Headlining Act: Jim Koplik At The Meadows

A couple weeks ago I was asked to take a photograph of the man who runs Hartford's Xfinity Theater for an insert piece going in this week's CTNow [formerly the Advocate].

Jim Koplik worked in concert promotions for decades, and built The Meadows in Hartford. The venue is having its 20th season summer 2014.

The man, Jim Koplik, has been around the Hartford music scene for decades. Not only does he run the Xfinity Theater, he actually built the thing twenty years ago. It was later bought by one company, which was eventually bought by Live Nation.

The venue has famously changed names through the years- it was formerly the Comcast Theater, which was formerly the New England Dodge Music Center, which was formerly ctnow.com Meadows Music Theater. Before that, and the name that always seems to follow it, is simply "The Meadows"

How do you take a photo that captures the full expanse of a music venue? Especially one the size of the Meadows. The place has a capacity of more than 25,000, including the lawn. In the past few years I've been lucky enough to photograph a lot of shows at the Meadows, and an idea actually came pretty quick. I wanted a shot of Jim from the stage, with the vast expanse of the venue, including that lawn, spreading out behind him.

The problem was planning for the light difference between the lawn outside and the covered pavilion. The throw from the stage was at least a couple hundred feet, so I made a plan with all the firepower I had available.

My plan: expose for the lawn and background sky, use an Alien Bee B800 strobe on full power to bounce off the ceiling and brighten up the pavilion, and a speedlight off a highly reflective silver umbrella to light Jim, and an on-camera speedlight to help fill and trigger all the lights. Easy!

I brought extra to the shoot because it's better to be overprepared than missing something crucial. It also happened to be a day in mid-May so warm and humid it could have been August. But the extra fifteen or so pounds proved to be worth it.

Jim was shooting a few television promo segments, so I was told I would have only five minutes between takes to get the shot. From the stage the pavilion was even more cavernous than I thought. Trying to brush away panic, I thought and planned.

Shot at the same exposure as the final image. It was dark in there.

I was able to set up my stands offstage and prepared everything to max power. The day's haziness helped- the lawn wasn't as bright as it could have been, and some of the light diffused nicely to help light the back of the pavilion.

Jim finished his segment, and I rushed to set up a speedlight off the floor of the venue, a good 16 feet below Jim's eye level.

Camera geek talk: Both that rim strobe and the key light strobe were set to remote "SU-4" mode, meaning they would simply fire at whatever power they were set to when hit by the light of another flash, just like a studio strobe photocell. When shooting with photocell it's important to set everything to manual mode- the TTL pre-flashes will trip all the lights out of sync with the camera.

The ceiling was way too high to bounce the light, and one B800 clearly wouldn't cut it. This is why overpreparing is good- I had a second strobe with me. I set one up on each side, aimed for the horizon, and hoped for the best.

The two B800's are hooked into a Vagabond mini battery pack. The stick figure is Jim.

The two B800's are hooked into a Vagabond mini battery pack. The stick figure is Jim.

The best was good enough, as the image came out crisp. Koplik had a warm demeanor, clearly a pro at this sort of thing, and within two minutes it was done. We even had a chance to chat a little about music.

The Killers Slay At Mohegan Sun

Let's talk for a hot sec about The Killers.

The Killers are one of those bands that music nerds love to say they hate. They've spent the last decade all over the place, filling up arenas, constantly on the radio. Guys in frat houses like them. "Woo" girls think reading the lyrics will make them deep. Sure, all those things may be true but deep down every 20-something Brooklynite wannabe with a keyboard could likely trace their decision to start an electro-pop band back to hearing the intro riffs of "Somebody Told Me" on a ride home from the mall.

My For me it happened in 2004 with "Mr. Brightside." Not that I wanted to start a band, but the song really clicked. That year I spent a lot of time in the student union at University of Hartford, running around being general manager of the student news station. MTV U was running a loop on the televisions in every hall, and the "Brightside" video was on heavy rotation. It got a little annoying at the time, but looking back now there's a certain fondness to it.

A year and a half later, at a yard sale the weekend before officially moving from Providence back to Hartford for work, I bought Hot Fuss for a dollar. It wouldn't leave my car's rotation for a year, but I always skipped "Somebody Told Me." Honestly, the track seems a little weak and really doesn't fit the vibe of any other song they've done.

That's why when The Killers played it second at their Mohegan Sun show Wednesday night I was happy. No sense in keeping it until later in the set. Dump the track because it's commercially necessary, and move on.

Brandon Flowers leads the audience chants. With a simple stage setup consisting only of the Power Rangers-esque lightning bolt from "Battle Born," The Killers' performance was a pure rock show.

The entire set was basically a stream of singles, save for a few tracks from their latest, "Battle Born."  From Spaceman to Human to Reasons Unknown, Here On Out, and many others.

While it would have been nice to hear a deep cut or two, the singles did the trick. Frontman Brandon Flowers commanded the audience's attention at all times, with nary a soul in the arena missing a word while singing along. Rhythm fell behind from time to time but overall the band was tight, delivering a solid rock show behind Flowers's true-to-recording vocals.

In fact it struck me a few songs in just how committed this crowd was. The arena wasn't sold out, but still packed to the brim for a Wednesday night. The arena floor was a sea of hands in the air and throbbing along to every chorus.

The arena chants along to "All These Things That I've Done."

The arena chants along to "All These Things That I've Done."

During "Bad Moon Rising" [a surprising good and completely accurate-to-tone cover of the Creedence track] it would be clear just how fanatical some fans could get. That was when I noticed the five guys across the aisle. Most likely fueled by inordinate amounts of alcohol and caught up in the energy cycling off stage, to say these adult gentlemen were going nuts would be an understatement.

