Shooting the stars: Inside the life of a concert tour photographer

By Nicole Moorefield

Catherine Powell first picked up a camera when she was 4 years old at Disney World — or, at least, that’s how her mother tells it.

“That feels dramatic,” Powell says.

In Powell’s version, the story takes place in fifth grade at photography club. Regardless, she began shooting concerts at 14. Her first photo pass was for All Time Low and The Maine at Starland Ballroom in New Jersey.

More than a decade of determination later, the 27-year-old has a successful career as a tour photographer for artists like Dan + Shay and Kacey Musgraves. She shot All Time Low and The Maine on a bill together again in August — very full-circle.

She gets to live the life she once dreamed of — traveling the world, rubbing elbows with celebrities. But it’s not as glamorous as she might have imagined growing up.

An only child, Powell grew up in a sports-loving town in New Jersey that celebrated lacrosse as a holiday. However, athletics weren’t her strong suit — her father flat-out told her she wouldn’t make the softball team — so she found photography.

Amanda Schechter, Powell’s friend since they were 4 years old, likens a young Powell to Kimmy Gibbler, the overly enthusiastic neighbor from “Full House” who became an honorary member of the Tanner clan — “but in a good way,” Schechter says.

“She was always just barging into my house,” Schechter says.

She describes Powell as outgoing, determined and “kind of a tomboy” as a kid.

“She’s really confident, but she wasn’t always,” Schechter says . She grew through life experiences.

Flight after flight, shoot after shoot

Powell was only ever interested in shooting the entertainment world. Avid fans of the Warped Tour, Powell and her friend Ariella Mastroianni were frustrated that magazines weren’t covering their favorite artists, so they decided to start their own. In 2011, NKD Magazine was born.

NKD ran for 100 issues, with cover stars ranging from Kelsea Ballerini to The Madden Brothers. It grew from covering musicians to also featuring actors. 

Powell says deciding to end the magazine was the most difficult decision she has ever made.

“I started thinking about it two years before I actually did it,” she says. “There was no actual profit and I was putting literally every hour I was awake into it.”

By then, she was juggling too much. Powell was the only photographer for every issue. She oversaw a small team of writers herself — Mastroianni left in 2013.

It was a small miracle she graduated college — four years at the School of Visual Arts that she hated, except for the opportunity to move to New York City.

Her professors didn’t consider her work true art. Balancing shoots for the magazine with classes was difficult. For most of her final semester, she was on tour.

Her school had a strict absence policy — three missed classes per course — and Powell managed to meet that. But one professor had a limit of two absences.

“I had to petition my dean to let me graduate,” she says. “Yes, I missed three of his classes, but I also had the highest grade in the class with a 97.”

She fit photoshoots around tour schedules, touring with MAX and MKTO. Some weeks included three 5 a.m. flights. The lifestyle was exhausting, but she pushed on, undaunted.

Her ‘Golden Hour’ 

Enter Kacey Musgraves. Powell was shooting a festival in London that Musgraves headlined. She offered Musgraves’ team her services. They had an opening, and the rest fell into place.

This was three weeks before the release of “Golden Hour,” Musgraves’ fourth studio album that would go on to win Album of the Year at the 2019 Grammys. 

Suddenly, Powell was caught up in a whirlwind. She followed Musgraves on tour with Harry Styles and then shot Musgraves’ “Oh, What a World” tour.

The Grammy win was an exponential change.

“I think she shot up like half a million (Instagram followers) overnight after the Grammys or something absurd like that,” she says.

Powell got her first photos in Rolling Stone — first a small picture and then, a month later, a two-page spread of Musgraves backstage with drag queens.

Paying New York rent to rarely see her apartment finally became too much, so Powell moved to Nashville, where she lives today.

That was in 2019. She published NKD’s last issue four months later.

‘Star-Crossed’

Now Powell could finally focus on her career.

Then COVID-19 struck.

The entertainment industry lurched to a halt, leaving her with few job prospects. It had all the makings to be the worst time of her life.

Instead, she found her life partner.

Powell met William Stone at a 2020 New Year’s party.

“After our first date, he never slept at his own apartment again,” Powell says. 

Six weeks later, his things and his cat, Ellie, moved in.

Dating through a pandemic means Stone knows a lot more about Powell than most relationships of the same length.

“The joke our friends always make is that our relationship is in dog years,” Stone says, because they covered years in the first six months.

