Friday, April 27, 2012

Levon Helm

Like many, I grew up a fan of the Band. From an early age, I knew all about The Last Waltz, and how great a concert movie it was. Later, someone loaned me a copy of The Basement Tapes, Bob Dylan's 1967 home recordings with the Band, which led me to pick up as many of the Band's records as I could. Along with mixing an amazing sense of eclectic musical tastes, the group possessed three killer singers. Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm.

Helm took the lead on many of their best-known songs, including "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," and "Evangeline." His Arkansas drawl sounded like he had been traveling for decades, and knew the story behind every dusty road they sang about. His deeply American voice stood out so much, you never even thought that the rest of the band was Canadian. He was also a bad-ass rhythm & blues drummer that played with the feel of a jazz musician. I've heard a million bands try to recapture the freewheeling quality of the Band's music, but they often come off as too sloppy. The Band showed that you could sound carefree, yet have a tight groove to keep it all together.

I don't regret many things in my life, but I do regret talking myself out of going to see the last incarnation of the Band play in Charlotte in 1996. Rick Danko is one of my all-time favorite singers and bass players, and I really wish that I could have seen him in person. (Years later, the Band's keyboardist, Garth Hudson told me, "You and Rick would have gotten on great. You both like to laugh," and if that had been one of the last things I had ever heard on this earth, I would have been okay with that.) I sat in my car and cried the day that Rick Danko died, knowing that a great train had passed beyond the sunset.

In 2000, Levon Helm came to the Double Door Inn, playing drums with a blues band, the Barn Burners. He was battling throat cancer, and he could not sing, but he just wanted to hit the road, and play drums. I came rushing in from some video gig for the last part of the show. I walked through the venue's front door, and there he was. Levon Helm. Levon Freaking Helm. I stood on the side of the stage, and got ready to take a photo. As I took my first photo, Levon turned and smiled at me. I just froze, awed by the moment. I got to shake hands with him afterwards, and wished him well.

In the intervening years, Helm enjoyed a remarkable run. Three Grammy winning albums, a popular concert series, held at his studios in Woodstock, NY. All while still battling relapses of throat cancer. Helm was only singing occasionally when I saw him in 2011, but the sheer joy of seeing him play up close outweighed his voice issues. The show was fantastic, and really gave Helm the chance to shine on drums. Watching him play, I noticed how he layed into the drum skins, which gave his hits on the snare drum a deeper tone. I'm really glad that I got to see him play one more time. I only wish that I had seen him more.

What can you say about someone that has had so much influence on the music you love? When those ideas have been passed around the world, and on to future generations? Next week, some kid somewhere will hear Music From Big Pink for the first time, and his ideas about American music will get blown out of the water. They will learn about Richard, Rick and Levon, and they will have the music, or the Last Waltz movie, and wonder what they would have said to them, if they'd had the chance.

Maybe they would have said what I got to tell Levon myself.

"Thank you."

April 27, 2012

Living Long Enough

Here I sit, trying to articulate something about Levon Helm, and what his life and work meant to me. It seems that much of what I've written lately is memorials and tributes to friends, or artists that I admired. It's been somewhat overwhelming, as of late.

Years ago, I was talking to my grandfather, and we were talking about those that had passed on. He outlived much of the world he had known. Family, friends, my grandmother. I said something about the sadness of dealing with such loss. He shrugged his shoulders, and said something to the effect to, "It happens, if you live long enough." I understand that feeling more, with each passing year.

I have been very lucky to see who I've seen, and met and worked with who I have. Several of those people are no longer with us, in the physical sense, but their experiences with us, and how they affected us, live on. And while saying goodbye does not get easier with age, I hope we all can stick around as long as we can. To enjoy the possibilities of this world, and our time with others.

Here's to living long enough.
April 21, 2012

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A conversation behind me

I'm sitting at a local restaurant, and a group of young girls are in the booth behind me, ages somewhere between first and third grade. The girls are talking, giggling, having fun. They try to remember the lyrics to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," then the oldest girl suddenly says, "Hey, have you guys heard Bob Marley?"

