Photographer/musician Vernon Webb talks about Funky Meters, Deads, Allman Bros and Van Morrison

"The whole music scene has changed, where once it used to feel very family oriented when you went to shows, you had a lot of respect for each other and that seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur."

Vernon Webb: Lights, Lenses & Angels

Vernon Webb from New Jersey, USA is a parent, concert photographer, owner of a computer consulting business, and musician. His love of photography began in 1977 at the age of 13 where he joined the photograph club in Junior High School. His first concert photo was in 1984 at the San Francisco Civic Center of The Grateful Dead. Carrying a 110 film camera he took his first concert photos and that is where the passion began. The years that followed were filled with experimenting…the lights, the angles, the cameras, the lenses…saturating every show and venue possible to work his craft.

"I can’t even image my life without music. Today I also sing, write music, and am working on getting my own thing together."

Vernon has captured thousands of concerts, festivals and artist promo shots including The Grateful Dead, Hot Tuna, Pearl Jam, Outlaws, Blues Traveler, Elvis Costello, Allman Brothers, Foghat, Doobie Brothers, The Black Crowes, Joe Walsh, Jane’s Addiction, Furthur, Marshall Tucker, and many more. He now shoots for several publications and on any given night can be found in a photo pit somewhere in New York and beyond. Also a singer/songwriter with over 20 years of writing, Vernon’s own solo, acoustic performances, as well as sitting in with multiple bands, offers a mix of passionate original materials and covers in a unique blend of songs.

Interview by Michael Limnios

All photos credits & copyrights © courtesy of Vernon Webb

When was your first desire to become involved in the art of photography?

When I was in 7th grade my father had pushed me to join a club in school. I didn’t really care about many of the “student body” clubs nor the chess clubs. I was already in all the bands that you could be is so I decided to join the camera club. The professor who ran the class also owned a camera shop in town and he would encourage us to come but. I can recall countless hours of hanging there and dreaming about the day I would have my own “real camera.” We didn’t have a lot of money so getting a real camera was not something that was going to happen. A number of years later, in December of 1984 I went to California (I lived in New Jersey at the time) to see The Grateful Dead and I brought on a throw away 110 instamatic camera. The place was so small and Jerry Garcia was so close I could almost touch him. I got my very first shot that I was proud of. I went home and bought a 35 mm Minolta film camera and a set of lens. After that I caught every show I could catch and always brought my camera and so long as they let me bring my camera in I did. Most of my stuff was beyond horrible but each time I went out I got a little better.

What characterize Vernon’s philosophy? How important was the music in your life?

Music has always been in the route of everything I’ve ever done. I played the flute in elementary school, junior high school and high school until I dropped out of school. I always got the lead parts and was in all the special bands. Playing flute I idolized people like Jethro Tull and The Marshal Tucker Band.  I grew up listening to all kinds of music since my parents were hippies I naturally listened to many of the bands that came out of the 60s. I felt I needed to listen to my own music as all children do and started listening to Kiss; that was around 1975 I was 12 years old. But very shortly after was influenced by friends to listen to music like The Doors, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers & The Grateful Dead. Music has always and shall always color everything in my life. I can’t even image my life without music. Today I also sing, write music, and am working on getting my own thing together. Anyone interested should feel free to visit my Facebook page.

What are some of the most memorable shoots and how does the music come out of your lens?

One of the more memorable shoots for me was shooting the Spin Doctors while they recorded their video. There were times when they were just hanging around and relaxing, not posing for the camera, those are the times I like shooting, I hate posed shoots, they just come across as fake to me. There we a few times outside when they were all just standing there, looking off into the distance. Get shot for me. As a musician myself I feel the music and can anticipate moments. It’s not about just getting out there and clicking away, it’s about capturing a moment that tells you what the performer is about in that moment. I’m always looking for that epic shoot. One such shot was at Gathering of the Vibes in 2011 were Dave Navarro looks down at me and next thing you know he’s coming right at with his guitar and kneels down. Capturing moments like that is what it’s all about to me.

Are there any memories from Jerry Garcia and Grateful Dead which you’d like to share?

Memories that I’d like to share? I’d like to share them all, some of my favorite bands right there and what’s funny is they are the bands that I’ve taken the most photos of. But how do I do that? The Grateful Dead were my all-time favorite band. I learned to shoot following those guys. I saw over 250 shows. I’ve meet many of them but the one that stands out the most was when I meet Jerry Garcia. I shoot the show at Madison Square Garden and afterwards was invited to a special after party were I got to meet nearly all the guys in the band. It wasn’t like that awesome meeting I would have liked to have had, you know were Jerry and I sat around and shoot the shit, but rather a long line to get an autograph. I remember waiting and thinking, “what the hell am I’m going to say to him?” I get up there and the only think I could think to say was awesome show man. Jerry looks up at me puts his hand out for me to shake and says, “Thanks man.” May not seem like much, but I’d meet my idol there. Was awesome to me.

"Music has always been in the route of everything I’ve ever done." (Jerry Garcia / Photo © by Vernon Webb)

Who from the musicians you have shoot were the most difficult and easier front of camera lens?

