Last year, Winnipeg’s Mat Kleisinger took his camera to 200 live performances. Here’s the story of one of them.
Kleisinger heard that IDLES, a punk group from Bristol, England, with a penchant for half-naked belly-surfing excursions on the outstretched hands of enthusiastic fans, was performing at First Avenue in Minneapolis, the iconic venue where Prince debuted Purple Rain.
So he went online, found the band’s contact page, and fired off an email to their touring manager, asking for a press pass to the August show. It was a bit of a Hail Mary: he didn’t have anyone paying him — a lot of his photography is done more for fun than for dough — and the show was a week away. He expected rejection.
"They said yes," he remembers, still a bit shocked.
He then did something which, during the pandemic, is almost impossible to fathom: he drove across the border and enthusiastically climbed into the jam-packed crowd, focused his lens and started clicking. Once his time in the pit — the photographers’ enclosure — was up, he ascended a staircase to get an eagle-eye view of guitarist Mark Bowen climbing into the crowd of sweaty shouting fans in his black boxers.
"It’s very wild to think that it wasn’t really that long ago," Kleisinger says. "In a year, things have changed so much."
Winnipeg’s music scene is normally one of the country’s busiest; major acts stop by frequently, and per capita, the city produces much more great music than statistical analysis might predict. The city is overflowing with music worth hearing and seeing, and darting around the floor at every show is a cohort of people with cameras, stealthily capturing the incomparable energy of a room witnessing the person-made miracle of sound.
Those rooms feel far away now with concerts on hold due to COVID-19. For musicians, the void is real and terrifying. Live shows and touring are essential to building a fan base and feeding one that may already exist. For concert photographers, often fans at their core, to not be able to document the visual evidence of those moments, it’s heartbreaking.
"It’s a passion that’s not being utilized," says Travis Ross, a full-time photographer who got his start in Winnipeg taking pictures of acts such as the Bros. Landreth, the Lytics and the Noble Thiefs.
"It’s a very strange feeling." He can’t even bear to look at his concert shots, because it hurts not knowing when the next will be taken.
"Concert photography is a creative outlet, and that’s a huge part of me that’s missing," says local photographer Jenn Kostesky.
"It’s almost like there’s nothing to look forward to, no shows to see on a Friday night," she says. "When will I do that again?"
There’s still music being produced, and throughout Manitoba’s flirtation with an economic restart, distanced and outdoor shows occurred at the Park Theatre, the Beer Can and on the rooftop of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. But it’s a guessing game as to when concerts will get back to their glory days, and as Winnipeg experiences a pandemic surge, it’s unknown when any shows whatsoever will welcome audiences back.
"I normally shoot five shows a week," said Joey Senft, who’s been a mainstay in the local scene since 2001. "Now, I’m down to zero."
Senft’s last "regular" show was a March set at the Park by local punk group Death Cassette. Even then, before lockdown, the energy was off as COVID’s spectre grew. "All my friends were there, and we didn’t know how to say hello to each other," Senft says. "We tapped elbows and feet."
Photographer Dwayne Larson estimates music work makes up about 20 per cent of his income. But his enjoyment? "I would say it makes up 100 per cent," he says.
"It’s my unwinding," he says. "Some people paint, draw or make music. I go to shows; whether it’s the biggest star in the world or that show at the Handsome Daughter with 15 people watching, I just love being out there."
Since starting out in Winnipeg 12 years ago, Larson has earned gigs that include working as True North Sports and Entertainment’s concert photographer and as the go-to person for the Park. Much like Ross and Senft, he’s had to pivot to other work, including weddings and commercial shoots.
But when it comes to concerts, the job is more than a job, Larson says. "Sometimes it pays, sometimes it doesn’t, but at the end of the day, it’s doing what I love."
Photographer and videographer Jen Doerksen has had the strange reality of working in an office in the Burton Cummings Theatre while its stage has been mostly vacant. Doerksen is the marketing manager for local label Birthday Cake, but since 2016 has found a niche documenting the city’s burgeoning indie scene.
Doerksen’s career began at Red River College, when an assignment called for students to start a blog. Doerksen started a concert review site.
"Every week for six months, I’d go to a live show, and the following Monday I’d write a review and include photos," Doerksen says.
Last November, Doerksen was on tour with The Bros. Landreth through the U.K., Netherlands and Germany and has recently been looking back through the photos.
"Honestly, (without shows) I feel like there’s this big pit of grief in my gut," Doerksen says.
During the pandemic, Doerksen’s been producing content for local artists Super Duty Tough Work, Jaywood and Tunic through BNB Studios, a local music platform.
But the live experience is sorely missing.
"Capturing live shows, I feel like I get to be part of the art," Doerksen says. "Someone’s making theirs, and I get to hang around and make art based on that.
"Some of the most important moments of my life with the people I love have been surrounded by live music."
In the absence of live shows, Kleisinger has spent much of his time listening to new music. He had big plans for 2020, including trips to Spain’s Prima Vera Sound festival and the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, plus local shows by Bombay Bicycle Club and Peach Pit. For the most part, those plans have been dashed.
So he’s been dipping back into his photo archive, including shots of Lucy Dacus, Whitney, Tame Impala, Cate Le Bon and, of course, IDLES, who he singles out as one of his favourite of 170 unique performers he shot in 2019. (He keeps track in a spreadsheet.)
The full video of the band’s show at First Avenue is posted on YouTube. Look closely, beyond the chaotic churn of the crowd, you’ll see Kleisinger and his Sony A7 Mark 2.
As soon as he safely can, that’s exactly where he wants to be.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.