Skillet, Sick Puppies, Devour The Day: A Tale From The Photo Pit

Skillet

Korey Cooper of Skillet; photo Reuben Martinez

Skillet headlined the Grove of Anaheim in support of their latest release Unleashed with two great opening bands, Sick Puppies and Devour the Day.

As I arrived early at the venue, the one thing that instantly amazed me was how many cars were already in the parking lot. I had a feeling this venue was going to be full and possibly sell out.

When Devour the Day took the stage they had a fantastic stage presence. But a funny thing that has never happened to me occurred during the second song.

As I was turning around after taking a great shot of singer Blake Allison singing while he surfed the crowd on his back, the microphone stand hit me in the face! I then noticed that his microphone cord got wrapped around the base while he was going through the crowd.

Devour the Day

Blake Allison of Devour the Day; photo Reuben Martinez

That was a first for me and I actually thought it was funny. I’d rather get hit in my face instead of hitting my camera. As I brushed off my wounds I finished my three songs for the first band of the night.

I’m very familiar with Sick Puppies, who were the next band to play, having photographed them before plus I was excited to see the new singer, Bryan Scott. For being a three-piece band they know how to entertain and sound amazing. Bassist Emma Anzai is always fun to shoot. Her slap style and hair blowing around is always a great visual. My obvious favorite band of the night but I would say 90% of the crowd was there to see Skillet. Yet, I’m sure Sick Puppies won over some new followers.

sick puppies

Emma Anzai of Sick Puppies; photo Reuben Martinez

When headliner Skillet took the stage the crowd was cheering with excitement. They opened with “Feel Invincible” with the crowd reciting every word. Skillet has been around over 10 years and have a strong Christian base. This band knows how to play and knows how to entertain. Singer John Cooper and wife Korey on guitar are full of energy. I’ve never seen this band live before but seeing their energy along with their fans’ (known as “Panheads”) made for some great compositions.

Using one camera, I was switching from a zoom lens to a prime lens (faster lens that doesn’t zoom). With a band like Skillet jumping around and all of the fast action, I needed the faster lens. The three songs I was allowed to shoot went by quickly!

Skillet

John Cooper of Skillet; photo Reuben Martinez

It was an all-around great show to see and to photograph making it a very successful photo opportunity for me. And one thing I can say about the Grove of Anaheim is that I love the lighting in this venue. I have never had a bad shoot there.

One Love Reggae Festival Day 1: Tale from the Photo Pit

slightly stoopid

Slightly Stoopid at One Love Cali Reggae Fest Day 1; photo Andy Ortega

It was quite the adventure getting into the One Love Cali Reggae Fest at the Queen Mary in Long Beach on opening night. It was raining the entire evening, which is pretty special for Southern California, and I’m guessing it wasn’t expected by the promoters – or anybody else. Either way, it didn’t stop attendees from having an experience that had everyone feeling “irie”.

Once I made my way through the line at the entrance, I breathed a deep sigh of relief and immediately had the sensation of pure relaxation. Then I realized that along with the deep sigh of relief, there were massive clouds of smoke that also may have helped me relax a bit as I walked past a group of concert goers with dreadlocks. The ganja was flowing freely everywhere I looked.

There were two stages at this massive event. There was the main stage, which was labeled the “One Love” stage on the One Love Cali Fest website and there was the second stage labeled the “Queen Mary” stage.

The Aggrolites were just starting at the second stage and to my surprise, it wasn’t very crowded. I say that because there were people everywhere else and later I saw that a majority of people were at the main stage. They sure missed out because there was some good dancing at The Aggrolites’ performance. People were singing along and cheering. It was more like a wild party.

The Aggrolites

The Aggrolites at One Love Cali Reggae Fest Day 1; photo Andy Ortega

After that, Fishbone played on the same stage. Yeah, Fishbone is playing at this reggae fest and they do have a reggae-esque sound but I kept thinking, “Wait, is this reggae?” Fishbone fans know that they have a unique style and they’ve changed over the years from ska to funk to rock. I guess you could say they do “skunk rock”?

Next, I got the munchies. The One Love Cali Reggae Fest was the best place to be for that. I was tempted to get something from the Pink Taco Food Truck or Chronic Tacos but instead went for a plain teriyaki bowl from some place that didn’t have such a creative name.

