Too $hort at Yoshi’s

Too $hort at Yoshi's by Dan Dion
Too $hort at Yoshi’s by Dan Dion

As part of my new ongoing work for Monster Cable here in the Bay Area, I work with the “Famous Monsters” – celebrity endorsers of our pro musical equipment and headphones (including Beats by Dr. Dre, which are the best headphones I’ve ever heard.)  So you’ll be seeing more shots of musicians with headphones and other Monster gear.

Last Saturday Night I shot Oakland hip-hop legend Too $hort at Yoshi’s in San Francisco, the first of four sold out shows that weekend. It’s great to hear a rapper in a venue with good sound, so that all the (in this case raunchy) lyrics can be heard.

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Too $hort at Yoshi's by Dan Dion
Too $hort at Yoshi’s by Dan Dion
Backstage Portrait of Too $hort at Yoshi's by Dan Dion
Backstage Portrait of Too $hort at Yoshi’s by Dan Dion
Too $hort at Yoshi's by Dan Dion
Too $hort at Yoshi’s by Dan Dion
Too $hort's Vocalist at Yoshi's
Too $hort’s Vocalist at Yoshi’s
Too $hort at Yoshi's in San Francisco by Dan Dion
Too $hort at Yoshi’s in San Francisco by Dan Dion
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Read more.. Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

In Praise of Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams at the Warfield- 2001

I first saw Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore in 1997, when she was just about to release her breakout album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. A few years earlier I’d seen Johnny Cash and he’d done a fairly complete job of curing me of my distain for country music. I’d soon be musically educated to learn that what I didn’t like was actually what was considered “new country” at the time- your Garth Brooks/ Billy Ray Cyrus kinda music.

I’ve always had a preference for great lyricists- Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Randy Newman. And I’d soon find that so-called country music has some of the best songwriters in the world as I delved into the work of Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, and Lucinda.

Lucinda and Band at The Fillmore – 1997

But I had no idea she’d become one of my favorite musicians at that first Fillmore show. I just liked what I heard and made the effort to get a shot of her with her band backstage in the stairway.

Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore – 1997

Cut to two years and a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Album later. “Car Wheels” was a huge hit and critics had gone apeshit over a blend of rock, blues, country and folk. They were calling it “Americana” and “Roots Music” when in truth it was just a great blend of all of it anchored by a true poet.

Lucinda Williams at The Warfield – 1999

And Lucinda had clearly been inundated by media with her new renowned, and it took about half an hour before she came out from her dressing room to do a portrait with me. But she was incredibly kind and gracious when we did it. And I guess she’d been doing lots of annoying photo shoots because she said “I LOVE the way you take pictures! Other photographers always tell me to do this and that and look this way and you don’t do none of that!” Then she gave me a hug- something I wasn’t used to from my rock and roll subjects- and cementing me as a fan for life.

And in saying this she also helped me crystallize a part of my shooting style, which values comfort above all else. Without it, you’ll never get an honest portrait.

I think she’s had to deal with a lot of photog-douchebags over the years, because I’ve heard that she’s not a big fan of being shot- but she always seems to allow me to do a quick portrait- as long as I’m patient (she’s still a superstar, after all, and anointed by Time Magazine as America’s Best Songwriter).

Doug Pettibone at The Fillmore, 2003

But to be fair, I had a lot of help and advocacy from her guitarist for many years, Doug Pettibone. Somewhere around 2000, The Warfield had put up a shot of the band performing, and he’d seen it. I met him at The Fillmore the next year and he asked me if I knew the guy who shot it. “Yeah, I know him pretty well,” I said. We ended up hanging out and he came with me to a jam session at Capp’s Corner that was mostly comprised of cast members of Beach Blanket Babylon getting away from their camp and into some classic rock and soul tunes. He tore it up and we’ve been friends ever since.

