Best of 2022: Leif Zurmuhlen – My Year in the Pit

2022!  The year I plunged into photographing more live music than I ever had in my entire life!  Thanks to the entrée provided by Nippertown I was able to immerse myself in shows and artists that piqued my interest, and I desperately tried to distill some of the magic I witnessed on area stages into static images that hopefully hint at the live concert experience.  Despite my advanced age and having to suffer the indignity of having the smallest lens in the pit, nevertheless I persisted, hoping to add that all-too-rare white male perspective to the discussion of rock music.

In the past I had photographed lots of musicians and artists, usually portraits of bands in a studio or home environment.  Emerging from the dreary confines of the pandemic, I was eager to get out and shoot people again, even from a distance.  One of the perks of being an unpaid online content provider is that I am able to pick and choose the shows that I cover based on what I find compelling.  Soon I found out that this meant I often had to write the damn thing too!  Not a writer or musician or a critic, I can only offer my limited recall of the vibe of a show in sketchy write-ups to accompany the photos.  I hold artists in the highest regard, people who choose to create and present their work.  It takes incredible drive, talent, determination and guts.  It’s an enjoyable challenge for me to try and capture some of that energy in still photos.

I was totally blown away by the quality, variety and abundance of local talent I saw throughout the year: Reeya Banerjee and her powerful voice at Argyle Brewing Company.  The grungy kick of Bad Mothers at Proctors GE Theatre.  The hardcore bounce of Male Patterns at Empire Underground.  The fury of the women scorned in BattleaXXX at The Madison Theatre.  The potent punch of Sunbloc at No Fun.  The shimmering oscillations of the indie/post-punk Galene, also at No Fun.  

Precious Metals played a refined set at Empire Live.  I was wowed experiencing Candy Ambulance for the first time at Alive at 5.  Transported by featured poet Dmitry Wild at Lark Hall for Invocation of the Muse (a monthly open mic for poets and spoken word).  The colossus that is The Clay People reawakened at Empire Underground to devastating effect.  Sydney Worthley charmed the pavilion at Nipperfest.  Black Belt Jones knocked it out at Empire Underground.

The first-ever Nipperfest took over Schenectady’s Central Park with a day packed with a goldmine of local talent.  The Figgs closed the show in grand fashion, rocking the Music Haven stage.  Sirsy added more heat to the already sweltering day.  Nippertown is rich with talent – who will play the next Nipperfest?

Super 400 – Kenny Hohman, Lori Friday and Joe Daley – the undeniable Troy trio always bring it: Joining forces with vocalist Sean Matthew Whiteford at the Cohoes Music Hall to hammer like the gods through the entirety of Led Zeppelin 1.  Rockin’ on the River as Blue Machine with the added swagger of Tommy Love out front.  Uplifting the Troy Music Hall with a magical acoustic set as part of The Lift Concert Series of shows with the audience seated onstage with the band.  Rocking in the heat of Nipperfest.  As branches of Family Tree every Monday night at Putnam Place.  Teaching the next generation of groovers at The Troy Music Academy.  Frequently accompanied by multi-instrumentalist wonder boy Chris Carey bringing extra texture to their impressive catalog of originals, which easily stand side by side with the choice classic heavy rock covers they also perform.  Most importantly, the band has spawned a spin-off: burgeoning drummer and Nippertown’s youngest contributing writer-Ellie Everywhere!

The stage at The Hollow pulsed with a swirling dark carnival energy as the entrancing Dust Bowl Faeries opened for a manic Bella’s Bartok in an elegantly paired show put together by Greg Bell, who celebrated 30 years of promoting concerts in the Capital District in 2022.

Empire Live has the shows and the space to support the occasional crowd-surfing artist.  The Regrettes made the place hop with their punky power pop.  The Psychedelic Furs brought their arsenal of killer 80s greatness.  Barns Courtney set off a barnburner of a breathless, energetic show.  St. Vincent served her stylish, angular modern rock to an adoring throng.

Little did the folks serving burgers at the Central Avenue White Castle in the 50s know that the place would still be in use all these years later.  The Fuze Box is the place to go to let your inner Wednesday Adams out.  Groovy goth dance nights, poetry readings and performance art like The Goddess Purple and live bands like SIN (featuring Tina Stichr on guitar).

The Blues took over Music Haven when Grammy award winner Shemekia Copeland stunned with a powerful set.  Mark Mirabile came out to play along with Soul Session’s Garland Nelson.

From war-torn Ukraine, the band DakhaBraka transfixed with a meditative, emotional show in honor of their people and their country and offered a plea for peace.  A moving candlelight vigil followed setting Music Haven’s sloping hillside aglow.  To help visit:

The beautifully renovated Lark Hall is a great place to catch a show.  Puss N Boots, consisting of friends Norah Jones, Cat Popper and Sasha Dobson harmonized an informal show with multiple instrument swaps to a packed house.  The Reverend Peyton put a world of hurt on his vintage guitars sliding into turbo-charged country blues with his Big Damn Band.  The Soul Rebels brought the brass along with some tasty funk.  The Happy Fits had a very young crowd bopping while their parents watched from the upper balcony bar.  Nané supplied a joyous groove fest of silky soul and R&B.