At several points one of them, unable and unknowing how to contain his boundless energy, would rip his shirt up and over his head like a toddler so excited for ice cream that he couldn't contain himself.

The band would also riff on Psychedelic Furs's Heartbreak Beat, with Flowers heaping praise on the band's Richard Butler. It bled into "Read My Mind," followed by "Runaways" before closing their regular set with "All These Things That I've Done." The sea of throbbing hands would open up in a chanting chorus of the song's hook.

Again it would be a surprise when the band left the stage, as barely anyone moved from their seats. They would stay in place throughout the four song encore and well after the set closer, my nostalgic "Mr. Brightside."

Sometimes we get so amped we don't know what to do with our shirts.

House lights went up for the final song and the sea of hands grew far around the arena. The man to my right flipped up his shirt for ice cream again before ripping it right off. For a moment I wished I was excited enough to do the same, then remembered it wasn't 2004 anymore and just kept singing along.

A Mother's Day of Lady Gaga at Mohegan Sun

It was a little more than a year ago that Lady Gaga had to cancel a big chunk of her "Born This Way Ball" tour because of a hip injury. One of those shows, just two weeks after her announcement, was supposed to be at Mohegan Sun. That made the Mother's Day eve performance at the casino sort of a make up show.

"Most of the people on this stage were on the 'Born This Way Ball tour and we wished so much we could have been here with you," Gaga said fairly early on in the show. It was one of her many gushes of love for the crowd, which would later also include cuddling stuffed animals, putting on a leather jacket tossed onstage, and pogo-ing with a tween fan.

Being Mother's Day it only made sense to bring Momma Caito. Not that mom owns neo-glam gear and spiked stiletto heels, but she'd probably enjoy it nonetheless. No way would she be the only parent at the show either.

Look, ma! A Lady Gaga ticket!

It just so happened that the guests of honor included Lady Gaga's own family. "My family is here tonight, because my sister is graduating from college. You filthy old bitch," she said from a keyboard perched among ice crystals on an elevated catwalk. The singer went on to extol her family and all their support before melting in to a piano ballad rendition of "Born This Way."

The first chunk of the show was dedicated to songs from ARTPOP, including 'Venus,' 'G.U.Y.,' and 'Fashion.' The songs came across strong live, with some tight live band collaboration with pre-produced tracks.

Of course Momma Caito loved the performance. "This is great!" she'd exclaim multiple times through the night, while clapping along with the crowd slightly behind the beat of "Bad Romance," or throwing her hands in the air for "Poker Face." "I think this is one of the best concerts I've ever been to!"

And it was pretty good. Gaga strutted around her multi-level stage flanked alternately by dancers with stegosaurus bronie costumes and sea cucumbers that bloomed in proximity to her seashell bikini.

It was the sort of garish stuff we'd expect out of a top notch pop performer. From the fairly innocuous leather crop top and green hair to the octopus tentacles, she would saunter and dance belt out her songs. That's right octopus tentacles. I mean, tentacles? Then there was the closing look of a 90's rave kid burned out on molly, preceded by an on-stage [and completely utilitarian] stripping session.

PHOTO CREDIT: Kevin Mazur for WireImage, taken 5/9 in Pittsburgh, provided by the tour.

Speaking of drugs, there were plenty of periodic breaks full of psychedelic light shows and throbbing beats. I mean, the tour is branded "artRave." But this is Connecticut, and the crowd was pretty mixed between young and old, so there's wasn't a ton of dancing. Except, of course, for Mohegan Sun Dancing Guy. For this one he traded in the resort collection shirt for a garb of shimmering blue sequins.

[A little background on Mohegan Sun Dancing Guy: For nearly two years I've been attending and reviewing concerts at the casino, and have seen this guy nearly every time. MSDG is in his 50's, and no matter what the band dances incoherently around the arena to a slick groove that only he seems to hear. Green Day. Maroon 5. Eric Clapton. P!nk. Lady Gaga. The same dance. He usually wears some kind of Jimmy Buffet-esque hawaiian shirt.]

I digress.

The singer took a few breaks to interact with fans (apparently throwing stuffed unicorns on stage is something to do at a Lady Gaga concert?) and even read a teenager's letter to the audience. Momma Caito had to leave before the encore [g'night mom, love you, happy mother's day!] and missed Gaga's biggest expression of fan love of the night.

During the encore of "Gypsy," she brought a young girl up on stage to sing and dance along to close out the show. The two held hands and pranced off into the sunset, a very cute end to a very elaborate rave.


Welcome to the new NickCaito.com!

For quite some time now I've been hearing from friends and colleagues that I need to start blogging. For a while I did- for the Hartford Courant, as their primary music writer and blogger.

Here I'd like to continue writing about music, but adding in some other things I love, namely food and cameras.

Together these subjects make up about 80% of my waking hours. Why not make it 90%?

So we have Cameras, Cooking, and Chords.

Photographing The Flaming Lips and Spiritualized at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, CT 15 July, 2013

Cameras: I'll talk about the work I'm doing, the situations around a particular shoot, and even what went wrong or what could be changed next time. Everything is a learning experience, and that's something I'd love to share.

Cooking: Making food amounts to more than creating sustenance. It's a way to unwind, create a distraction from work, or treat others to something delicious. Though coming entirely from Italian ancestry, I primarily cook Indian and Asian foods. The cuisines can seem pretty intimidating, so I'll try to show a few experiments and give some tips. A big chunk of my work also involves writing about food, so I'll share some of those pieces too.

Chords: Like so many people, music has been a huge part of my life. I've been lucky enough to interview and photograph some fantastic acts over the years, and intend to keep doing so. I'll share concert reviews, live photos, and anything else music-related.

Using my carbon steel knife for the first time to make a favorite recipe, banana curry.

Thanks for reading!