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Wish You Were Hear: Toy Dolls in San Francisco

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Toy Dolls, 14 April 14 | Regency Ballroom, San Francisco

The first time I saw the Toy Dolls was in May 1997, when they blazed through San Francisco on their One More Mega-Tour. They returned in 1998 so, up until last night’s show at the Regency Ballroom, their last San Francisco show was 16 ago!

Olga and the Toy Dolls may have been playing since 1979, but their performance is as energetic and electrifying as ever. Olga hasn’t slowed down one whit on guitar and missed nary a note as he bounded and skipped across the stage with bassist Tommy Goober. With the entire room pogoing and singing along in appreciation, Olga, Tommy, and the Amazing Duncan cranked out classics like “Spiders in the Dressing Room,” “Olga…I Cannot,” “Nellie the Elephant,” “Glenda and the Test Tube Baby,” Bach’s “Toccata in D Minor,” “Dig That Groove Baby,” and “Idle Gossip.” At one point, Olga brought out an enormous bottle of Lambrusco, which he aimed at the audience and showered with confetti (cue “The Lambrusco Kid”).

After three encores and just as many wardrobe changes, the Toy Dolls ended the night with “She Goes to Finos” (or so I think! My short-term memory is on the fritz. Please correct me if I’m wrong!). So much fun! Here are some of my favorite moments, captured with two cameras: a Canon 5D Mark III and an Olympus PEN E-P2.

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The Night I Could’ve Held Nick Cave’s Sweaty Hand

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Wild man Nick Cave

(Note: I’m basically posting this for my friend Laura, who’s been a huge Nick Cave fan for nearly four decades. Please check out this excellent write-up by Ian S. Port of the SF Weekly if you crave coherent, relevant words to accompany these pictures.)

I finally saw Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds when they performed on April 9 at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium…and they were pretty incredible. Unfortunately, I arrived too late to get front and center so I hung out next to the pulsating speakers at the edge of the stage for a while. Had I stayed, good ol’ Nick might’ve clutched my hand during “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” (see video below for a glimpse of the frenzy), but alas I had shimmied closer toward center stage by that point, hoping for better angles for my little Olympus PEN E-P2. At the very least, from my new vantage point I could behold Warren Ellis’s mesmerizing violin assaults more clearly, even if I couldn’t make out Barry Adamson and the Saints’ Ed Kuepper. I captured one of these assaults (see clip below) during “Deanna,” which I was surprised and thrilled they did since it was the most upbeat song of the evening and one of the handful that wasn’t from their latest album Push the Sky Away. Hope you enjoy!

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Inside a Sick, Sick Dream

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July 4th fireworks, Marin County Fair | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/25, f1.4, ISO 400

You may have noticed that I’ve been obsessing over the Jesus & Mary Chain these past few posts. Hopefully making the following video will get the mania out of my system.

As I mentioned in “Tripping Up with the Jesus & Mary Chain,” I shot video in addition to photos at their recent San Francisco show, but it was a challenge capturing a full song since all I wanted to do was thrash about wildly and bellow at the tops of my lungs. I managed to get their first encore song, “Hardest Walk,” in its entirety, including the bit where Jim Reid first introduced the song as “Never Understand” and then later told John Moore to “shut up for a second” as William fiddled with his chords. At that point the audience was in full swing and I couldn’t contain my own enthusiasm (that’s likely me singing, screaming, and shrieking in the background) so it’s pretty shaky.

Using a long lens amplified each crowd bump and my terrible panning attempts, so I tried to offset their vomit-inducing effects with stills from the show as well as firework and Ferris wheel footage from the Marin County Fair, shot using the same camera/lens combo (Olympus PEN E-P2, 24mm f1.4 CCTV lens). But, to be safe, you might want to skip this if you’re prone to migraines, motion sickness, or epilepsy. I also omitted the fumbling preamble for brevity’s sake.

I can’t promise I won’t blog about the Mary Chain anymore, but I think I’ll be good for a while. Thanks for indulging me!