As I headed to the main stage, I came around the corner and saw a sea of people ahead of me. These crazy, fun-loving, hippies did not care one bit about the rain, the mud, or the stinky greenish haze.

SOJA was playing as I entered the photo pit in front of the main stage. They released their first album, Peace in a Time of War, in 2002 and have four more albums after that so they’ve been around the block a bit.

The headlining band that night on the main stage was Slightly Stoopid. I don’t mean that in a negative way, they’re actually

SOJA

SOJA at One Love Cali Reggae Fest Day 1; photo Andy Ortega

awesome and that’s their real band name. Maybe they were at a previous One Love concert in the middle of that thick haze

when they thought of the name, but they’re rad and the roar of the crowd as they walked out proves it. Slightly Stoopid offers a fusion of ska, metal, punk, hip-hop and funk. I’m not going to try to name their style like I did with Fishbone – you get the idea. I can tell you that anyone born and raised in California is familiar with this style.

At the end of the night, I found myself happy and feeling right at home here on this rainy SoCal evening, right next to the Queen Mary and with all my reggae brothas and sistas!

Metal Allegiance: A Tale From The Photo Pit

METAL ALLEGIANCE

METAL ALLEGIANCE; photo Reuben Martinez

Metal Allegiance, a metal all-star concert and project started by Mark Menghi, asked friends to collaborate and pay tribute to recent and past artists at the Grove of Anaheim over NAMM weekend.

They played tribute to “Fallen Heroes” like David Bowie, Prince and Lemmy with songs like Bowie’s “Suffragette City and Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy”. Metal Allegiance also played music of artists from the past such as Pantera, Metallica, Queen, Deep Purple and Ozzy Osbourne.

Kicking off NAMM, this event was highly sought after by the media. In fact, there were so many photographers that we were divided into small groups to photograph three different songs each, while the event was simultaneously being filmed and streamed live.

METAL ALLEGIANCE; photo Reuben Martinez

METAL ALLEGIANCE; photo Reuben Martinez

Metal Allegiance consists of artists such as Chris Jericho (Fozzy), Mark Osegueda (Death Angel), Phil Demmel (Machine Head), Alex Skolnick and Chuck Billy (Testament), Mike Portnoy (Winery Dogs), David Ellefson (Megadeth), Charlie Benante (Anthrax), Gary Holt (Slayer, Exodus) and many more artists contributed throughout the show.

I was excited to be covering this event as I am also a huge fan of all of these artists. I waited my turn to get into the photo pit and ended up being able to shoot songs like “I Don’t Know” Randy Rhodes/Ozzy, “Was Ensemble” Jeff Hanneman/Slayer and “5 Minutes Alone” Dimebag Darrell/Pantera. Great songs! I couldn’t have asked for a better selection of three songs. The lighting and sound were great and any “Music Fan” would have enjoyed this lineup paying tribute.

METAL ALLEGIANCE; photo Reuben Martinez

METAL ALLEGIANCE; photo Reuben Martinez

As the night continued, special guests Mikkey Dee drummer of Motorhead and Vinnie Appice drummer of Dio covered their own songs to pay tribute to their own singers that have passed.

It was a great evening of great musicians paying tribute to their “Fallen Heroes” and I was pleased to capture the moments of the night.

Menghi, who also plays bass in Metal Allegiance, continues to hold this event of all-stars in the Metal genre during the NAMM conference each year. Be on the lookout for this show every January in Southern California.

Ghost: A Tale From The Photo Pit

GHOST

GHOST photo: Reuben Martinez

Grammy Award winning band Ghost, who won for Best Metal Performance this year, recently played the Riverside Municipal Auditorium. For the past two years, there’s been a lot of buzz brewing for this band. I had the chance to see them at Coachella for the first time back in 2013. I was intrigued then with their stage presence of metal with heavy demonic overtones and was looking forward to this event.

When the lights went down, operatic music began to play, the stage crew came out wearing the Ghost logo, an upside down cross with a “G”, on their shirts, bowed to each other and removed the black cloaks covering the drum set and keyboard. The scent of incense burned on stage, creating a church-like atmosphere.