For me getting the shot is getting a moment, something that really is classic whoever I’m shooting and well shooting bands like The Grateful Dead are tough because they don’t do much, you’ve got to time your shots, wait for that right moment, that second when Jerry Garcia’s about to feel that song, that “Stella Blue” moment (for anyone not familiar with that tune or Jerry doing it, it’s the moment when Jerry really belts it out, if he was in a good space.) Then you have to pray for the right lighting which wasn’t always so easy with The Dead, especially back in the days of film and the highest ISO you had was 800, not like today’s camera’s that go up to 128K and you have an unlimited amount of shots you can take. Even now there are those bands that really don’t dig the lights, like The New Riders of the Purple Sage, they always ask for the lights to be low, but since I’m friends with them all they don’t care if I use a flash, but I hate using flash, makes the photos so un-rock-n-roll if you will. One of the easiest to shoot again was Jane’s Addiction, so much going on, so much good content and to be honest I’m not even all that familiar with their work. Another for me is The Allman Brothers, probably my favorite band to shoot today.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Funky Meters, Fabulous T- birds and John Mayall?

I can’t honestly say I have vivid memories about John Mayall or the Fabulous Thunderbirds, except that the T-birds show, as I recall was awesome and the lights were fantastic. When you are out there shooting often times it’s not about the music, sure you have to feel it, but man you have to think. What are the lights like? How can I get some color in the shot? Where do I move to get the best angle? What setting do I need to make this shot work? The lights that night were fabulous, no pun intended. Now the Funky Meters, well what can one say? Art "Poppa Funk" Neville (of another one of my all-time favorite bands The Neville Brothers) and master of funk bass guitar Mr. George Porter Jr, you simply can’t go wrong there. I just love shooting Porter as he so loves what’s he’s doing and it comes across in his music and his expressions.

"Many of the kids today are going to get massively high and aren’t even there for the music." (New Riders of the Purple Sage / Photo © by Vernon Webb)

How would you describe your contact with the musicians, when you are “on the project”?

I am a very hands off kind of photographer and pretty much don’t go around them that much unless I am invited. Or unless I am there to do a photo shoot with the band. Backstage is really not my scene to be honest unless it is with friends. The New Riders are my friends and I hang out with them often. I love talking to Buddy Cage and David Nelson and the stories they tell. Maybe someday I’ll write a book.

What is the strangest desire that someone have request in the shooting?

Not sure I have any real good stories for this except for shooting this really hot DJ woman in New York City, but I wouldn’t call that strange…

Which memories from Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker Band makes you smile?

All of these bands, most especially The Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker are both bands I grew up loving when I was a child so to able to shoot them at all is an absolute pleasure for me. However the Marshal Tucker Band always treats me like royalty, especially Doug Gray who goes out of his way to make a comment on a phot that he likes or even a music piece I’ve posted. I remember the first time I shot them was at B.B. Kings Blues Club in New York City and when I got there I was ushered backstage and got to meet the band, a true honor for me since I’ve been such a huge fan of their music and might I say inspired by.

"I am a very hands off kind of photographer and pretty much don’t go around them that much unless I am invited. Or unless I am there to do a photo shoot with the band." (Marshal Tucker Band / Photo © by Vernon Webb)

What do you miss most nowadays from the old days of music? What are your hopes and fears for the future?

The whole music scene has changed, where once it used to feel very family oriented when you went to shows, you had a lot of respect for each other and that seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur. Going to festivals is a lot like that these days, except for the respect and of course it really does matter which ones you go to. Many of the kids today are going to get massively high and aren’t even there for the music. I recall being at a festival and these people had brought a couch and when I had asked why they had said it was for going into a K-hole. I just don’t get that, I mean first and foremost it has always been about the music for me. And well maybe, at 51, I don’t get it anymore. I’m just an old cat who don’t get these young whippersnappers! LOL

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

Last year I interviewed Steve Kimock and shortly thereafter got to spend a few minutes with Bernie Worrell. I point blank asked him when/if he would ever consider playing the George Clinton and P-Funk ever again, and well let’s just say at the time, it was the wrong question to ask as apparently things were left in a not so good state. A few months later one of Bernie’s band members asks me to come out and shoot the Bernie Worrell Orchestra, who was opening up, for none other than George Clinton and P-Funk. During Bernie’s set George came out and did a number with him and there was a moment on stage where the 2 embraced each other and you could tell at that time that this two were very good friends who haven’t meet like that in quite some time. For me that was a magic moment, even better that I got photos of it.

Which incident of the history of Rock n’ Blues you‘d like to be captured and shoot with your camera?

I am a huge fan of Van Morrison, probably seen him as many, if not more times than the Grateful Dead and well, being a Deadhead that says a lot. However I have not had the pleasure of being able to shoot Van live, not in an official capacity. That would really make my day. But if we are talking about going back in time and shooting a major event it, of course, would have to have been Woodstock.

"Music has always and shall always color everything in my life."

What from your memorabilia (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

One of the reasons I take photos is because they are indeed time capsules that capture moments in time never to be visited upon ever again. Furthermore I put them out for all to see as I believe in music and I believe in most of the bands I shoot and think people should be able to see them. I have immortalized both them and me for all eternity. When the band is all packed and gone, what remains are my photos.

Vernon Webb - official website

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