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July 4th fireworks, Marin County Fair | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/25, f1.4, ISO 400

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Tripping Up with the Jesus & Mary Chain

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Jesus & Mary Chain, Fillmore, San Francisco | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/80, f1.4, ISO 1250

Last week’s post (“Rancid Reminiscence“) compelled me to rummage through issues of my old zine for the one with the Rancid interview I did in 1993. I couldn’t find it, but came across this tidbit in issue 16 instead: “Monday, June 15, 1998: Saw one of the bands of my youth, the Jesus & Mary Chain, again—and I swear it’s the last time, even though I wasn’t devastated by their awfulness like I feared.”

Ironically, I saw the Jesus & Mary Chain last month at the Fillmore (on June 14, no less, and at the same venue!), the first show of their mini West Coast tour. Defying my earlier vow was no easy task, though. Fourteen years hadn’t clouded my memory of Jim and William Reid’s painful on-stage bickering and cranky, Psychocandy-less performance, so there was much hemming and hawing (and fastidious review of their setlists from their Texas shows in March) before I finally concluded I’d regret not seeing them one last time.

Deciding whether or not to attend a concert isn’t ordinarily such an ordeal, self-imposed or otherwise. But when tickets are $50 and it’s a band you credit for transforming your outlook on life at an early age as well as informing your musical tastes, it can be a really big deal.

I haven’t slept enough this week to try to clarify my lunacy (or have I done a good job already?), but at the very least I can say no tears were shed and that I even enjoyed myself. Occasionally my heart skipped a beat. Other times it got caught in my throat, but that could’ve just been from all my yelling and singing.

With Jim and William joined by Phil King on bass, John Moore on guitar, and Brian Young on drums, the band played for at least an hour. Jim only dropped his mic a handful of times, William only turned his back to the audience to fiddle with his gear or crank up the feedback, and no one stormed off the stage. The setlist leaned heavily on Honey’s Dead and Automatic and included a smattering of my favorite Psychocandy tunes. It also featured their 2008 single “All Things Must Pass,” “Some Candy Talking” (which I own on 12″, 7″, double 7″, and the Modern Girls soundtrack), and the Darklands song that changed my life when I first heard it at the age of 13: “Happy When It Rains.” The wall of sound seemed more contained than usual, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless (gauging by their dirty looks and sideways glances) you were the three gals in front of me.

Other highlights:

  • Jim throwing up his hands in exasperation each time William screwed up the beginning of a song (which was most of them)
  • William, usually so stoic behind his guitar, cracking several smiles throughout their performance (such as when two women slowly crawled across the stage)
  • William working the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” riff into “Reverence”
  • Me pelting Jim in the chest with a wadded-up Ramones shirt on the first try
  • Jim not getting mad or throwing the shirt back in the audience
  • Jim telling John Moore to “shut up for a second” as William tried to figure out how to play “Hardest Walk,” the first song of their encore

C and I didn’t get to the venue in time to score a spot right against the stage, but my Olympus PEN E-P2 didn’t mind. Ever since I discovered its magical capabilities at the Stooges show last December, I love using it at larger concert venues. The Mary Chain aren’t the most exciting live band to photograph, but I’m thrilled to finally have a few decent shots of them (you can see more at jetlagrnr.com).

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“Far Gone and Out” | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/80, f1.4, ISO 1250

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“Blues from a Gun” | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/80, f1.4, ISO 1250

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“Cracking Up” | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/80, f1.4, ISO 1250

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“Halfway to Crazy” | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/80, f1.4, ISO 1250

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“Just Like Honey” | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/80, f1.4, ISO 1250

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“Reverence” | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/80, f1.4, ISO 1250

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“Never Understand” | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/80, f1.4, ISO 1250

I shot some video, too, which was a challenge since I couldn’t stand still long enough to capture full songs. Maybe one day I’ll splice that footage together with the bokehlicious fireworks footage I got from the Marin County Fair. Dreamy… [7/18/12: That video is here.]

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July 4th fireworks, Marin County Fair | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/25, f1.4, ISO 400

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Happy Taiwanese New Year!