They opened with “Square Hammer” a new song from the Popestar EP, a followup to last year’s album, Meliora. Singer Papa Emeritus III came onstage dressed in a black “pope like” robe and skull makeup.

This is exactly what a photographer loves to see in a stage show. The band members are called “nameless” ghouls and wear silver masks with horns and eye cutouts but no mouth. Scanning the crowd, I noticed there were fans wearing make-up like singer Papa, replicating their allegiance to Ghost.

GHOST

GHOST photo: Reuben Martinez

After shooting the first three songs, we photographers had to vacate the photo pit, which is standard practice. Most of the photographers went to the balcony to get full stage shots until the security stopped us and made us go downstairs.

Trying to shoot from the floor was hard with the general admission crowd, and eventually security told us we couldn’t shoot at all. I’ve shot this venue before with all access to the balcony and other places, but they were strict with this show.

The band played a total of 17 songs but during “Mummy Dust”, guns shot confetti and dollars with Papa’s face on them into the crowd creating a visually stimulating atmosphere.

The Swedish group formed in 2008 and I am sure will stay around. Hopefully, I’ll be covering them next time they’re in Southern California. Great music and a great visual show.

Temper Trap: A Tale From The Photo Pit

Temper Trap

Temper Trap at the Observatory; photo Andy Ortega

There have been times at The Observatory in Santa Ana where I could barely make it through the crowd of concert goers. This time, while it was still mostly full, I was able to move around fairly comfortably for the Temper Trap concert.

I got the sense that there were many fans of the opener, Coast Modern, in the audience, as well. During their last song, I could see and hear people singing along to their laid back tunes such as “Hollow Life”. Coast Modern was a great warm-up before the main show.

The lights were dimmed down a notch as Dougy Mandagi and the rest of the Temper Trap band walked onto the stage. They opened with “Thick As Thieves”, the title track from their latest album and closed with “Sweet Disposition” from their 2009 album, Conditions.

However, as the show progressed, the lights didn’t get much brighter. I think it’s safe to say that they didn’t want bright, or really any lights. My camera was a little sad about that because light is his friend but I was still able to get some decent shots.

Return Of The Dreads: A Tale From The Photo Pit

korn

Korn at Irvine Meadows; photo Reuben Martinez

“Return of the Dreads” came to SoCal with a lineup that featured In This Moment, Rob Zombie and Korn. SoCal hasn’t had a rock fest in a while and this was guaranteed to sell out.

Arriving at the venue, there were issues getting in. Key to being a photographer is being early to shoot all the bands on the bill, but unfortunately I did hit a snag. As soon as I got into the parking lot there was a lot of walking. As I arrived at the box office to get my credentials, I was given a photo pass but the venue staff said I also needed a ticket to get in. I could hear that In This Moment had already taken the stage. After other photographers were denied entry, another staff worker walked up and said we could all go in.

I walked as fast as I could while getting my camera ready. But once I showed up to the stage, In This Moment finished their last song. Since we’re only allowed to shoot the first three songs of a set, I had missed my opportunity. But running into friends that are photographers, they also had the same problem. But never-the-less, I was able to shoot Rob Zombie and Korn.

When Rob Zombie took to the stage I already knew he never disappoints the fans. His stage was full of his visions of horror and pop art, including a microphone stand that had a Nosferatu looking metal base.

rob zombie

Rob Zombie at Irvine Meadows; photo Reuben Martinez

There were overwhelming red lights that are hard to capture in photos so I switched my camera to shoot black and white and was able to get great shots of him and the band. However, the color photos captured the vibrancy and mysticism of the band.

As Rob loves to entertain, he and guitarist John 5 had an oversized Devil walking around the stage that he interacted with. Such a great stage presence and a great showman. Even while John 5 showcased during a solo, Rob was running around the crowd getting them even more enthused.

While we were waiting for Korn to come on stage, the photographers were escorted back down to the photo pit. Right away, I was in the presence of singer Jonathan Davis’ mic stand, which the legendary artist/sculptor H.R. Giger designed for him years ago.

When drummer Ray Luzier entered the stage that was my key to get the camera ready. The rest of the band came on, bassist Fieldy’s neon bass strings were glowing, and the band went into the first song, “Right Now”. The crowd was jumping!

