Lockn' through the lens

Rock photographer Jay Blakesberg shoots Virginia's biggest jam fest

Back in September 1977 Jay Blakesberg caught his first Grateful Dead show in Englishtown, New Jersey. He quickly became a die-hard fan, and as a hobbyist shutterbug started bringing a camera to shows as he followed the band around the country. Fast forward to July of this year, when Blakesberg found himself on stage as the official photographer of Fare Thee Well, the Dead’s huge five-show 50th anniversary celebration divided between Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, and Soldier Field in Chicago that was declared to be the last time the four remaining band members would play together.

Augmented by Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio (filling the role of the late Jerry Garcia) and piano man Bruce Hornsby, the core Dead group played sold-out shows to tightly packed stadium crowds. During the final night in Chicago, Blakesberg wanted to capture the entirety of the scene, so when the band came out to start the show, it was still daylight, and he asked the members to turn and acknowledge the audience behind the stage. When it happened, Blakesberg was ready, perched on the drum riser in position to snap a shot of the band with the majority of the massive crowd behind them.

Original members of the Grateful Dead pulled friends together for a run of 50th anniversary performances earlier this summer. Blakesberg photographed them in Chicago with their backs to the fans to capture the magnitude of the event. “I felt like I was being blown over by the energy from the audience,” he says. Photo: Jay Blakesberg

“It was the most nerve-wracking photo I’ve ever taken,” Blakesberg told C-VILLE Weekly during a recent phone interview. “There were 71,000 people focusing their attention at the stage. I felt like I was being blown over from the energy of the audience.”

Blakesberg has spent the past four decades chasing that kind of energy, and, along the way, he’s become one of rock’s most successful photographers. After growing up on the East Coast, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-’80s and started shooting local club shows, documenting the onset of alternative rock with images of bands such as Jane’s Addiction. He caught a break when he received a phone call from Rolling Stone photo editor Jodi Peckman, who asked him to shoot a free U2 concert in downtown San Francisco. Assignments kept coming and as his editorial work spread, Blakesberg started getting commissioned by bands and record labels for promo photos.

Now his portfolio views like an endless well of the music world’s most important figures. “Jay has the gift of being comfortable in and around situations that might make others dizzy or confused,” says Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes via e-mail. “On stage or in dressing rooms Jay is the one who knows when to let the light play and show you the scene within the scene.”

Blakesberg has taken iconic portraits of Tom Waits, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, to name a few. There are the candidly historic, such as Keith Richards and John Lee Hooker on a couch sharing a laugh, and the emotionally telling close-up on the face of a sad-eyed Garcia. The latter was captured during a three-minute shoot at the Grateful Dead’s office in San Rafael, California. “There’s so much story in the face and the eyes,” Blakesberg says when remembering the shot. “I always think of that when I’m shooting.”

Although portraits certainly allow a particular kind of expression, Blakesberg thrives on the spontaneity of the live concert experience. In conjunction with his roots as a Deadhead, he really enjoys shooting jam bands, improvisational rock acts that play unpredictable shows. Of Blakesberg’s 10 published coffee table books, two of the most recent, JAM and Guitars That Jam, have been focused on documenting bands in this scene. And there’s nowhere better for him to find the off-the-cuff stage moments he’s seeking than at the Lockn’ Music Festival.

Set to run for the third straight year from Thursday through Sunday, September 10-13, Lockn’ takes place on the sprawling, 4,500 acre Oak Ridge Estate in the tiny Nelson County town of Arrington. The festival has become the nation’s premier jam band family reunion—a concept the inaugural Bonnaroo initiated back in 2002 but rather quickly abandoned—with nods to classic rock revivalism and inclusion of tangential indie bands with shared fans.

Although smaller in attendance than mega-fests such as Bonnaroo and Coachella, Lockn’, which drew around 30,000 people last year, has a unique format that sets it apart—most of the music takes place on two side-by-side main stages with acts getting longer-than-typical festival slots that don’t overlap. Lockn’ organizers also curate unexpected collaborations between artists, such as the first year’s set featuring country rock hero Zac Brown with The String Cheese Incident or last year’s pairing of Widespread Panic and Steve Winwood.

“At Lockn’ the artists hang out,” explains Blakesberg, who has been the festival’s official photographer since it started. “I have pictures of bands on stage watching other bands. Musicians dig that, when they can really become part of the festival. They’re being social over multiple days. That really shows from my perspective, photographically.”

This year the festival will feature some expected jam favorites and new faces. The String Cheese Incident is returning for three sets, including one that combines forces with The Doobie Brothers, and Widespread Panic is also back, this time teaming up with reggae legend Jimmy Cliff. The event will feature two sets by Robert Plant, an all-star tribute to Jefferson Airplane led by Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady and a performance of Joe Cocker’s classic album Mad Dogs & Englishmen hosted by the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Younger acts getting a big showcase include roots-minded indie rockers Deer Tick, the soul-driven St. Paul and The Broken Bones and local outfit Lord Nelson, who won a slot at the festival through a band competition at The Jefferson Theater.

