09 Oct, 2012

Crystallizing Moments and the Significance of Having a Beard

There are few defining moments that occur in life that were specifically not planned, they simply take place and consequentially have a profound effect on you – often times with no cosmic warning or previous thought. Some examples particular to the experiences I’ve had in my brief 19 years of existence on this troubling planet include the first time I heard the Pixies (fine, it was the final scene of Fight Club, but nobody needs to know that), the instance where after starting Killing Yourself to Live I realized Chuck Klosterman formerly wrote for SPIN (if you know anything about me you’d know this is my favorite magazine), and when I realized I was pathetically, deeply in love with Emma Watson (circa Prisoner of Azkaban when she blossomed into a woman). These examples make me look like a hopelessly single-faceted person, seeing as 2/3 of them are music related and the other is just borderline creepy. Well, it’s fitting because I’ll continue this trend by explaining why October 9th was another similar crystallizing moment – big surprise, it was at a show.

It’s my belief that everyone has at least a very rudimentary interest in photography, or just the spectacle of a technically good photo. When I got a 35mm film Fisheye lens camera for my birthday 5 years ago, I realized how fun it was to snap photos. When I was lent a DSLR this summer to take on my Europe trip, I came to the realization of how empowering it was to have a nice camera and actually know how to utilize it. This was around the time I joined the ranks of the Photo Douches. I’m okay with that though, really.

ANYWAY, on Tuesday I was lucky enough to nab a photo pass for the Cotton Jones and Dr. Dog show at the Boulder Theater. As I was shooting with a 50mm lens with no zoom, it was necessary that I find an ideal spot in the front row to yield any worthwhile shots. Unfortunately even though I arrived 10 minutes after the doors opened, the front row was occupied and I got stuck behind a couple of large dudes waiting for the opening act. However, when Cotton Jones eventually made their way to the stage, one of them turned around and told me to take his spot in the front row in order to get some quality photos. Much appreciated, brother.

Husband and wife duo Michael Nau and Whitney McGraw are the cornerstone of Cotton Jones’ sound: soft, intertwining vocal harmonies that conjure up the image of a quaint cabin in the middle of a Redwood forest enveloped in a haze of dreamy folk bliss. The band hails from Cumberland, Maryland and used to be called The Cotton Jones Basket Ride – which I think is an absolutely delightful moniker, really. Nau acts as the lead songwriter and guitarist while McGraw plays keyboards, organ, and an instrument called the electronic autoharp. Also contributing are Todd Gowans on lead electric guitar and Greg Bender on bass; at this show they also had an auxiliary touring member who alternated between playing trombone and a giant tuba and looked bizarrely similar to Chuck Klosterman and a drummer.

Nau and McGraw creating sweet musical fusion.

Nau and McGraw creating sweet musical fusion.

Kevin from The Office if he had hair and left Scrantonicity to play guitar.

Kevin from The Office if he had hair and left Scrantonicity to play guitar.

Whitney McGraw

Whitney McGraw

Sweet trombone.

Sweet trombone.

Their sound was beautifully crafted and mainly centered around keyboard plinkin’ and guitar pickin’. What could have sounded like a kitschy imitation of Americana and Folk music was actually something completely genuine. I bobbed my head along thoughtfully and was absorbed in the gorgeous melodies of Nau and McGraw’s vocals. I was also insanely jealous of Nau (who, to me, resembles a much more indie version of Zach Galifianakis if he had an orange beard and hair) for having such an adorable and talented wife. It seems like whenever there’s a girl in a band with a great voice, I fall prey way too easily; maybe it’s something I should work on.

Cotton’s set flew by, which is always a testament to if you’re actually enjoying an opening act or not. Before I knew it, it was intermission and I eagerly awaited the appearance of “The Dog,” as the large dude to my left who ended up assuming the position of my bodyguard referred to the main act. Prior to the show, I was only familiar with Dr. Dog’s 2008 release Fate. I had listened to this album closely when I first got it, the soundscapes mainly being a conglomeration of sunny 60′s style vocal harmonies and focused yet grainy rock n’ roll somewhat reminiscent of Guided By Voices. Mostly driven by multiple guitars, prominent bass lines, timeless piano jams and punchy drums, Dr. Dog at its core is a rock band. Their live set absolutely reinforced that sentiment.

Toby Leamen lookin' pensive.

Toby Leamen lookin’ pensive.

Frank McElroy

Frank McElroy

Toby Leamen

Toby Leamen

Scott McMicken

Scott McMicken

From the very first chord struck to the when the last drum fill echoed off the walls in the Boulder Theater, Dr. Dog had an unrelenting energy and killer stage presence. And although they did play some tracks I was innately acquainted with from Fate (perhaps one of the most notable being fan-favorite “Hang On”), I enjoyed every vivacious recreation of the material off their newer LP’s Shame Shame and Be the Void - and I know I was not alone on this. Toby Leamen who plays bass and interchanges lead vocals, seemed as if he were able to channel some classic rock greats through his raucous enthusiasm; his raspy, soulful voice like a siren among the breakers. This effect was sweetly balanced by Scott McMicken’s softer, more understated vocals. Yet, my favorite subject to photograph was probably rhythm guitarist Frank McElroy, who had a truly great beard and a silly hat and sunglasses combination and grooved within and without his bandmates through the entire set.

Beltin' it

Beltin’ it.

McMicken being dramatic.

McMicken being dramatic.

Look at that hat.

Look at that hat.

The indie beard.

The indie beard.

If you’re in any kind of band that doesn’t plan to sell their souls away to the soulless drones who put out Top 40 music, a beard helps. This isn’t just an aesthetic observation, it’s a way of life if you expect any easily obtained indie cred. A beard establishes your manhood. It makes you appear as if you’re more proficient at a wider variety of skills, a renaissance man of modern day. It shows the ladies how genuinely cool you are to have a scratchy, hairy face. But beyond that, it’s an attitude. Beards are rock n’ roll.

More indie beard.

More indie beard.

Leamen crooning to the crowd.

Leamen crooning to the crowd.

Ultimately, my crystallizing moment on October 9th wasn’t about beards. It was the moment I decided I want to photograph people rocking out in a totally unabashed and unedited way, to capture the sweat dripping off their brows and the passion ripping through their lungs. I have always known that I wanted to make my career writing, but not until this Tuesday thought that maybe there was a counterpart I missed to that. So thank you, Dr. Dog. Thank you, Cotton Jones. I will remember the night you played together as the night I came to the decision of wanting to take pictures of musicians. It was really quite rewarding.

Stage set up.

Stage set up.

Photos and review by Sig Steiger. Show on 10/09/12. 

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