On The Road Again…

Every March, we make the trip halfway across the country to Austin, Texas for SXSW.  This year was the same story, almost.  On March 14th, four of us piled into the motorhome bound for Texas. Yes, you read that correctly: Motor Home Sweet Home.  We’ve done the trip to SXSW a lot of times and every time it’s been in a van packed with band dudes.  This year would be different, this year we’d go in style!  We’d been hired to shoot Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion; It would be our third time working it so we knew exactly what we were in for.  Since we were driving out and had more room than we needed, we brought our assistants, Armon and Cory with us.  With a traveling house and extra hands on deck, this year was lining up to be the best yet.  Not to mention all the crazy good musicians that would play, like Blitzen Trapper, Lucius, Jenny Lewis, Lily Meola, Matthew Logan Vasquez, and of course Willie Nelson and Family and that’s just scratching the surface. But I’m getting ahead of myself again as usual, let me start from the beginning.

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The comfort of the drive was like none other, but the drive was still long with the same dry desert landscape whirling by the windows for what seemed like an eternity, but we were comfortable and with our friends, on our way to Willie Nelson’s ranch, nothing could be better really.  Soon enough we’d see signs, and then civilization, followed by a super-sized gas station to stop at and peruse while refueling and stretching our legs. We drove that first night until around 2am when we finally called it quits in New Mexico just outside of Las Cruces at a truck-stop. We pulled in line with the semis and crawled into bed for our first night of the adventure.

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We woke up about six hours later to the sun beaming through the cracks in the curtains. After a quick visit to the loo and some filmmaking antics, we were on the road again.  Day 2 was underway…

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And we drove and drove and drove.  In between driving duties, Kevin was producing our next job…

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We stopped when we reached Fredericksberg, Texas. It was just before 9pm and we all felt like a hot meal so we stopped for dinner at the only spot in town with an open sign. Let’s just say, not a good idea, but what was done was done and now we know better. After dinner we drove for a bit until we came across a beacon of light. It was Walmart – Walmart Super Center to be exact. To our weary eyes, it looked like home. We parked in the lot, drew the shades, drank a couple of beers, hung out, talked, laughed.  Waking up in the Walmart parking lot was a lot better than waking up in the truck-stop.  Walmart has clean bathrooms and anything one could possibly want is available for purchase. I bought water and a 3 foot inflatable, glow in the dark ball.  Cory bought a clean shirt and cut the sleeves off (again).

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We finally pulled into Austin around 3pm that afternoon. After an extensive search and some sketchy-tight motorhome situations, we found a place to park for the night.  We put our party dresses on, well at least I did, the boys put their party hats on, and we walked many blocks into the mayhem of SXSW. Our first stop was The White Horse, one of our favorites in Austin.  We had round of tequila shots followed by a round of Lonestars and then made our way to the next stop. Next stop, The Container Bar on Pearl Street where we met up with our buddies Rowley and Derek. Another round of tequila shots followed by Lonestars and we found ourselves being taken upstairs to the Dickies Lounge where we were given all the free stuff we could wear/carry. They gave us fun stuff like a six pack bag, sunglasses, and clothes. After that we walked Sixth Street, looking for what to get into next, when we got a text from our buddy Jared to meet up for drinks at The Four Seasons. After more beer and shots at The Four Seasons, we were heading to The Continental Club where we hung out, listened to live music, and you guessed it, drank more tequila and Lonestars.  I would say we did our one party night in the city right.  We had to blow off some steam after that long drive!

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WOW!  Let’s just say, the next morning waking up in a Best Buy parking lot was not as good as the day before waking up at Walmart.  The consumption of the night before definitely did not help the situation any.  It was Thursday (day 4)  which meant today was the day we’d head out to Willies. We took a vote on everybody’s hunger levels and decided we all wanted pizza, so obviously we went to Pinthouse Pizza, the best pizza spot in Austin.  We filled our bellies with delicious pizza and craft beer.  Satisfied and recharged, we were on our way, only one hour now!!

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As we pulled onto the ranch we were greeted by familiar faces, waving us in. Our buddy Richard found us a good spot to park and within an hour we were sharing a beer and a smoke together. That’s what I love about working in the music scene, especially the country scene. People are friendly, welcoming like a big family. We all know we’ve all been the same places, done the same things, traveled long and weary roads to be here, all to do what we love. It’s really a great vibe to work around. After settling in, we walked the grounds and scouted locations for the photos we’d be shooting tomorrow. For the past three years now, we’ve been hired to make artist portraits, and photograph the artists hanging backstage and performing on the main stage. It’s a fun and exciting job, but once the day starts, it doesn’t stop, so you have to be prepared for anything.  Knowing this, we spent day 1 picking out what we’d do where so the following day could be as smooth as possible.  After a few hours of prepping for the next day, we put our cameras down and had dinner with the rest of the crew on the ranch.  After dinner, we met up with our photographer friend, Laura Partain.  And then, Willie and Family played an intimate set to a tent full of fans.  Laura and I kneeled in the front row.  The gravel dug deep into my knees as the band played but I didn’t care, I decided I’d just pick it out later.  This is what I had traveled so far to do.  I was in my happy place, camera in hand, witnessing beautiful, heartfelt music and getting to capture it.  When the music was over, we retreated to our bus and hunkered in for the night.  We had a busy day ahead of us and we needed to get some rest.  It ended up being a long night of building the stage.  What that meant for us was a noisy night, dreaming about stages being built.

