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Jamming At The Earthday Birthday Party

iHeart Radio and WJRR 101.1 Earthday Birthday 24 Music Festival.
Saturday, April 22, 2017
Alter Bridge
                                                   Words and Photos by Barry Nadler

In the background, Sublime with Rome are playing on the main stage as they close out the night. I am chilling after a long day on Meka Nism’s RV. Jarret Robinson, their bass player, is in the back of the RV and he calls me over. He is relaxing after a long, hot day at the festival, sitting on the bed. “I was in tears earlier” he tells me. “Really? Why?” I responded.

“My dad took me to my first concert. It was Sevendust and Nonpoint. Today, I was able to bring my dad to this festival. He got to see my band open up the festival on the same stage that Nonpoint and Sevendust will later play on. We don’t always get along and he doesn’t always understand why I do what I do. But we have this set of experiences together.” I got to meet Jarrett Robinson’s father, along with their singer, Meka Kyoto’s parents at the festival, so this story resonated with me. It really summed up what this day was all about for me.

To describe the festival as a whole is simple – it rocked! The headliners were Candlebox, Nonpoint, Sevendust, Alter Bridge, and Sublime with Rome, so you know it was a good show. The interesting aspect of the day, for me, was not the music, but the various experiences around the music. There were so many intertwined stories that it is really more interesting to share all the stories and experiences.

I was at the show by special request from Bobby Keller, of Meka Nism. So, my mission was pretty clear – document their involvement with the show. I didn’t fully understand what a rollercoaster of experiences and emotions I had just signed up for.

I got my first surprise when I arrived at the show, around 9:00 AM. I was pleasantly surprised when security sent me right to the back of the festival and let me park behind the main stage. I guess it was because I told them I was shooting with Meka Nism. This was awesome! I didn’t have to carry my stuff everywhere. Once I got my credentials from the radio station, I met up with the crew from Meka Nism, at their RV, which wasn’t parked much further from where I was. That worked out well!

As I was getting my bearings, I ran into several friends that are part of the Meka Nism support team
 and several of the members of SoulSwitch. I spoke to them for a moment and we chatted about the fact that Living Color was supposed to be at the show, but there was a scheduling conflict, so they were unable to participate. To fill that spot, SoulSwitch (who was supposed to play on the Acoustic stage) was offered the opportunity to play the main stage after Meka Nism. I congratulated them on that promotion and proceeded to the stage area.

While there, I ran into Jarrett Robinson, who joked that he would just drag me up and make it alright for me to be there, so I could shoot their performance from the stage. At that point, I met the Stage Manager. He was a very cool gentleman in cowboy boots and shorts. He said he had no issue, so in my head, I got very excited! I was going to be able to shoot at least one band from the stage at the festival. With that, I went to meet up with the rest of the band and let them know of this development. I also wanted to make sure I got some good shots of everyone both in performance mode and in candid mode. So, I used this time to hang out in the empty pit and shoot the sound check. As we got closer to the show, something funny happened – I tried to talk to Bobby Keller, Meka Nism’s guitar player and my friend, about something and he just walked right past me…like I wasn’t there. Someone leaned over and said “he can’t hear a thing you are saying. He has in-ear monitors and all he hears is the techs at the soundboard.” Later, I saw them talk to each other using the microphones.

After the sound check, I went and found my way onto the stage. The crowds started to gather and for me, what was cool, was looking out from the stage and seeing various local fans I knew, along with the other photographers with whom I typically share the photo pits with. Having them see me and throw the “horns up” or wave was a simple thrill for me. I can only imagine what it means to the bands who come out to perform and have that same experience, but from thousands of people who are there specifically to see them.

Meka Nism
11:15 hits and the crowds gather. Meka Nism’s opening music plays as the band hits the stage. And I got to be RIGHT THERE. It’s one thing to be right there in a small venue – I have done that with them many times, plus been at rehearsals. But, to be on a giant stage with a large crowd and sharing this moment with my friends I have been working with for over a year now was very special for me. I later found out that it was special for them to have me there as well, which was touching. They blistered through their three fan-favorite songs: “From Out of Nowhere,” “Mouth of God,” and “The Shift.” They closed with a new song they just finished writing. At this time, only a few people had heard it, including myself. Part of what made this performance special for them was that recently, they had lost two members of the band: one of their guitarists and their long-time drummer. Losing their drummer was a big deal for them (and it was a month before this festival) and shook the band pretty hard. But, in times of darkness, there is always a bright spot. Chris Lane, a drummer from another local band, A Brilliant Lie, stepped in to fill the spot. Chris fit right in and just killed it! Everyone that was there knew it, also. Hopefully, Meka Nism is complete now and can move to the next stage of their growth as a band.