Lucinda puts out a new album about every two or three years,  and it never disappoints. There aren’t too many artists who’s vocals and lyrics seem to get better all the time- Bonnie Raitt is an example. But what sets her apart, especially as a female artist, is that she can be honey-sweet one moment and whisky-sour the next without coming off as contrived. She can be growly, angry, and raunchy, then tender, sad, and lovely, then pointed, poignant, and political.

And something else I find attracts me to her music (and is often the case with artists I admire- be it Tom Waits, Pink Floyd, or late-era Beatles) is the percentage of songs that aren’t about love. While she can pine over lost lovers and do done-wrong songs with the best of them, she also sings of suicide, wealth, abuse, and in one case how her ex-boyfriend couldn’t get her off. Not exactly the stuff of country music clichés.

Lucinda Williams at the Fillmore – 2003

She’s so smart, yet so American. So vulnerable, yet so strong and sexy. If I had to pick one word to describe her, though, it would be “authentic.” If you wonder where the heart of country music went, look no further.

Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore – 2003
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Read more.. Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

O’Reilly’s Oyster Fest- Cake, Jackie Greene , Raveonettes

Oyster Fest

Here are some belated photos from the annual O’Reilly’s Oyster Fest in San Francisco. This used to be a free event in Washington Square Park in North Beach, but moved to Fort Mason, became a ticketed event, and started having much bigger bands. With the right weather, the view of the Golden Gate Bridge can be positively muralistic.

Cake by Dan Dion

This year’s headliner was the Sacramento-baked irono-comic band CAKE. I’m a huge fan. While other bands are spewing cliche-filled “love” songs, Cake says they “want  a girl with a short skirt and a long jacket.”  I can appreciate that in a big way.

The Raveonettes are a Danish band that were cool, and a good bit of variety to a typical festival, but to be honest, really shouldn’t be playing in the daylight.

Also on the bill was Jackie Greene, who has been anointed by the Deadhead set as some kind of second coming. Of what, I’m not sure. He’s talented and can certainly kick out the jams. A few years ago he was sporting black leather jackets, but now seems to be channeling the freewheelin’ spirit of Bob Dylan. His drummer got caught in Bay Bridge traffic, so renaissance man and former Tubes drummer Prairie Prince sat in and did a fantastic job. Mad props to Fiachra O’Shaugnessy, Myles O’Reilly, and O’Reilly’s Irish Bar and Restaurant for pulling of another cool local fest.

Jackie Greene by Dan Dion
Raveonettes by Dan Dion
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Read more.. Saturday, November 27th, 2010

In Praise of Les Paul

In Praise of Les Paul

Les Paul at The Iridium near Lincoln Center in 1998

Les Paul died a year ago today. I wanted to share these two images of him. His passing was the loss of one of the greatest innovators in music, as he created the first solid-body electric guitar, which as I understand it is an instrument that is really starting to catch on.

This first time I saw him was at the original Iridium nightclub in New York in 1998. He was so amazing and spry, busting out licks and dropping Monica Lewinsky jokes between songs. Every once in a while his arthritic hands would seize up on him and he’d have to pull his left hand over the guitar neck and slap his picking hand to get it to release. But he did it so fluidly and in rhythm that it seemed to be part of the song.

I went back to the new Iridium on Times Square almost ten years later and he didn’t seem to be a day older. After each of his weekly performances, he sat at a table to meet every fan that stood in line. What an epic human.

Les Paul at The Iridium in Times Square circa 2007
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Read more.. Thursday, August 12th, 2010

50 Cent in San Francisco

50 Cent
50 Cent

June 3, 2010
50 Cent at the Warfield Theater. Gotta say I’m never that impressed when I see 50. He doesn’t really sing and he doesn’t play any instruments, just a lot of posing and shouted rhymes. He was on time, but about a dollar short. I was reminded of a time in 2002? that I shot him and Jay-Z at a show in Sacramento, and the disparity between them as artists was so huge.
The togs were in the pit with a three song limit, but I swear it was only two when they pulled us out of there. Hip-hop is one of the hardest genres to shoot, since the MCs are moving fast, all over the stage, and constantly have the mic in front of their face. Coupled with the obligatory baseball cap, which blocks light from the face, it’s a perfect storm of difficult conditions. Did I mention twice as much security in the pit with you? Hectic.