I about fell out of my seat. I wanted to turn around to her, and say, "Very good. Now, here's some records by the Velvet Underground, Big Star, Nick Drake and the Zombies. Take your time, but let me know what you think." I didn't, but I hope she hears those records, someday. Wherever that little girl is destined to go in her love of discovering music, I hope she gets there.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Maximo Park interview, 2009

Maximo Park: Quicken The Pace
interview by Daniel Coston
originally published in the Big Takeover Magazine,
fall 2009 issue

With Maximo Park’s first two albums having gone double platinum in the UK, and their new album, Quicken The Heart, climbing the charts, US fans had hopes that their planned fall tour of the States would finally break the band in this country. Sadly, Maximo Park was forced to cancel the entire tour, with the band hoping to tour the US again soon. But while Maximo Park’s original plans may have changed, they appear resolute on focusing on the band’s future. Wherever that future may take them.

Formed in Tyne And Wear, near Newcastle, England in 2000, Maximo Park has forged a sound that mixes rock and melodic sensibilities, while their lyrics touch on life’s light and dark possibilities. Quicken The Heart brings more of those extremes to the fore, with producer Nick Launay accenting the rhythmic qualities of the band’s darker hues.

Much like his lyrics, vocalist and lyricist Paul Smith puts a lot of himself on paper. One really gets the sense of how much the music and day-to-day living of being a musician really means to him.  

BT: With the new record, did you have a clear idea of what you wanted, going into the studio? Were you looking to try things that were different than the first two records?

Paul Smith: We had a quite a clear idea once we got to the studio in Los Angeles, and when we were choosing a producer. After we’d finishing touring Our Earthly Pleasures, our second album, we just went straight back into the studio, a little studio that we’ve created here in a warehouse. We thought, “Oh, we’ve got a fair amount of songs that we really like. We should just go in and do it like the last two. Just go in, straight off, and at the end of a few months, you’ve got an album’s worth of stuff, and then record it.”

It proved a little bit more difficult than that, because we hadn’t really decided what we had wanted as a group, and all five of us had slightly different ideas of what we wanted to achieve with our band, and our music. We’re pretty good mates, and sometimes, it’s very hard to say anything to someone that you’re close to, that they might deem as offensive. If I was thinking, “I’m not sure about this, it’s a bit too poppy for me,” I’d go with it, and you don’t even realize it. 

It sort of reached a breaking point  after a couple months of working. We had lots of demos, but the sound wasn’t what we wanted. Sometimes you get caught up in trying to perfect your demos. I don’t think we had a clear idea of what we wanted to sound like on the third record, and we thought that the evolution would be more natural than having to even speak about it. Which wasn’t the case, but once we had spoken about it, we were all on the same wavelength, and as a group, we’re good at writing pop songs with catchy melodies. And then, individually, we bring to the table all of our idiosyncrasies, and it becomes a Maximo Park song. At the end of the process, we thought that we were really happy with the songs now. 

BT: Did you come at this record from a different place than you had on the first two albums?

Smith: Not really. It’s all different things that are going on with you that filter into the music. I will say that on the second album, I was questioning myself a lot, asking myself, “Is this what I wanted? Is this what I really the life that I want to have?” But on this album, the lyrics are guilt free. (laughs)

BT: Maximo Park had to cancel a US tour this fall, but do you have some European dates coming up this fall. What are you guys looking at doing from here?  

Smith: Over the next new months, we’ve got some personal things to deal with, and after that, get straight back out there on tour. We’re hoping to get back to America next year, and try and play some shows. It’s one of those things where I’m very proud of this record, as I am of all of our records, and I think that if you’ve got something worth putting out there to people, then it’s worth making out get out there to places. That’s why we just booked some shows in November in South America, and then we’re off to Australia. 

I think in December, we’ll just try and hook up together, and keep working on new material, ‘cause at the moment, we’re all sort of passing things to each other. Passing songs around. I think there’s a lot of music to be made, and in the past, we’ve thought of it as more of, “Right, here’s the album, let’s go out and tour it, and we’ll tour it until we feel we’ve done enough.” When we were making the last album, one of the things that we did to loosen up the whole process was to work on little blocks together. [Keyboardist] Lukas [Wooller] will come up, and I’ll work with him on a song, and maybe then he’ll go away and work on the same song with Archis, our bassist, might put a bass line down, or a vocal melody, or anything to keep the creative process going. Now that we’ve made three albums, in our pop context that we’ve created for ourselves, it’s time to move on, and see where we can go next. 

