supportive and respectful with each of us and celebrating each other’s successes as if they were our own. I’m happier than ever to be behind the camera and can’t wait to see what 2022 brings.
MENTAL HEALTH MINUTE
Anyone who has read any of my previous Year In Reviews or had a conversation with me for more than 5 mintutes, knows that I’m a big advocate for removing the stigma around mental health conversations and am very open about my struggles. I often talk about where I’ve failed, and most importantly how I’ve healed or learned healthy methods of coping. Last year in my look back, I recounted my fear that the isolation from the pandemic made for a potentially perilous combination of depression and solitude that could have easily found me reverting to unhealthily using alcohol to cope. Not only did I make it through 2020 successfully avoiding those pitfalls, I extended that streak through 2021.
As the pandemic dragged on, it occurred to me that I’m stronger than I thought. Not only did I not turn to destructive ways of making it through, I was never really even tempted to do so. In the past, I always felt I was living on the razor’s edge of falling back into past bad habits with only the slightest of nudges. Apparently, over the last 16 years since my fateful Christmas Eve car accident and the ensuing struggles with my mental health and alcohol abuse (see 2017 Year In Review for the whole story), I’ve come further than I had expected. The chaos and emotional turmoil of the past 20+ months revealed a resolve and strength of conviction that I didn’t realize I had.
In the past, my first reaction to stress and depression was the desire to run from it and find a way to ignore it (often through alcohol abuse). As I attended therapy to help me deal with the emotional toll of losing a friend and the survivor’s guilt that followed, I was given the tools to recognize that temptation and to find a better alternative. In the past 20+ months, as my routine was thrown into turmoil, I found that I no longer had to reroute my first instinct of turning to alcohol. Instead, I found that my first instinct had become to turn to the healthier options. I sought out the things that lifted me up, like escaping into fiction, playing music, talking to my family and friends, and writing. I had overcome what I thought was my new normal. Instead of having to be ever-vigilant of my demons and controlling them, they were but a whisper only in the farthest reaches of my mind. It’s humbling to think that even 16 years later, I was still growing and healing from that trauma, but really rewarding to see myself react in a constructive and positive way first.
I truly believe that the skills I learned in therapy are still helping me today and will continue to for the rest of my life.
TOP ALBUMS OF 2021
Typically I post my Top 10 Albums each year, but this year I really struggled to hone it down. Albums one and two are locked in and my two favorite albums of the year for sure. But, the albums from three to thirteen were all so close that on any given day the order could change depending on my mood or what I was digging at the moment. So rather than arbitrarily choose three of them to leave out and then regret it, I decided to do a Top 15 this year. The last two albums are from Rostam and Silk Sonic, both great albums that I listened to a lot, but as a whole, not quite as complete in my opinion.
So here are my top albums of 2021. Did I miss your favorite? Did you discover anyone from my list?
- The War On Drugs – I Don’t Live Here Anymore
- Allison Russel – Outside Child
- Japanese Breakfast – Jubilee
- Strand of Oaks – In Heaven
- Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
- Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
- The Weather Station – Ignorance
- Bachelor – Doomin’ Sun
- Black Midi – Cavalcade
- Arlo Parks – Collapsed In Sunbeams
- Mdou Moctar – Afrique Victime
- Yola – Stand For Myself
- La Luz – La Luz
- Rostam – Changephobia
- Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic
LISTEN ON SPOTIFY
RUBATO BY THE NUMBERS
THE BIG PICTURE
- 972 Artists photographed
- 17,203 Photos posted
- 34 Music Festivals photographed
- 297 Individual events photographed
- 368 Days shooting shows
- 1305 Sets of music photographed
- 236 Artists nominated for at least 1 Grammy Award
- 1,850 Total Grammy nominations by those 228 artists
- 131 Artists have won at least 1 Grammy Award
- 488 Total Grammy Award wins by those 125 artists
- 79 of those 130 have won multiple Grammy Awards
- 38 artists photographed are in Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame
ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAMERS PHOTOGRAPHED
- Alice Cooper
- BB King
- Beach Boys
- Billy Joel
- Brian Wilson
- Buddy Guy
- Cheap Trick
- David Byrne (Talking Heads)
- Dead & Co. (Grateful Dead Members)
- Doobie Brothers
- Dr John
- Earth Wind & Fire
- Elvis Costello
- Graham Nash (CSNY and The Hollies)
- Green Day
- Gregg Allman
- Hall & Oates
- Jack Casady / Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane)
- Jackson Browne
- James Taylor
- Jeff Beck (Solo and in Yardbirds)
- John Mellencamp
- Mavis Staples (Staple Singers)
- Neil Young (solo and Buffalo Springfield)
- Parliament Funkadelic
- Pearl Jam
- Red Hot Chili Peppers
- Rod Stewart (Solo and Faces/Small Faces)
- Steely Dan
- Steve Miller
- The Temptations
- Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
- Van Halen
MOST GRAMMY NOMINATIONS
- Chick Corea – 71 nominations
- Willie Nelson – 56 nominations
- Dolly Parton – 49 nominations
- Emmylou Harris – 47 nominations
- Allison Kraus – 44 nominations
- Taylor Swift – 42 nominations
MOST GRAMMY WINS
- Alison Kraus – 28 wins
- Chick Corea – 23 wins
- Yo Yo Ma – 20 wins
- Pat Metheney – 20 wins
- BB King – 16 wins
- Herbie Hancock – 14 wins
MOST PHOTOGRAPHED ARTISTS
- Jason Isbell – 9 shows
- Dawes – 7 shows
- The National – 6 shows
- Walk The Moon – 6 shows
- Cheap Trick – 5 shows
- Saintseneca – 5 shows
- Father John Misty – 5 shows
- John Moreland – 5 shows
- The Lone Bellow – 5 shows
- Anderson East – 5 shows
MOST PHOTOGRAPHED VENUES
- Riverbend Music Center/PNC Pavilion – 61 shows
- Taft Theatre and Ballroom – 60 shows
- Southgate House Revival – 27 shows
- Memorial Hall – 17 shows
- Madison Theater – 16 shows
- Bogart’s – 13 shows
- Heritage Bank Center – 12 shows