50 Cent ©Dan Dion
50 Cent ©Dan Dion
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Read more.. Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Lush Life Exhibition

What follows is a first-person account of how I came to work at The Fillmore, and what it’s like shooting touring musicians at this historic venue. It was written for The New Fillmore newspaper to coincide with my 15-Year retrospective of being the house photographer, which was shown at the Lush Life Gallery in San Francisco. The print version can be downloaded here.


In 1993 I was 22 years old and standing on the corner of Fillmore and Geary, looking up at rock music’s most holy house, which had just begun its phoenix-like restoration.  The Loma Prieta earthquake that damaged the Bay Bridge had also knocked The Fillmore Auditorium out of commission –a brutal hit to the local music scene. But the contractor trucks and seismic upgrade materials in the adjacent lot were signs that music would once again grace the stage of the ‘Mo.

“I’m going to work here,” I vowed to the universe and myself. At the time I was fresh out of college, working on staff at the Holy City Zoo comedy club in the Richmond, and shooting at Candlestick as an assistant photographer for the San Francisco Giants. Since I had no photo approval, when I went to concerts I often snuck my camera body into the show in a bag of Chips Ahoy cookies, with my telephoto lens wrapped in deli paper to resemble a sandwich. Unauthorized photography has a certain excitement to it, with a cat-and-mouse element with security, but I was about to go legit.

Reopening The Fillmore was always on Bill Graham’s to-do list, and following his death in a helicopter accident in 1991, the staff of Bill Graham Presents took up the mantle. I had a friend who worked at the company, and he got me a meeting to pitch my idea to photograph the restoration project. I’m a sucker for old buildings, and this one, soaked in psychedelic history, was just begging to be documented. The real plan, however, was to maneuver myself to be in position to shoot shows once it reopened.

That’s how I found myself, in April 1994, representing The Fillmore as its house photographer- the greatest job I, or practically anyone else, has ever had. Here’s how it works. The club gets the credential for me to shoot the performance itself, and it is up to me try to get a backstage session. The music world is increasingly controlled by managers and publicists, who if you try to arrange a shoot in advance, start issuing their demands, limitations, and rights of approval of what shots get used and where.

I quickly learned that the key to access was held by the road manager, who’s job it is to make sure the show happens on time, with a happy band, crew, and audience. One of the great benefits of shooting for The Fillmore, as compared to any other venue, is that performers want to be part of the photographic record; they feel a kinship with past performers, and feel honored if their images grace the walls of the lobby.

The road manager is the only one who can get the band together before or after the show for a quick shoot. And to be sure, these shoots are quick. It was in shooting these dynamic and elusive artists that I developed what multiple subjects have described as a “painless” shooting style. Just before or after a performance, the last thing these people want is a drawn-out photo session shooting a hundred frames. So I developed a modus operendi centered around being totally prepared- locations determined, tests shots taken, and a portable flash system with a near-instant recharge time, because any delays when you’ve got a celebrity sitting for you is just death- figuratively for you and literally for your photographs. Annoyance isn’t a complimentary facial expression.

Cut to fifteen years later. If one can be said to write a love letter to a building, this exhibition is mine. Assembled is a kaleidoscope of musical performers and genres, with assorted other characters like the Jim Rose Circus and Zach Galifianakis thrown in for good measure. The aggregate talent on display is truly mind boggling from Pete Townsend, to BB King, to David Byrne. And there are the bittersweet images of those who’ve left us- Tito Puente, John Lee Hooker, Norton Buffalo, Ken Kesey, Mark Sandman, and Johnny Cash.

But it’s really not about individual performers. It’s about creating a testament to music and free expression, and placing it all within the context of one magical building- four seismically reinforced brick walls from which emanate the sounds of transcendent spirit.

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Read more.. Tuesday, June 29th, 2010