Jay Blakesberg has worked with Carlos Santana for the past 25 years. On Saturday, Santana joins Phil Lesh & Friends for an extraordinary live collaboration, and Blakesberg will be waiting behind the camera. “One thing many great photographers and musicians have in common is a love of improvisation,” he says. Photo: Jay Blakesberg
Jay Blakesberg has worked with Carlos Santana for the past 25 years. On Saturday, Santana joins Phil Lesh & Friends for an extraordinary live collaboration, and Blakesberg will be waiting behind the camera. “One thing many great photographers and musicians have in common is a love of improvisation,” he says. Photo: Jay Blakesberg

Lockn’ is co-produced by music promoter Peter Shapiro, who also orchestrated the Dead’s Fare Thee Well Shows. It’s no coincidence, then, that the band’s silver anniversary celebration is being extended into Lockn’. All four remaining members are on the festival bill, but this time there’s no promise that they’ll play together. Dead drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart will each bring their own projects, while rhythm guitarist and singer Bob Weir is being called the festival’s “featured guest” on Saturday. Through his rotating Friends band, bassist Phil Lesh will anchor two of the festival’s most interesting sets. On Friday he’ll be joined by Robinson on vocals, and on Saturday Lesh will lead the festival’s marquee collaboration with help from guitarists Carlos Santana and Warren Haynes.

Blakesberg is particularly excited about the latter set. In addition to his long history with the Dead, he has also been working with Santana for 25 years. He shot the back cover and all of the publicity photos for the legendary guitarist’s 1999 multi-platinum album, Supernatural. While Blakesberg certainly knows these artists, a one-time collaboration like this will keep him on his toes as he seeks to capture the spontaneous dynamics of musicians who don’t regularly play together. As Haynes wrote in the forward to Guitars That Jam: “One of the things many great photographers and musicians have in common is a love of improvisation, an ability to recognize the moment when it comes and to be open to it.”

Much like all fans of live music, those moments are what Blakesberg is seeking with his camera, and there’s a good chance he’ll find them at Lockn’. “At this festival we’re seeing things that may not happen again,” he says. “So, historically in the rock ‘n’ roll universe, it’s significant.”

Photographer Jay Blakesberg went from fan to a trusted friend inside the popular jam music circuit. He “knows when to let the light play and show you the scene within the scene,” says The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson. Photo: Revival Tintype
Photographer Jay Blakesberg went from fan to a trusted friend inside the popular jam music circuit. He “knows when to let the light play and show you the scene within the scene,” says The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson. Photo: Revival Tintype

Jay’s picks

Top 5 sets to catch at Lockn’

Phil Lesh & Friends with Carlos Santana and Warren Haynes 

Saturday: Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh will headline Saturday night with a special set of Dead tunes interpreted with help from guitarists Carlos Santana and Warren Haynes. It’s safe to assume Lesh’s Dead bandmate Bob Weir will also make an appearance, because he’s the festival’s featured guest of the day on Saturday.

Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jefferson Airplane

Friday: Jefferson Airplane members Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady will celebrate the band’s silver anniversary with help from Larry Campbell, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann and Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive handling Grace Slick’s iconic vocal parts.

“My very first photograph ever published in print was of Jorma Kaukonen in November 1978 in Relix Magazine,” says Blakesberg. “The Airplane was revolutionary with multiple songwriters, incredible harmonies and scorching psychedelic music and personalities.”

Mad Dogs & Englishmen: Celebrate Joe Cocker hosted by Tedeschi Trucks Band

Friday: To honor the late Joe Cocker, his classic 1970 album, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, will be performed by an all-star band led by Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. Additional players include original album alumni Leon Russell and Rita Coolidge. “This is classic rock royalty with Derek and Susan anchoring,” says Blakesberg. “This will truly be a once-in-a-lifetime set.”

The Doobie Incident

Thursday: This set will feature a collaboration between Colorado-based jam outfit The String Cheese Incident and old-school rockers The Doobie Brothers. “My first concert was The Doobie Brothers in 1975 on Halloween Night at Madison Square Garden,” says Blakesberg. “I have loved that band ever since. String Cheese is so good at collaboration. They are the masters of every style.”

Widespread Panic with Jimmy Cliff

Saturday: Blakesberg remembered from the festival’s first year, “Jimmy Cliff had Lockn’ in the palm of his hand during a wonderful afternoon set. Widespread Panic’s collaborations with John Fogerty (year one) and Steve Winwood (last year) were both stellar. They rehearsed, they dialed it in, and they blew us all away. I have no doubt they will kill it this year.”

Blakesberg captures the spirit of Lockn

  • Phil Lesh & Friends in 2014

  • The String Cheese Incident 2013

  • Gregg Allman in 2014

  • Jimmy Cliff in 2013

  • Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes in 2014

  • Chris Robinson 2014

  • Del McCoury Band 2014

  • Wilco 2014

  • Keller Williams Grateful Gospel 2014

  • Tom Petty in 2014

  • Warren Haynes in 2013

  • Warren Haynes Band in 2013

  • Widespread Panic in 2013

  • Willie Nelson in 2014

  • Grace Potter in 2014

  • Furthur in 2013

  • Tedeschi Trucks in 2014

  • Punch Brothers in 2013

  • Jimmy Cliff in 2013

  • Trey Anastasio in 2013

Women who love to rock

HippieChick_mockup

This fall, rock photographer Jay Blakesberg will release his 10th coffee table book, Hippie Chick: A Tale of Love, Devotion & Surrender. Deviating from his usual portraits and live shots of music icons, the book focuses on female subjects who have shaped counter-culture music scenes over the past four decades, capturing women at a range of festivals and live shows. As the press release states, the book “celebrates the unique connection between the vibrant community of free-spirited women who are inspired by, and help inspire, live music.”

The book also features a forward written by Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane and an afterword by Grace Potter, connecting generations through the voices of two female improvisational rock heroes. “I’ve always considered what I do as visual anthropology,” says Blakesberg. “It’s not just about the music, although that is the focus. It’s also about the community and the lifestyle.”