After congratulating Meka Nism on a great set, I spoke to Jimmy Kwong and Tom Huestis of SoulSwitch about if they would like me to try and shoot them from the stage, as well. They were happy to have me there also. So, again, I went to speak to the stage manager. Again, he approved me. This was going to be a good day – I just felt it.

SoulSwitch is one of Orlando’s most popular rock bands. They have been together for quite a while. They are not a stranger to festivals, so they were quite comfortable playing on a large stage like this one. They are coming off a challenging year for themselves as well. There was a period of time, in mid-2016, where it looked like Tom Huestis, their vocalist, would no longer be a part of the band. It is very hard to replace a singer, especially when their voice is as solid and unique as Tom’s is. They performed with Sevendust on New Year’s Eve, and that night I had a feeling that Tom wasn’t actually leaving the band and SoulSwitch would remain a fixture in Orlando and go on to bigger things in their career.

I had seen them practice their acoustic set about a week prior. I really like SoulSwitch in acoustic format, because they include full drums and bass in their set. But, I like “electric” SoulSwitch a whole lot more. So, I was excited to be a part of their set and shoot them both in video and photo mode, from the stage.

For me, being on stage shooting for two of my favorite bands, was absolutely one of the highlights of the day for me. I could not have been happier for the success of these two deserving groups of people.

They ripped through their hits, including some of my favorites: “Transmission Lost,” “Hang On,” and “Demon Inside.” The crowd was at least 2000 people by the time they started their set.

By the time Tom had thrown out his last CD to the crowd and Matt Larson had pointed to the sky and raised his bass as the last notes rang out, some of the best parts of my day had just happened, but there was still so much more to experience.

At this point I was pretty hot and tired already. I had just shot two bands playing for a total of almost an hour straight. I needed a break. So, I went to hang out at Meka Nism’s RV and have some water. I then went to their merchandise booth to find Meka, Bobby, Jarret, and Jay Adkisson (their keyboard player) hanging out and greeting fan after fan. They took pictures with everyone. I lovingly call Meka a “peacock.” She is unique in that she is a people magnet. She has such a positive vibe about her that it is hard not to like her. Because of her red hair and outfit, you can spot her from across a festival. And that’s what happened – she would be at the merchandise booth and people see her and recognize her. They immediately come over and want to share stories with her. They like to feed off her positive energy. And, she listens and talks to all of them – no exceptions! That’s her “tribe” and she is their shaman.

Next on the list of bands to see was a local band that has recently seen a lot of success. Dark Summer. I have been wanting to see this band for a while. They hail from Tampa, FL, which is two hours from Orlando. So, they don’t get up into town as often as we would like them to. When they do, it seems that I am either unavailable, at a different show, or I arrive after they play. It never seems to fail. Troii Peak, their lead singer, had shown up at a local show that happened not too long ago and I got a chance to speak to him about this odd occurrence.  We had a laugh, but made a personal connection.

The room they were playing in was full of tables and about 500-800 people jamming out to Dark Summer playing acoustic. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t that. I walked to the front and found several local friends I knew. I said hello and bobbed my head with a few of them a little. Then I went to find an opening in the very front to start shooting. Troii immediately saw me, pointed at me as if to say hello. That was really cool – he remembered me and recognized me from our simple connection at the past show. As they played through their fan favorites, the crowd got into it. At one point Troii had everyone throwing middle fingers to the sky. He even got rid of the guitar and stood up to perform. It was a really impressive and active acoustic set. I was happy for them.

In the audience were also members from SoulSwitch and Meka Nism. I spoke for a moment with Chris, the drummer for SoulSwitch, and learned that he had been the drummer at one time for Dark Summer and he came out to support them. I later learned that Troii was pretty happy that Chris specifically stopped by to support them. This type of support and teamwork is a special hallmark of the Orlando music scene.
After him and the band met all their fans at their merchandise booth, I went over to shake Troii’s hand. He pulled me in for the hug and thanked me for coming out. He introduced me to Zakk Summer, another member of the band, who also recognized me from the local scene. We chatted, had a laugh or two, and he even had his wife take a photo of me with the band. It was an immediate friendship that I hope will continue and last for a while.

On my way back to the RV, I happened upon the stage manager again and thought I would try my luck with him one more time. I asked if he would be alright with me shooting Nonpoint, Sevendust, and Alter Bridge from the stage, like I had already done for the two local bands. His response was an immediate “Of course!” <BLINK BLINK> Really??!! This stage manager just gave me full access to shoot the headline, national acts from the stage. I didn’t even know what to say at that point. I had just seen Nonpoint a month ago at House of Blues and I had shot Sevendust from the pit at House of Blues. Now, I was just given the rare opportunity to shoot these massive bands from the stage. I was excited and nervous at the same time. But, I had to share this news!

I headed back to the Meka Nism RV for a break and to brag a little about this amazing stroke of luck I just had.

