Once you’ve been immersed in the mayhem and carnage of a Pit Party and experienced the energy shared between a band and a crowd that completely surrounds them it’s hard not to go back. It’s a slightly surreal but completely absorbing and incredibly intense experience. There was simply no way I was going to miss the chance to shoot at the biggest Pit Party the UK and possibly Europe has ever seen with Heck and Bo Ningen up there on the line-up supporting the Black Lips.
Arriving early at the cavernous space that is Shapes Warehouse, frenzied preparations were going on in the count down to the first band of on a packed schedule. Immediately recognising that we were mostly “in the way”, Lampy and Fox retreated to the canal-side tranquility of Grow Hackney for a pair of spectacularly excellent Flat Whites and to consider what we’d just seen at the venue over the road.
It’s a big space. When full, it has getting on for a thousand people in there going wild. That means that there are festival-strength railings surrounding the square, raised stage. The stage itself was centred on a pillar around which amps and the other electronic paraphernalia of noise making were clustered like offerings at the base of some tribal totem. A drum kit faces outwards towards the bar on one corner of the stage. There are two whopping great moving-head lights suspended from the ceiling on the same side of the stage as the drum kit, and another much more comprehensive looking lighting rig on a truss at the back of the room on the other side of the stage from the drum kit under which the sound and lighting engineers lurk.
It’s a very different setting to the other much smaller Pit Party I’d witnessed previously. There the band were together in the centre surrounded by the backline and could see each other clearly (between enthusiastic blasts from the smoke machine) so it was easy to pick up the visual cues that kept the bands tight during songs even if the sound they experienced was a little “interesting” with sound being blasted at them from all sides. In this much larger setting, if the band spread themselves around the stage they wouldn’t be able to see each other making for some really challenging conditions to play in.
First up were the Ohmns. All the way from Liverpool this band had more reason than most to be excited to play the pit having won the opportunity to kick-off the party by submitting a demo to Fluffer Records who were running the event. This incredible enthusiasm manifested itself in a set that crackled and fizzed with raw energy and potential with the Ohmns putting everything in to their music. The crowd may have started small, but it grew with every passing minute and it was clearly impressed. Quite a few members of the of the bands playing later on in the day were to be seen watching the Ohmns performance very appreciatively as they worked out how they were going to work the unusual stage set-up.
With the early bands setting up with the lead guitarist/singer in sight of the drummer on the side of the stage facing the bar the crowd quickly became heavily weighted to one side of the stage (where coincidentally the least lighting was available). The lighting engineer woke up for the Prison White’s set and and had really got his groove on for The Black Tambourines. That’s where things started to get exciting for me as a photographer. Firing up the moving heads in front and behind the band and unleashing spectacular moving swaths of coloured light more at home in a rave than a gig meant I really had to pick my moment to press the shutter to capture contrasting colours that don’t leave the features of the performers flat or blown-out. On the plus side the strong back lighting and a bit of smoke gave the perfect for some really cool silhouettes… I don’t shoot with flash so rely completely on the available ambient light. This means I can get some pretty incredible colours and atmospheric effects when the lights are focussed on the band and the smoke machine spews out the good stuff, but it can make getting a pin-sharp image tough as I work at relatively slow shutter speeds.
A swift pizza and fine ale break at the Crate Brewery gave me the change to nab a few shots of the spectacular street art meant around Hackney Wick, but we missed most of the Wonk Unit’s set. By the time The Parrots started playing their distinctive brand of garage punk with its infectious latin twist, the warehouse was getting busy and the crowd was really getting in to the swing of the pit with a lot more noise and a whole lot more bouncing going on. There was also quite a crowd of photographers installed inside the barriers following the action. With the horde flash-wielding competition getting up close with the band (and commonly between the crowd and the action), I decided to go where they weren’t, and try for some shots that put the band in the context of the crowd. With The Parrots playing towards one side of the stage and with strong contrasting lights from in font and behind, shooting from the side of the stage gave some lovely shots of the interaction between the band and the crowd.
For me, it was the Virgin Kids that lit the blue touch paper under the crowd. This band have toured a lot recently and they’re veterans of the pit, this means their set is tight and they had the confidence to get mobile and start using the whole stage with their bassist in particular making sure that all the crowd got a piece of the action.