Great lighting for the band made it easy to get the shots I wanted. And as the tour was called “Return of the Dreads” both guitarists, Head and Munky, had dreads that made great action shots while they were rocking out to their performance.

I’ve seen these bands many times before, they sounded great but this was my first time shooting them. It was a very entertaining show and a great experience to shoot and share.

Although these bands have been around for a long time, their new songs also sounded great. If you are a fan, check them out next time they come around.

Bear Hands: A Tale From The Photo Pit

Bear Hands

Bear Hands at The Observatory; photo Lauren Ratkowski

As I arrived at The Observatory’s box office, I saw a huge line of people queuing up to get into the venue, which was only hosting one show that night. I was excited that it was going to be a full house. I slapped my credential onto my chest and headed inside. Everything seemed pretty typical at that point. But the difference was that I had my new camera with me – a Nikon D810. I was dying to use it to shoot a show.

I had heard mixed reviews on setting the ISO to auto and shooting manual for everything else. I’ve always shot full manual but my old camera was outdated and I no longer trusted its auto ISO setting. I knew my new camera had a much better ability to function at higher ISO with little “noise” so I gave the auto ISO a whirl.

The Moth & The Flame were the first band of the night. Their lighting was pretty even, which allowed me not to worry about waiting for the right instant to capture a moment. Both the bassist and singer were very expressive, too! As I shot, I kept my eye on the ISO number my camera was choosing for itself. Three songs went by quick and I returned to my spot in the audience.

I peeked at my shots to see how things went so I could adjust accordingly for Bear Hands. I zoomed on a few images to see some noise from the high ISO, but it didn’t look too bad.

Bear Hands hit the stage bathed in blue and magenta light. I have always disliked this lighting color combination as it never worked well for my shots in the past. But before getting too discouraged, I remembered that maybe things would be different with my new buddy. I snapped a few photos and then looked back at them while still in the photo pit. I rarely do that so I don’t miss anything, but I had to be sure things were working! I could see more detail than the blue, flat images I used to get. I knew I could work with what I was getting and carried on. Soon the blue and magenta light was replaced by white and red. This was good!

Bear hands

Bear Hands at The Observatory; photo Lauren Ratkowski

Bear Hands put on a great performance. Interestingly enough, my favorite image of the night came after I was out of the photo pit. Vocalist Dylan Rau was on his knees at the edge of the stage, facing me as he sang. I leaned over the security guard I was standing above and hoped the image would come out ok – and it did!

After shooting the headliners, Atlas Genius, I headed home to get a good look at my photos. While processing my images, I was amazed at the difference between my old camera and my new one. I was able to make great things happen with the images I shot in blue light. I was comforted in knowing that I had conquered one more difficulty in shooting concerts!

Oh, and as for the auto ISO, I didn’t hate the results, but I think I’ll be sticking to full manual. Maybe I just like being in total control.

Wyatt Blair: A Tale From The Photo Pit

Wyatt Blair

Wyatt Blair played The Wayfarer Jul 31; photo Andy Ortega

When Wyatt Blair jumped onto the stage at The Wayfarer in Costa Mesa, I admit, I had to pause for a minute in shock. Wyatt Blair was the real deal. My 80’s childhood began to flash before my eyes. Was he really wearing one of those long dangling silver earrings on his left ear? You know, the ones all the cool class of 1987 kids wore? Yes, it was really happening and it was totally awesome.

The Wayfarer was previously known as Detroit Bar until 2014 when it changed owners and its name. It was my first time at The Wayfarer since the change. As I walked in, I noticed that they removed some walls which made it feel more spacious. They definitely made some great improvements that turned this venue into a modern, trendy, live music bar.

Wyatt Blair

Wyatt Blair played The Wayfarer Jul 31; photo Andy Ortega

There isn’t a photo pit at this venue, which means that you’ll need to get there early if you want to get close-up photos or you’ll need to squeeze through the crowd as best as you can. The lighting here has been upgraded and it’s now top notch. I can name a few concert venues that don’t compare to The Wayfarer’s lights. For photography, this means I can lower my ISO settings and increase my shutter speed for more crisp, colorful shots.

Wyatt Blair’s music has been compared to the sound of the movie Top Guns’ soundtrack. That was the exact impression I had as they started their set. The band included a guitarist, a bass guitarist and of course, a keyboardist. Can’t leave out those synths, sound effects and electronic drums in an 80’s band, right? The entire band was clad in 80’s-style pastel colors and jean jackets, with the female bass guitarist donning a side ponytail.