Year of the Dragon diorama, Playland-Not-at-the-Beach, El Cerrito | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/200, f1.4, ISO 1250

I may look Asian, speak a bit of Taiwanese/Mandarin, and know my way around a dim sum cart, but don’t be fooled—there are countless aspects of Taiwanese/Chinese culture that my parents never explained to me. Still, the lunar new year (which I don’t “celebrate” in any traditional sense) is as good a time as any to share some shots I took on New Year’s eve 2011 and New Year’s day 2012. (Yes, I’m still digging my Olympus PEN EP-2 and CCTV lens combination.)

C and I spent New Year’s eve day at Playland-Not-at-the-Beach, marveling at its multitude of detailed dioramas, elbowing past toddlers at the carnival games and sideshow displays, and then flipping out (hee hee) over their slew of pinball machines both old and new. (If you’re a pinball fiend visiting the Bay Area, Playland and Pacific Pinball Museum should be at the top of your to-do list.) We then rang in the new year with a rock’n’roll dance party at T’s house.

San Francisco pier, Playland-Not-at-the-Beach, El Cerrito | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/200, f1.4, ISO 1250

Chinatown, Playland-Not-at-the-Beach, El Cerrito | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/125, f1.4, ISO 1250

Polar bear wash, Playland-Not-at-the-Beach, El Cerrito | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/100, f1.4, ISO 1250

Madam Ashbury’s House of Wax, Playland-Not-at-the-Beach, El Cerrito | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/50, f1.4, ISO 1250

Slayland-at-the-Beach, Playland-Not-at-the-Beach, El Cerrito | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/50, f1.4, ISO 1250

Frankenstein & his bride, Playland-Not-at-the-Beach, El Cerrito | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/50, f1.4, ISO 1250

Sarcophagus, Playland-Not-at-the-Beach, El Cerrito | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/50, f1.4, ISO 1250

8-tracks | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/30, f1.4, ISO 1250

New Year’s eve dance party | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/125, f1.4, ISO 1250

On New Year’s day, we got a late start heading to A’s cookout in San Francisco and were delayed further when we stopped off at the Embarcadero to capture the sun setting over the city. We never made it to A’s, which was a shame. I suppose I should’ve resolved to finish what I start in 2012. Perhaps I’ll do so for the lunar new year. That, and play less online Scrabble. Here’s to more productivity in the Year of the Water Dragon!

Happy new year | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/40, f1.4, ISO 1250

Port of San Francisco | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/200, f1.4, ISO 640

Bay Bridge | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/30, f1.4, ISO 1250

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TV EYE

Iggy & the Stooges | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/100, f1.4, ISO 1250

Most experienced photographers have a preferred camera/lens combination for specific situations. Landscape photographers, for instance, require wide lenses for sweeping vistas. Traditional portraitists use long lenses (minimum 85mm) to capture intimate close-ups without straying into their subjects’ comfort zones. For live shows in small venues with no flash restrictions, my go-to setup is a Canon 5D with a wide lens and an external flash. No flash allowed? The Canon 60D with the 50mm f1.8. The last thing I ever expected to use was an Olympus PEN E-P2 outfitted with a $20 CCTV lens C bought on eBay, but that’s exactly how I caught Iggy Pop, James Williamson, Scott Asheton, Steve Mackay, and Mike Watt ripping through the Stooges’ catalog (including Raw Power!) at the Warfield on December 6.

And to think I almost took my uber-lofi Digital Harinezumi, which is practically useless in the dark but so tiny I could stick it in my jeans if necessary. In this age of phones with built-in HD cameras, large concert venues can only reasonably place restrictions on “professional” cameras with interchangeable lenses (i.e., dSLRs). Luckily, my Olympus PEN E-P2 performs like an entry-level SLR but, with its “woodgrain” skin and the low-tech lens, looks unassuming to anyone but camera geeks.