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The morning came quick which was good since we were all excited to start the day.  This was the moment we had all traveled out for.  After coffee and Cheerios, we geared up and started our day.  The first band on the Main Stage was Heaven’s Jail.  While they played the main stage, Midland played the chapel, and Robert Ellis played the revival tent.  You can see by how this is stacking up, what the day looks like for a photographer.  There were more than 30 bands on 3 stages and our goal was to photograph them all.

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Just as we were rocking through the day, meeting bands, making portraits, we started to hear a buzz about the impeding storm.  As we were photographing Blitzen Trapper, they let us know that it had been decided that they wouldn’t be playing; The show was being shut down because of rapidly approaching lightning and hail.  Soon after hearing the news, the Fire Marshall came in, sounded an alarm and announced for everyone to evacuate and take shelter.  Many people retreated to their cars, others took cover inside the houses and other buildings on the property.  I stayed outside as long as possible, photographing the artists milling about backstage, figuring out what to do, where to go, who to go with, it was a surreal atmosphere.  We had all just been either playing or photographing or enjoying music and now we all had to stop and hide from Mother Nature.  I headed for our bus as the rain began to fall.

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When I got to our bus, I was excited to see a large group of friends, and even some unfamiliar faces inside.  Soon enough we turned what seemed like a bummer into a party.   What seemed like two hours went by, the sun went down, the rhythm of the rain pounded down on the roof of the motorhome.  And then it stopped.  When the rain stopped, the people began to reappear.  When music started flowing out of the barn, we made our way over to find The Black Lilies serenading a weary group of music lovers.  It was a beautiful moment where it felt like the night was being taken back and music was going to win.  As we wandered the grounds, spirits were up.  The storm had brought out the best in everybody – a fire was lit and the show would go on.  Slowly more bands began to play.  Bands began improvising sets, taking turns with other bands, making time for everyone to play even though valuable hours had been lost.  Jenny Lewis, Lucius, and Billy Joe Shaver took over the chapel and serenaded the crowds in low light. Margo Price, John Moreland, and Parker Millsap warmed up the revival tent for Insects Vs. Robots.  The artists acted with grace, each cutting their sets to just a few songs so everybody had a moment on the stage.

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Making portraits became interesting in the dark and in the rain.  When I met up with Margo Price it was raining.  We were backstage by her van and there were zero lights.  I had to use what I had available, thought quick and asked her if we could shoot in her van.  She obliged but probably thought I was crazy until I showed her what we had created.  When she looked at the image on the back of my camera, she felt pretty and that made me happy.  Just as I was heading back to the group to show them my photo of Miss Margo, I ran into Kevin who was also excited about the portrait he had just made.  He had just been fortunate to get a moment with Billy Joe Shaver, country music legend.  The portrait he made of Billy is one of my favorites from the trip.

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As the night was approaching the end, I made my way to the revival tent.  Insects Vs. Robots were taking the stage.  By the end of the first song the audience was entranced.  The music these guys make has such a good vibe it makes you want to move.  Willie and Annie watched side stage, they smiled the entire set, obviously proud of their son.  After Micah and his band won the audience over, Willie and Lukas took the stage.  The crowd went crazy.  Willie congratulated Micah before strapping on his guitar and playing hit after hit.  It was nice to see the family dynamics on stage, with Willie’s sister Bobbi on keys, his son Lukas on guitar, his other son Micah on drums…  Soon Lily Meola and Jenny Lewis joined them all while Bill Murray stood side stage.  When Willie passed the mic to Lukas for a song, a lady in the audience passed Willie a shot of Whiskey, he gladly obliged.  Willie ended his set by throwing his bandana into the crowd and then signing autographs and greeting his fans, Lukas and Micah finished the song and Willie exited the stage.  It was fun to watch him climb into the pickup truck with his wife, followed by none other than Bill Murray!  What a night!

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The night wasn’t complete until we made a portrait of Insects Vs Robots.  We became friends in 2014.  Last year, timing was weird and we missed getting their artist portrait.  This year was lining up to not work out again.  Micah and I decided we would overcome and make a portrait…we just had to find light.  We went on a search of the grounds.  We must have scouted eight or more locations before we found the saloon.  It was sketchy for them to go upstairs but if everybody tread lightly and didn’t fall through, I thought we could get a pretty cool image.  After clicking the shutter, I knew it was worth it and called them down.  The night ended on a very high note.  Three words: Thank You, Universe.

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The next morning came even faster than the last, it felt like we blinked and the sun was up.  Waking up today was bittersweet.  It was time to get out of Texas, time to say goodbye to our Texas friends, time to leave the ranch behind for another year.  It was fun to wake up and find a photo of me on Instagram in the good company of Bill Murray, Willie Nelson, Jenny Lewis, Annie Nelson, Lukas Nelson, and Lily Meola!  But now it was time to jam out of here because I had to get to a job in Scottsdale, Arizona by 6pm the following day!

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So we drove and retouched and drove and retouched until we couldn’t anymore.  We cozied up for our last night in our bus in our favorite, a Walmart parkinglot.  When we awoke the next morning we began the last leg of the drive.  After a ton more driving and retouching, we made it to The W Hotel in Scottsdale.  I let the boys sleep in my room that night so they’d be fresh for the last 6 hours home.  Real beds felt so good!  A real shower felt even better!  And before we knew it, the sun was up again and we said our goodbyes.  The boys climbed back into the motorhome and I stayed behind and went to work, again…

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