Pierce The Veil: A Tale From The Photo Pit

piercetheveil-laurenratkowski

Pierce The Veil at Observatory North Park Jun 25; photo Lauren Ratkowski

Pierce The Veil headlined a sold out show to 1,200 people Saturday night in their home town of San Diego playing The Observatory North Park, which made it all the more special.

In 2008, I went to the now defunct Bamboozle Left, the west coast edition of The Bamboozle Festival (R.I.P to both). Before I went, I checked out all the bands I didn’t know on MySpace so I could plan out my festival day. I came across a band named Pierce The Veil on the line up, gave them a listen, and penciled them into my schedule.

I don’t know what I was expecting standing out there on the grassy hills of the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater (almost R.I.P), but 15 year old me was in love. Any band that sounded better live than their recorded music had my heart.

Eight years later, almost 23 year old me found herself standing in line waiting to get her press badge to photograph that little band she fell in love with on that grassy hill. Except, they’re not so little anymore.

I shot Pierce The Veil back in 2014, so I knew they would have great production and lighting wouldn’t be an issue. My goal this time was to capture the sheer energy the band brought every time they played.

Halfway through the first song, I could literally feel the floor beneath me shaking from the crowd going nuts. I found myself dodging security pulling crowd surfers out behind me as I photographed. I got pushed into the stage at one point, but I was too focused to care. Confetti was flying. Air canons were firing. Everyone was screaming lyrics back to the band. It was too much fun.

pierce the veil

Pierce The Veil at Observatory North Park Jun 25; photo Lauren Ratkowski

When the first three songs had passed, I left the photo pit with a smile on my face and that feeling I get in my heart when I know I’ve captured something good. I flipped through a few shots on my LCD just to confirm. I try not to judge too harshly as I know things can look totally different once I get home, but I was pleased with what I saw. I then proceeded to find a good spot in the crowd to shoot from. I wanted to capture at least some of the full theater as a conclusion to my set of photos just to emphasize the feeling of the show.

As I left the venue that night, I was still buzzing. Not only because I felt I had a good session, but because I love seeing good bands grow and succeed. And that’s exactly what Pierce The Veil has done!

Buzzcocks: A Tale From The Photo Pit

BUZZCOCKS

BUZZCOCKS / Steve Diggle; photo Lauren Ratkowski

As I stood in line to pick up my credentials at the Observatory Box office, I found myself surrounded by fans of all ages. The two men in front of me talked about the last time they had been to the same venue to see the band they were waiting to pick up tickets for now. The band: Buzzcocks…And the venue was still known as The Galaxy back then. They continued to chat about what songs they hoped would be played excited like they were waiting to see them for the first time. Just from that moment, I knew it was going to be a good show.

Once my Concert Guide Live partner-in-crime Madison Desler arrived, we headed inside to find a good spot to post up. Unfortunately, we got inside a little late, so I wasn’t able to photograph the first band like I had planned. I was a little bummed, but I was honestly just excited to be shooting again. As we watched their performance, I noticed how packed the venue was already.

As soon as the first band left the stage, I left my spot and set my sites on the photo pit. It had been just over a month since I was last in the pit. I was so excited just to be back in my natural habitat- a trench like space surrounded by cameras, excited fans behind me and a stage in front of me. It felt good.

The Buzzcocks hit the stage and were greeted by enthusiastic fans singing along. Their lighting was a little iffy in the beginning, but soon things evened out. They had the perfect balance of colored and white light. I knew I was going to end up with a great bunch of photos. This only added to my excitement as I had dealt with some very challenging lighting situations during my last two previous shows.

It was amazing to see a band with a 40 year history play to a sold out space filled to the brim with fans that have undoubtedly followed them for that amount of time. Each member of Buzzcocks had great energy and emotion, which I was able to capture. The combination of great lighting, passionate fans, and an amazing performance allowed me to create a strong set of photos.

I’m thankful for shows like these not only because they make my job easy, but because they remind me how truly happy combining my two passions of music and photography make me. Hopefully this is an indication of how great this summer’s concert season will be!