Bruce Kessler's RockinHouston.com is quite simply the best collection of Houston's rock and roll concert past, period. Kessler, a former Pace Concerts house photographer, has amassed a database of every show that he and others shot in Houston from 1965 up until 2005.
The works of the late Larry Lent and James Townshend are also sprinkled throughout the site. Townshend, who passed away around 1990, shot Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, no big deal. Lent passed away in 2000, and after he died, it was Kessler who went about bringing the departed photogs' body of work to light.
Kessler stopped shooting shows in 2005, but you can view his pictures all the way up to 1983 while he continues digitizing the rest of his archive. Right now he's working on 1984, including some killer Jackson reunion tour shots from the Astrodome. He has a long way to go until 2005, but it's a labor of love. Kessler wants the site to be a reference source for Houston rock fans and their kindred all over the world.
Kessler's mini-bio on the site reads like a Hollywood movie: Young, in love with rock and roll, and ballsy to boot. These days he's a lawyer in Downtown Houston.
Bruce learned all about access. Having never heard of a backstage pass - let alone a photo pass -- Bruce quickly learned from Larry how to gain better access to the front of the stage by impressing concert promoters or road managers with his photo portfolio.
The site is a wondrous time-suck, with thousands of images of some of the greatest rock shows to come to Houston, at venues that have been long since torn down for the sake of progress. Of course Numbers and Fitzgerald's are still standing.
Did you know that Stevie Ray Vaughan played on the same stage that your local favorites play on every weekend?
For a rock writer in Houston, my brain aches at the idea of having been able to cover some of these gigs. Iggy Pop at the Cullen Auditorium. U2 at Cardi's. T. Rex at the Houston Music Hall. The Clash at the Hofheinz Pavilion. Bruce Springsteen at Liberty Hall. The Doors at the Sam Houston Coliseum.
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Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Carlos Santana, Stephen Stills, Ringo Starr, and Isaac Hayes all at the Astrodome for Dylan's "Night of the Hurricane" benefit concert in 1976? Man, Rocks Off would have needed three photogs and two writers there. And the tweets would have been flying furiously.
And the photographic documents these guys kept are top-notch. Backstage happenings, scans of the tickets, the press badges, the record-store appearances, all in beautiful, colorful scans. Kessler also hints at also a lot of debauchery behind these shots.
Check out the shots of the afterparty that Keith Moon attended in 1975 after the first rock concert at the Summit. Ahem.
Plus, the site is easy to use and navigate. Obviously you cannot right-click and save these shots, and Kessler says that he is not intending on selling prints of these. I could see signing over my power of attorney for a glossy, matted, ZZ Top print from 1971, 1976 or 1983.
Kessler's body of work is utterly jaw-dropping, but in his opinion, what's best thing he ever shot?
"There isn't one," he swears. "Just when I thought it couldn't get any cooler, it did. When you have told Elton John how to pose for a backstage shot, or shot Jimmy Page and Robert Plant onstage together, you cannot pick one thing."
He's right. Poring over his work cost me a good half a day of productivity here at the office. I cannot pick one singular shot myself, and I wasn't even born when these concerts happened.
"Being in the pit, literally three-feet away from Paul McCartney playing 'Yesterday' on acoustic guitar. I was still somehow disappointed I didn't get him wearing the cowboy hat and playing electric," Kessler laughs, talking about a magic Texas moment he missed earlier in that Wings set in the '70s.
Kessler also dealt with plenty of odd rules for prima dona artists in the '80s. For instance, George Michael could only be shot before he touched the microphone. After that, no more photos.
Back then, photogs had much greater access than they do now. (Rocks Off photogs, you can begin salivating now.)
"We shot the whole show," says Kessler. "You were there for the whole show, and somewhere in the late '70s and early '80s it became three songs with no flash."
Any fan could bring in their own camera -- that's how Kessler began -- no matter the quality of the equipment at that time. Given their caliber and trustworthiness, photogs like Kessler and his mates were given backstage access.
Besides the photos and passes, Kessler has plenty of memorabilia that is now just sitting in storage. He talks of one day showing those off, but there is also a trove of pictures of him with the artists he shot that he prefers to keep to himself.
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Look for Kessler and his work a lot more here on Rocks Off.