Afterwards, I headed over to the VIP area, I again ran into the guys from SoulSwitch. We chatted a little more and I shared my stories with them. I turn around, and who comes bounding in – Kim Acoustic (of Kill the Sound) and two friends. She always seems to show up in unexpected places. We shared some stories and a few drinks. I had some shots of Tennessee Fire Whiskey. She played Rock, Paper, Scissors with Jimmy Kwong to see who would share the shot with me. Jimmy won. He snatched up the one I had already started drinking from – so I really had a shot and a half. We downed the shots and had a laugh about it.

It was in this brief encounter that I learned that Jimmy was good friends with the guys from Nonpoint. I asked him if he would introduce me. He said if he was around and they were around he would definitely do that for me.

Alter Bridge
While there, I spoke with a fellow photographer who was there shooting for Alter Bridge. It turned out they were about to show up for a Meet-and-Greet. I knew who Mark Tremonti was, from Creed and his band, Tremonti. But, I don’t think I could have pointed him out in a crowd. One of Kim’s friends was a huge fan of Myles Kennedy, the singer for Alter Bridge. Again, I was not familiar with him (I immediately knew his voice though, when I heard him sing later, during their performance). But, I had my photographer friend introduce me to them. I felt it was appropriate for me to say hello, since I was going to be onstage pointing a camera at them. They were very friendly and said it was cool and that they would see me at the show. Of course I then bragged to Kim’s friend that I had just met them – to jokingly pick on her.

What do Sevendust, Alter Bridge, and Nonpoint all have in common? They all have some connection to Orlando – either as a second home or they were a local, Florida band that played Orlando a lot at some point in their careers. That means that a lot of the local bands know these guys on a personal level. That’s what made the next set of shows really unique, in my opinion. The bands allowed various sets of friends and family to hang out in the wings of the stage to watch the show. So, not only was I sharing the stage with these bands, but with their families and many of my musician friends, as well. It was a gathering of people to support other bands – to admire and aspire to. It was really cool for me to look over and see Bobby, Meka, and Jarret at one end, while seeing Jimmy, Matt, Tom, and Chris at the other side – all their to support their friends, colleagues, and heroes. In my heart, I was hoping they were there supporting me in my unique moment as well – which I later found out that they were.

I didn’t get to meet most of Nonpoint before I shot them, but I did get to meet their drummer and introduce myself.

As I was walking off the stage, after Nonpoint's set, I ran into the drummer for Sevendust, Morgan Rose. I introduced myself to him and shook his hand. I wished him a good show. Bobby Keller speaking with LaJohn Witherspoon, the singer for Sevendust. I went over and waited for a break in the conversation. I immediately stuck my hand out and introduced myself. I told him that I was going to be on stage shooting them. I also shared that I had shot them at the House of Blues on New Year’s Eve. I then shared my connections with Meka Nism and SoulSwitch. He looked at me and I will never forget what he said – “Barry Nadler, yes, I know your work. I have seen your shots! You do good work.” He then introduced me to his wife and I shook her hand. I wished him a good show and told him I would see him up on the stage. I stood shocked for a moment. I had just had a member of a national act tell me he knew my work and was impressed with it. It is one thing to speak to locals and have them like your work. It’s another thing to have other pro photographers look at your work and praise you. I have had the honor of experiencing both. It is a whole different experience when a national act whom you really didn’t have a previous connection with tell you they like your work without any real prompting. I didn’t know what to do next, so I just went up and photographed Sevendust, like I was there to do. And, in the process, I earned a drumstick, by accident, from their drummer.

LaJohn and the band are very family-oriented, from what I can tell. He introduced me to his wife, which I didn’t expect. When I spoke to another of the band members, I asked if I could show him my photos later in the evening and he said he would like to, but he honestly just wanted to be with his family, which I respected. When LaJohn was on stage, his wife and son were there as well. His son had large headphones on and would keep trying to run out to the stage to see his dad. LaJohn would go back between songs and have a moment with his child. Eventually LaJohn scooped him up and brought him up for the crowd to share the moment with him. You could see that he was a proud parent.

The other thing I noticed was that the drums shook the stage A LOT! Much more noticeable than any of the other bands. I love it when drums play and you feel it in your chest as they thump. This time, I got to feel the stage shake as well; it was a very visceral experience.

As I left the stage, I ran into Bobby Keller again. I showed him the drumstick I had snatched up. He took it and examined it. “It has blood on it too! Nice!” That’s when I really knew I had something unique in my hands.

I saw Jimmy Kwong speaking with the guitarist from Nonpoint, so I took advantage of the opportunity. I walked over and Jimmy introduced me, as he said he would. I spoke to B.C. Kochmit for a moment and let him know I was a recent fan. I thanked him for letting me shoot on the stage with them. He was cool, but I could tell he was distracted. He shook my hand and he and Jimmy headed out towards the front of the stage.

