Culture Vulture: Crank It Up – “The Great Rock n’ Roll Picture Show” @ Clement Art Gallery

Martin Benjamin: Tom -Petty 1980 and 2010
Martin Benjamin's Tom Petty, 1980 and 2010

By J Hunter
Photograph by Martin Benjamin

The Troy PD cruiser sat in the middle of Broadway, its light bar blinking with metronome-like regularity, as it blocked traffic from accessing River Street. I looked out at it from the currently-cozy confines of Clement Art Gallery and resisted the urge to shout at them, “It’s a Rock and Roll PICTURE Show, you goons! They’re not blowing out eardrums in here!” As it turned out, the cops were assisting Troy Fire Department on an entirely different matter – although their overall blockage forced some opening-nighters to drive the wrong way down a one-way street in order to escape a River St. parking lot. But hey, driving the wrong way down a one-way street? “That’s rock and roll,” as Bowtie Blotto would say… and did say as he assessed the photographic works of Joe Putrock, Martin Benjamin and John Whipple along with the rest of people who packed the exhibit’s opening reception on Friday, January 27.

This wasn’t the first exhibition of concert photography to flash before our eyes: “Impasse & Motion” set the standard firmly in gold last June at Saratoga Arts Gallery; Putrock was part of the 10 photographers on display at Saratoga, and we saw some of the shots from that exhibition here (including my personal favorite, a blown-up contact sheet of Sara MacLachlan). Both this show and “Impasse” displayed solid examples of the art of concert photography, which I previously described as “catching lightning in a bottle while handcuffed and blindfolded.” There is, however, one BIG difference between “Impasse” and “The Great Rock n’ Roll Picture Show”: Volume.

I don’t mean volume in terms of the amount of material on display; I mean the literal and emotional volume of the subject matter. “Impasse” covered just about every musical genre both completely and beautifully, from the classical stylings of the Hyperion Quartet to the echoing sounds of one street musician playing guitar in a Boston subway station. When you have that kind of variance in music, you naturally run into genres that aren’t as loud (both literally and emotionally) as others; for instance, you wouldn’t put Mel Torme on the same bill as Rancid or the New York Dolls. (Well, I would, but my therapist says there’s hope for me yet…) Rock & roll, on the other hand, is all about two things: Volume and attitude. It’s not where you stand, it’s how you stand — and if you give us good-quality music on a short- or long-term basis, that’s a bonus, baby!

Take, for instance, Putrock’s EXTREME close-up of Steven Tyler, taken at SPAC in ’99. Steven’s wearing a twisted Cat in the Hat knockoff and sticking his tongue out at Putrock’s lens. At that moment, it doesn’t matter that Aerosmith made some of the most important rock albums of the mid-70’s — it’s that Tyler (currently paying the rent as the Class Clown on “American Idol”) is still trying to be more like Mick Jagger than Jagger ever was. Two things at the exhibition undercut him, though: Tina Turner actually making the grade as Jagger in a spicy Benjamin SPAC shot from 1987, and this outburst from one of the throngs of show-goers who came to re-visit the cause of their hearing loss: “Steven Tyler! He sang at the game the other day!” Singing the national anthem at an NFL playoff game? That ain’t rock & roll, not even if you’re wearing fake fur.

Rock & roll isn’t pretty, nor should it be. If you didn’t know that before, you learned it well here. It wasn’t just the roaring performance shots of Bruce Springsteen (still wearing a headband in 1978) or Neil Young or a very Santa-like Jerry Garcia. It wasn’t even Johnny Thunders standing on top of two urinals at J.B. Scott’s. It was Benjamin’s compare-and-contrast of Tom Petty, looking young & vital in 1980 and then old & tired in 2010. (He had a compare-and-contrast of David Byrne that was even more shocking.) Then there was Benjamin’s off-day shot of Dave & Ray Davies, “sharing” an acoustic guitar and not looking at all pleased to be in each other’s company. (That’s right! Noel & Liam Gallagher did NOT invent sibling rivalry!) Ugliness, like Baskin-Robbins, comes in 31 flavors – one of the more popular being Bob Dylan, wearing sunglasses at 3 in the morning outside the Hotel Wellington, and Bob was already looking more ripe for the wrecking ball than the hotel is now.

But there are also moments of beauty and irony and other things ending with “y”. John Whipple had some of the biggest at the show, the most prominent being Patti Smith singing backstage at a Ralph Nader rally while Michael Eck and Mark Emanatian accompanied her on acoustic guitars. But Whipple had plenty of other choice shots – Graham Parker playing acoustic guitar with the Figgs, still rocking the same sunglasses he wore on “Heat Treatment” all those years ago (“Same shades, different day…”); Billy Gibbons sitting on an amp in Lark Street Music, trying out a guitar that didn’t spin; and a “lightning-strikes” moment outside of QE2, where two hand-drawn signs had been posted next to the front entrance: One said, “Kurt Cobain is dead!” The other, apparently placed as an afterthought, said, “Come in & have a drink!” According to Whipple, both those signs were gone when he walked by the club again five minutes later. Too late, suckers! The moment was already caught!

There are other moments and other bands, from a young U2 looking pretty backstage at J.B. Scott’s, to local rockers Scotty Mac and Johnny Rabb bringing their own brands of noise and attitude, to a pensive Sarge Blotto looking like a young Chet Baker as he nursed a Jack Daniel’s at the Lark Tavern. (That last one’s not for sale, or it’d be on the wall of my office right now!) But no matter the subject, the Great Rock n’ Roll Picture Show is all about volume, it’s all about fun, and it’s all about attitude. And it may be better to burn out than it is to rust, but there is something to be said for long-term survival, even if that only involves great moments captured by three people who unquestionably know how to do it right.

“The Great Rock n’ Roll Picture Show” will be on display at the Clement Art Gallery, 201 Broadway, Troy through Wednesday, February 22. Hours are Monday-Friday 10am-6pm and Saturday 10am-4pm.

1 Comment
  1. Andrzej "Andre" Pilarczyk says

    With your well-crafted words and keen insights, J, you’ve really caught the intended attitude of the exhibit, the three photographers works and the spirit of rock-and-roll. I love your writing as much as I love the work of these three fine regional photographers ! Long live Rock-‘n-Roll and the photographers who tirelessly document the moments, events and the history of this music!

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