It’s going to be interesting, because I think we’ve all got slightly different ideas of what next, but keep experimenting with our sound, and yeah, hopefully get out there again next year with new material. Maybe I’m jumping the gun (laughs). Just keep moving on as a band, and indulge ourselves musically. If you’ve got an idea, let’s try it out as a group. If you’ve got individual ideas that don’t mind into the group, do that as well, and don’t feel constrained. Sometimes it feels like you’ve got your head down, and you’re working on the fine details without looking at the bigger picture. Music’s about fun, and being creative. I think everything that we do over the next few months is just to keep ourselves creative, and our live shows as vital as they need to be. 

At the moment, I’m working with the rest of the guys on the light show that we’re going to put out. We’re lucky to be playing quite big venues, sort of arena size venues. Our work in Maximo Park is rarely done. We’re pretty involved in every side of it, so that if you’re buying a t-shirt, I want it to be good quality. We’re always in contact with the people that are working for us and with us to try and keep whatever comes out of Maximo Park in the highest quality. I sound like a marketing man there (laughs). 

BT: Needless to say, the music means a lot to you. 

Smith: I think it should be if not your life, a large part of it. I’ve fought so hard for our band, whether is physically, mentally, creatively. It’s only a small thing to other people, but for us, if I didn’t put all of that effort in, I’d feel like I shortchanging not just other people, but myself. Too many bands coast along. There’s a song on our album, which is “Cresting, Not Coasting.” The first line of that song sums up my attitude to life. You’ve got to try and maintain a rich life, a life that takes in lots of different things. I try to absorb as many things as I possibly can, so that it can enrich the songs. 

I can be a large part of your life, but not forget the things you need to do as a human being. Being in a band is sometimes quite dehumanizing. You could allow yourself to go, “Well, we’re doing the same thing, I know what I’m doing,” and go through the motions. My life is dedicated to not going through the motions, and keep connecting with the music  that we have. In order to perform it to people, and to try and craft something. Something that’ll inspire others, and inspire ourselves. If I have a job, that’s it (laughs). 

BT: I saw your invited fans to pick your set list for Glastonbury. Were you surprised by what they picked?

Yeah, I was. A lot of the big hitters almost didn’t get in there. You’d look at the votes, and we were like, “Blimey, are we going to play ‘Apply Some Pressure’ tonight?” And in the end, some old favorites won out. We knew that one of the songs that people wanted us to play was “A19,” which is an old B-side. We decided to open with that, and I thought, “Not many people are going to know this song, apart from the front row.” And most of those fans wouldn’t even get in, because the opening show of Glastonbury was in a little tent, with 1500 people squeezed in, and there was tens of thousands trying to get in. And in the end, it caused a complete crush, and the show had to be delayed by five or ten minutes while extra barriers were put up. 

It was a pretty intense time, because I knew that we were going to play “A19” as the first song. And I was thinking, “Why are we opening with this song that nobody knows?” But we were like, “But it kicks ass (laughs), so let’s just do it.” But it was cool, because it put us on edge. I also thought, “Well, we’ve given something to people that are interested in our band.” We’ve actually engaged with them, and we’re not just prancing around on stage, detached. It’s about making sure that the people in the audience are part of the show, and not just spectators. They have to engage with the songs, the lyrics, and the melodies, and only then does the show become this kind of transcendant rock and roll experience. 

BT: I know that you’re a football fan. Has being a longtime football player helped your perception of the frontman role in a rock and roll band?

Smith: Yeah, I suppose so, in an very abstract way. The thing I love about football is the rhythms of it, like you’re into the game and your absorbed by it. The passing and the rhythms, and when there’s a flow about [a team], it’s a joy to watch. And as a frontman in a band, I’ve physically got to know what to do to really engage the guy in the back. The girl down the front, she doesn’t want to see some guy pulling off stupid, airhead stadium rock moves. But at the same time, I’ve got to project outwards so that the person at the back is having a good time, but also knows what the song is about. In a way, my body is the only thing I can use, because I don’t have an instrument. 

Some of the things that I love in football are when somebody does a little move and expresses themselves, and says, “I can do this, and I’m gonna show you what kind of a player I am.” (laughs) Even when you’re doing a set, you’ve got to find the right time to play certain songs. You don’t want to play loads of fast ones, and then just a slow set afterwards. It’s about pace, and about rhythm, and I’ve jumped around for the first two songs, and then knackered for the rest of the show, then people aren’t going to get the best show possible. I’d like to think of myself as a flair player. (laughs). Let’s just leave it there.  