Troy’s one-year-old club No Fun has hosted an endless stream of acts already with a truly dazzling variety.  Troy’s own duo Bloodx3 donated an aggressive transfusion of sonic energy.  NYC’s Cindy Cane crept in with their sinister sound and a possessed frontman.  Swamp Baby mesmerized with their drumless psych-folktronica chamber pop.  Canada’s Wine Lips left a stain with their intense punk rock garage psychedelica and prodigious sideburns.

The renowned acoustics of the historic Troy Music Hall resonated with the vocal magic of Zimbabwe’s a cappella quintet Nobuntu and echoed with laughter at the comedy of a temporarily hobbled Patton Oswalt and the off-beat, surrealistic musings of Demetri Martin.

Saratoga’s lovely Universal Preservation Hall got its Irish on with sisters The Screaming Orphans presenting a festive hooley.  Grammy-nominated sensation Samara Joy jazzed it up with a special holiday show to close out the year.  (Joy will be appearing at SPAC this summer at the Friehofer Jazz Festival on June 25)

I scrambled off to The Egg a few times and saw legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Todd Rundgren crack a few yolks in the Hart Theater, while Pokey LaFarge’s distinctive American blend went over easy in the Swyer Theater.

Frog Alley Brewing’s outdoor summer stage played host to promising young rock duo Robot Monster and the Stone Temple Pilots still thrill, with a killer repertoire of crunching rockers at their fingertips.

Thankfully in these strange times talented artists are still using their platforms to fight the power and address the ills of the world.  Jewish Socialist Carsie Blanton charmed The Linda with her anti-fascist messages dressed in the loveliest of songs.  (Carsie will return to The Linda on April 28.)  Albany’s JB!! aka Dirty Moses delivered a positive message at Alive at 5.  Troy’s Zombie Giuliani spit out screeds against corporate greed and more with a punk bite at No Fun.  Talib Kweli elucidated and educated with socially aware and politically insightful rhymes at Alive at 5.

I was lucky to catch a few longtime personal favorites this year:  Tommy Stinson and his pistachio colored acoustic guitar gave a rollicking intimate show at Rare Form Brewing Company.  The Jesus of Cool Nick Lowe backed by Los Straitjackets featuring Eddie Angel on guitar captivated the Colony in Woodstock.  Robyn Hitchcock expertly accompanied his partner Emma Swift on her lovely interpretations of Dylan song from her acclaimed album Blonde on the Tracks at Billsville House Concerts in Manchester Center, Vermont.

A short drive from Nippertown to the second day of the Fresh Grass Festival  at MassMOCA allowed me to witness Sierra Ferrell’s timeless , spellbinding voice and a sharp-dressed Gary Clark Jr. shook the big stage on Joe’s Field with his fusion of blues, rock , R&B and soul with elements of hip-hop.

Albany Distilling Company hosted a WEQX special acoustic show with the band Starcrawler from Los Angeles.  So good I had to trek out to Syracuse a couple of months later to see the band’s full gig at The Lost Horizon.  Easily my favorite show of the year.  Arrow DeWilde is a frontwoman for the ages and Henri Cash is my newfound guitar hero.  This very young band gets it just right – style, showmanship, high energy and great original songs.  When a band with a median age a third of my own can rock me, the future seems very bright indeed!

Here’s hoping you all discover something new to love in 2023.  Support live music.  Support local artists.  Buy the tickets.  Buy the merch.  Looking forward to lots more in 2023 if my knees don’t give out and they don’t start setting restrictive maximum age limits for geezers in the pit.

  1. Patti Quade says

    Leif has long been recognized as this areas premier photographer, especially for live music. But he underestimates his talent as a writer, bringing us front and center stage to some of the best concerts.

  2. Mike Stampalia says

    +1 on Patti’s comment. I love reading Leif’s articles almost as much as I like looking at them.

  3. Anne Rutkowski Payne says

    Yeah Leif! Exceptional collection of photographs!

  4. Mark Hudson says

    Leif – your superlative images of the Super 400 play Led Zeppelin show perfectly captured the intensity and energy of that night. If you look in the dictionary under “rock & roll” there should just be the black & white photo of Lori that you included here!

  5. Mike Hotter says

    Awesome photos and awesome year-end recap from an all-around awesome dude!

  6. Leif Zurmuhlen says

    Thanks everyone!
    Mark Hudson-I always loved Neal Preston’s great concert photos of Zeppelin in the 70s. Unconscious inspiration. Loved your review of the Cohoes show!

  7. Mark Hudson says

    Thanks Leif! It was in my top 5 gigs of 2022. Zep is hard to pull off and they did an incredible job. And your photos were the icing on the custard pie. 🙂

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