Olympus PEN E-P2 with toy lens | Canon 60D, 105mm, 1/40, f5.6, ISO 1250

Olympus PEN E-P2 with toy lens | Canon 60D, 105mm, 1/60, f4, ISO 1250

I had absolutely no expectations with this lens/camera pairing. First, the E-P2 suffers from shutter lag and terrible autofocus in low light. Second, the lens (the equivalent of a 50mm on a 35mm camera) was of questionable quality (glass? plastic?), manual focus, made for CCTV cameras, and untested by me prior to the show. Third, I was one row of people back from the stage barrier, which itself was a good five feet from the edge of the stage.

I snapped a few practice shots of the opening band Le Butcherettes. Its members more or less kept their distance from my side of the stage, and these initial photos looked like they’d been taken with an iPhone—fine for documentation purposes but nothing to blog about. It wasn’t until I captured Teri Gender Bender running straight at me for a stage dive that I realized I had an enchanted box in my hands.

Le Butcherettes | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/60, f1.4, ISO 1250

Focusing was a challenge at f1.4 (when isn’t it, really?), but the results were magical when I nailed it—everything but the in-focus point was rendered a creamy wash of color or light. The lens devoured the intense stage lights, warping them into swirling halos, heavenly beams, or silky brushstrokes. In effect, it transformed the E-P2 into a digital Holga or Diana camera, complete with vignetting and smooth, film-like “grain.” It was wholly unpredictable and totally fun to use. I highly doubt either of my SLRs would’ve done as well amid the crush of bodies dancing to the beat of the living dead.

Here’s a smattering of the 200 photos I took that night. You can view more of them here.

Iggy & Occupy Warfield | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/80, f1.4, ISO 1250

Iggy & the Stooges | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/100, f1.4, ISO 1250

Iggy & the Stooges | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/100, f1.4, ISO 1250

Iggy & the Stooges | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/100, f1.4, ISO 1250

The Chairman of the Bored | Olympus PEN E-P2, 25mm, 1/100, f1.4, ISO 1250

As for the show, it, too, was unbelievable. Happily, the band didn’t “polish” the songs like many recently reunited bands do; every classic, from “I Wanna Be Your Dog” to “1970” to “Search and Destroy,” sounded as primal and raw as when it was first recorded. Iggy, at 64 years old, flaunted his trademark lean physique and boundless energy, gyrating across the stage, diving into the audience, and climbing onto speakers with the same exuberance he had in live Stooges videos from the late 1960s. He even rallied the rest of the band to play two encores (including “Cock in My Pocket,” “Death Trip,” and “Louie Louie”), more than their previous shows. The entire floor of the Warfield shook with the weight of the pogoing audience. I was amazed there wasn’t a riot when he invited the crowd to occupy the stage during “Shake Appeal.” The show let out by 11pm, but I was so amped I couldn’t sleep until well past 2am. This was, by the far, the best concert I’d seen in ages.

Back to the lens: The lens requires a C mount adapter in order to be used on Olympus and Panasonic micro four-thirds cameras; it needs a different adapter for the Sony NEX. The lens (for Olympus and Panasonic only) is available at Photojojo for $90, or you can search for it on eBay (type in “25mm f1.4 micro 4/3 CCTV”; some vendors include a C mount adapter) and Buy It Now for roughly a third of the price. Mine came with the adapter as well as several macro rings I’ll probably never use.

I suppose you could group it with the Lensbaby, but it’s more straightforward and way cheaper. I like that I can control both the aperture and the focus, although there aren’t any notches to keep the aperture ring from slipping from f1.4 in one shot to f8 in the next. That’s just a minor inconvenience. Frankly, I can’t wait to try it out at another big concert with professional stage lighting. If only I had it and the EP-2 when I saw one of the New York Dolls’ first reunion shows at the Fillmore in 2004. David Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain, and Hanoi Rocks’ Sami Yaffa (Arthur Kane had died that July) shared the stage, and it pained me to not have a photographic device of any kind in hand—especially when everyone around me had somehow snuck in slim point-and-shoots (iPhones had yet to be invented). I know you can’t put your arms around a memory, but sometimes you can still look at it, with or without a TV eye.

New York Dolls 2004 setlist | Canon 60D, 35mm, 1/30, f4, ISO 1250

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