Of course there was only ever going to be one band that was going to take the crowd over the edge and the dial the mayhem up to a whole new, hitherto unexperienced level of insanity. That of course was Heck. For Heck, the stage is just where you plug stuff in, it’s not necessarily where you play your guitar… These guys perform with a certifiable abandon and lack of respect for their own safety which means they’re more likely to be found in the crowd, climbing anything they can, jumping off the backline or on the bar, rather than on the stage! To say the mosh was unleashed, was somewhat of an understatement. The crowd went completely crazy for Heck! I’d never seen a full circle mosh around a stage before Heck did their thing, instead I found myself in it!
In a moment of genius, Heck also invited a friend… The one special moment of pure clarity burned into my memory from this performance was the split-second when Matt Reynolds was somewhere on the floor in the crowd with a truly heroic roadie feeding out microphone cable at a rate of knots, the bassist was bouncing around the back of the stage, the drummer’s on a guitar and the other guitarist is up the lighting truss, and just when the situation couldn’t get any more insane, a long-haired gentleman pops up on stage and lets rip on his harmonica. Yes, Harmonica. The the juxtaposition and sound created was perfect. Ok, so I didn’t get the greatest photos, but I did have a bloody good time trying, and sometimes you’ve just go to enjoy the show!
The final set of the evening for Lampy and Fox before bidding the pit a fond goodbye and taking on the epic journey back across the city was Bo Ningen. This band approached the stage in a completely different way to all the other bands I saw play at this particular Pit. They each took a corner of the stage, planted their feet, faced outwards, and played… There was plenty of movement, but no drifting to one side of the stage, dragging the crowd and the mosh to one side of the room like the tail of debris following the comet across the sky. There was none of the theatrics of physically immersing the artists directly within the crowd like Heck indulged in. Instead, the band that I believe were the most accomplished musicians I witnessed taking to the stage, each took to their chosen position and went for it. Drummer Monchan Monna, went barefoot and slammed out a relentless beat that formed the backbone to Bo Ningen’s tracks. Kohhei Matsuda’s head-banging formed a swirling, demented cloud of utter darkness and long black hair with explosive guitar break and had to be seen to be believed. The incredible vocal range, movement and facial expressions of the vocalist/guitarists Taigen Kawabe and Yuki Tsujii entranced the crowd. The result was a particularly intense, and enthralling set that made my night. I need to see this band again…
Next morning, as, blearily cradling our coffee, we reflected on the amazing performances we’d seen in the pit, it was clear that we’d been to a very special event. Definitely not the kind of thing anyone would forget in a hurry! However, I couldn’t help but think expanding the the Pit Party to this scale was perhaps step too far. I love the concept of the Pit and whilst this party represented a tremendous achievement for everyone involved in setting up and running the event, what the pit gained in scale and general insanity, it lost in intimacy. This may less of an issue for established bands like Heck and Bo Ningen, but for the smaller bands, the Ohmns of this world at the grass roots of music, the smaller format Pit brings a whole new dimension to their performance and helps forms indelible bonds with the crowd.
Heck, were not just spectacular in their stage performance, they were also incredibly professional and carefully thought through what they needed to deliver their show. They brought their own lights (well several heavy duty, and in theory, more or less indestructible work lamps) and used these to uplight the drums and provide a bit more light on the stage. Clearly when you’re as mobile as these guys are, not tripping over stuff is vitally important, but the real bonus to the show was that the additional light on the stage really brought the focus back to the centre of the room in a way the sweeping dance-act colour washes and techno-strobe flashes (Lampy may have had strong words about the strobes…) provided by the lighting engineer driving the moving heads simply didn’t. Heck’s extra lighting created a focal point in the centre which, when coupled with their scintillating and insanely mobile performance, made the venue feel less like an attempt to force a round peg in to a square hole and much more circular and engaging. Something much more Pit-like…
My Man-of-the-Match award does not go to Matt Reynolds from Heck, nor the awesomely courageous roadie that kept Heck wired in and playing despite their best efforts, nor even does it go to the barefoot drummer, Monchan Monna, or even the mighty Al for ensuring the night went off perfectly. No, my Man-of-the-Match is the roadie (or manager?) from the Ohmns. Not only did he courageously dive under the drum kit as the Ohmns continued playing to hold the the beater and kick-pedal cam together by hand, but he also provided backing vocals, took care of the band when they came down after the excitement their set and could be seen right at the front for Heck and Bo Ningen (and was that him in the photos, as part of the stage invasion during the Black Lips?). This gentleman personifies what loving the music is all about, and perhaps even what the Pit is really all about too. Band in the middle. No stage. Crowd 360 degrees. You’re all part of the performance.
Pit Party Number.8 – Shapes Warehouse 21/05/2016