Sunday, April 8, 2012

What It Is, again

Hello All-

I've taped several new episodes of What It Is for WNCW, which will air at 10:15am, stating tomorrow morning (April 9th). The first episode will be on the recent passing of Earl Scruggs. Tune in, and look for these episodes on their blog (

Happy Easter/New show opening

Hello Everyone-

First off, let me wish everyone a happy Easter, wherever you are.

Last night was a very nice opening of my new show of photos. My thanks to everyone that came out last night, and I hope to see more of you over the next month. Cameron of ShoMo Live did videos of last night's opening, narrated by yours truly. Check them out on my Facebook page. I'd honestly had forgotten what it was like to exhibit in the town I lived in, and to get feedback from my friends and peers. Hopefully, it won't be another three years before I do this again in Charlotte.

Hope to see you all again in the coming weeks,

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wish You Were There show introduction

It's always nice when someone says that they wish they had been there for the event that your photograph, or artwork documents. It means that however you chose to impart that moment, that someone else got your message. They see the fleeting moment that passed in front of you, and how you were able to share it. Too often, we don't document or discuss the things we care about. It all goes by too quickly, before we can share it with others. But what we are able to share speaks about us, and our experiences. What is art, but one idea or dialogue carried to another? Followed by others, continuing the conversation.

In putting this show together, I decided to collect some of the photographs, and experiences with musicians that have meant a lot to me. This includes some of my best-known subjects, such as Johnny Cash, the Avett Brothers and Les Paul. I have been lucky enough to work with many bands on their way up, such as Arcade Fire and Kings Of Leon, and those experiences give me a lot of pride. And others are just moments of personal joy. Bob Pollard of Guided by Voices playing with the headphones from my parents' stereo, or the night that R. L. Burnside signed my harmonica case. Yeah, that was all pretty cool, and I think that these photos reflect the fun I was having at the time.

Included here are some of my favorite moments from the past fifteen years. Some have different meanings to me, but they all were a moment that mattered. The things we see and experience in life are not to be held from others. They are pieces of the world we see around us, held in suspension by the camera, or by however we choose to remember them. I may have been the one that took the photo, but I hope that I have able to show you something from that experience, and give you a window to that moment in time.

Wish you were there.
-Daniel Coston
April 3, 2012

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Men In Black, and other things

I photographed the Mad Monster Party here in Charlotte, in late March. It was a convention for fans of science fiction, horror and other films. Nestled near the back of the hall, at a small table, sat David Prowse. The man that played Darth Vader in the Star Wars films, and has appeared in an amazing number of other great films and TV shows. My dad took me to see Star Wars on my fifth birthday, and the experience just blew my mind. When you're a kid, you want to do, and be everything. After seeing that film, I knew I wanted to do something in media. Something that one could create, and have it play for audiences big and small. I first thought I was going to a filmmaker, which led me into working into TV in my high school days. Eventually, I got more interested in the individual moments of what I saw around me, and I have followed that interest through my photography. But that wide-eyed dreamer of a kid is still a part of me.

When I saw David's book, credited to David Prowse, MBE, I asked, "Oh, you're a member of the member of the British Empire?" David's eyes lit up. We talked about his work with road safety in the UK, and his current work with prostate cancer awareness. He also told me about meeting the Queen Of England when he awarded his MBE, and the protocol involved with that. The realization that I was talking to the man behind Darth Vader about meeting the Queen of England crept in my head, and has made me smile ever since. I had a lot of fun talking to him, and got some good photos of him.

A friend has since pointed out to me that I have now worked with the two most famous Men In Black: Darth Vader, and Johnny Cash. It's amazing to think back to that nine year-old that was thrilled with the Empire Strikes Back, and reading about Johnny Cash in a cheap comic book at the local Super Duper. I wish I could tell that kid a lot of things, but I would tell him that his dreams might well come true, although it might take a little while. (I was an impatient kid in those days, so this would come as a mixed blessing.)

I also have to include a conversation from the social event I photographed right after the Monster Party:

Patron (looking at my notepad): Who's info is that? Is that from another event?

Me: That's the guy who played the sheriff in The Night Of The Living Dead. He's an avid photographer,  and he wanted me to contact him.

Patron: (startled) Oh.

April 2, 2012

Mavis Staples photos, McGlohon Theater, Charlotte, NC, 3.30.12

all photos 2012 Daniel Coston. Enjoy,