I needed to shoot one more band – Alter Bridge. This time, I shoot their first three songs from the pit, and then went back to the stage. To be fair, I was a little concerned that I was going to magically lose that privilege because of a change in backstage security, so I was a little nervous.

As Alter Bridge hit the stage, and Myles Kennedy started singing, I had a moment of immediate recognition.  I knew his voice as the singer from Slash’s band. I even have one of their songs in my music collection. I didn’t realize how many people this man had worked with in various capacities. He worked with Velvet Revolver, Slash, former members of Led Zeppelin, as well as in the movie Rock Star. Alter bridge is also made up of three previous members of Creed. I was literally sharing the stage with giants in the industry.

Troii Peak’s wife and I got to have a cool moment together on stage during Alter Bridge’s show. She got to fulfill a dream for herself in that she got to shoot Alter Bridge for herself. “They make me want to cry” she said to me as she was crouched down by the side stage amps.

Even after all of this, there was still more surprises left in the evening.

About three quarters of the way through Alter Bridge’s set, I was standing by the back of the stage. Two photographer friends were on one side and Meka and Bobby were to my other side. Meka looked over and noticed a security guard running to the VIP area. She then pointed over the VIP area and said “FIRE!” Well, you don’t just say that randomly, especially at a concert. There appeared to be a giant brush fire just past the VIP area. There were supposed to be fireworks and one more band still to play. I was concerned that the fire had to do with the fireworks and there would eventually be a gigantic explosion – thankfully that never happened. It turned out to be the WJRR 101.1 Production trailer that went up in flames.

We could see it and knew it was happening. However, there was a large crowd of several thousand people that had no idea this was happening behind the stage. I am not even sure the members of Alter Bridge were aware, until after the show. As I came down from the stage, ready to run like hell, I ran into some photographer friends and told them about it. From the ground you couldn’t really see it, so they were surprised when I showed them what was up.

I went back to the Meka Nism RV to see what was going on and essentially the fire had been put out and the scare was over. But, after Alter Bridge completed their set, everyone was hanging around back stage waiting to see what was going on. This is when my last several cool moments of the evening came.

I happened to see John Connolly, guitarist of Sevendust, hanging around. I walked over and said hello. We chatted for a moment about the fire and I learned that it was right next to their RV. As we chatted, I shared that I was essentially a new fan that was actually an older fan and didn’t know it. I told him that I shot them at House of Blues over New Year’s Eve and realized I knew a lot of their material, but didn’t know it was them. He got a laugh from that. I told him I was an older 80’s rock guy. He spread his arms as if to say “have you seen me?” He said he was a huge fan of that stuff. I told him I bailed when I heard Nirvana. He chuckled and said “Tell me about it! I was just starting Sevendust and I heard that famous guitar riff. I knew at that moment I needed a plan B for Sevendust.” We laughed about that and I asked him if he was too distracted with the fire situation or would he mind if I shared some of my shots with him. He let me show them to him and he complemented me on them. He asked me to connect with him on Facebook and share my shots directly with him. As I shared a little of my day’s experience with him, he also shared with me that he helped SoulSwitch produce their last album. I shook his hand and said I would be in touch.
I walked over to the Meka Nism RV for one last breather before the night was over. I again ran into Jarret Robinson relaxing in the van. That’s when he told me the story I shared at the beginning. After we left the RV, he reached out to give me a hug. He called me brother and thanked me for being there and doing everything I do for his band and all the other local bands. I thanked him and hugged him back. I walked over to where Bobby Keller was to say goodbye. I could tell he was spent from the day. But, he also grabbed me and gave me a big bear hug like he does and said “I love you man! Thanks for being a part of this special day with us. It means a lot.” I thanked him, shook his hand and headed to my car exhausted.

It wasn’t really until the next day that I really started processing how special Earthday Birthday had been, in so many ways. Yes, it was a festival. Yes, there were some top-shelf artists performing (and I didn’t even see all of them). Yes, I got to do things that I didn’t think were going to happen. But, when I think back on the show. It was the moments between the music – the moments with the artists, my friends, the compliments, and making some new friends - which I will remember. I also got to see some photographer friends shoot a large festival for the first time. The individual moments are why Jarret was emotional as he told me his story about his father that I shared at the beginning of this article.

What I took away from all of this is that for most people, this would have been a day full of “once in a lifetime” experiences. However, for me, along with the success of my friends and colleagues, we will share these experiences over and over in the future. That’s what makes me happy about what happened for all of us at Earthday Birthday 24.

iHeart Radio and WJRR 101.1 Earthday Birthday: http://wjrr.iheart.com/features/wjrrs-earthday-birthday-24april-22nd-2017-2832/

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