“She is amazingly concise, professional, knows everyone, everyone loves her, good at everything she tries to do,” Stone says. “Except maybe hanging shelves.”

Now that the pandemic is nearing its final chapter, things look bright for Powell. In fact, with the release of Musgraves’ newest album, one could say things look “Star-Crossed.”

Stone says that, when they met, Powell had just finished touring with Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves, Dan + Shay, and Miranda Lambert.

“It’s like, ‘How do you go up from there?’ And she’s somehow found a way,” he says.

‘Just pushing buttons’

But Powell wants to highlight that life in the entertainment industry is not all that it seems from the outside.

“I think a lot of people assume, ‘Oh, you work for someone who is rich, so you must be rich,’” she says. “‘No, man, I am living very firmly in the middle class right now.’”

Some people assume her work is too expensive and unattainable; others think she can cut them a discount.

“I’m not doing well enough for you to not pay me,” she says.

Despite that, she loves her life, and wants to be remembered for “not being an a******.”

“The tombstone could read, ‘Good at what she did and wasn’t rude,’” she says.

Stone wants to emphasize how “universally loved” Powell is.

“It’s amazing that she has managed to be a creative and be the force that she is without being a narcissist,” he says.

Spencer Jordan, one of her Nashville friends, says it took three months of friendship before he found out what Powell does for a living. 

He compliments her on that humility, saying that “she never throws it in anybody’s face” when she does bring up the names she works with.

As for her photography, Powell says it’s just pushing buttons.

It’s her passion, and it’s her livelihood. But it’s not her whole life. She’s an avid Marvel fan, always buying her friends tickets, and a surprisingly good cook, though she’s allergic to bananas.

But it’s not by luck that Powell is at the top of her field — she worked hard to get here, and she’s not stopping now.

Edited by Mary King and Montia Daniels 

Polyamory, LSD and red peppers: Shakori Hills Festival returns

By Ellie Heffernan

A priest, a reiki instructor and an old white man performing “a love song to mushrooms” all walk into a field.

This isn’t the opening line to a joke. It’s a non-exhaustive list of people you might encounter at the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance.

The four-day festival is typically held twice a year in Pittsboro, North Carolina, to raise money for the Shakori Hills Community Arts Center. Up to 9,000 festivalgoers gather to dance and attend sustainability workshops. And to do a bunch of drugs.

Barefoot children traipse around, avoiding rocks as their feet strike the ground. A smattering of multicolored tents, hammocks, tarps and tapestries stand wedged in between countless trees. A teenage boy munches on a raw red bell pepper. He swears this snack enhances LSD hallucinations and prevents bad trips.

By far the loudest of the festivalgoers are the throngs of sweaty, semi-clothed young people. They rub against each other, eyes half-closed, hollering as guitarists rip godly solos from their instruments. The crowds don’t care that it’s pouring rain, as long as the lead singer maintains so much energy that his bare feet bounce hard enough to shake the stage.

Building community

But not every corner of the festival is this noisy. The old man — the one who was previously singing an ode to mushrooms — is now performing a twangy bluegrass tune. Two people by a snack shack sway to the rhythm, seeming mellower than the festivalgoers moshing in front of the guitars.

Trow and Lanelle Ward are a married couple volunteering at the festival in exchange for free tickets. Trow is a military pilot, and Lanelle works at a sushi restaurant. At first glance, their lives seem relatively orthodox.

Lanelle maintains three relationships outside of her marriage. Trow also has multiple partners.

Trow and Lanelle are polyamorous.

Polyamory is a broad term that refers to people engaging in multiple romantic, physical and/or sexual relationships at once. Different people might maintain considerably different numbers of relationships. Polyamorous relationships also vary along a spectrum ranging from purely romantic to purely sexual: Two of Lanelle’s outside relationships are physical, and one is romantic.

A short conversation with the Wards supports the idea that everyone is leading a more exciting life than you’d assume. The couple discuss the power of making decisions by prioritizing your own happiness over society’s expectations. They emphasize the importance of building community — perhaps referring to the practice of polyamory.

‘I want you’

The Wards met in college through a dance competition club for students at the United States Air Force Academy. Trow joined the club to “meet ladies” at the majority-male institution. Luckily for him, his future wife joined, as her college didn’t have a dance competition team.

Lanelle was dating someone at the time, but she says Trow made quite an impression.

“He had this stare that was like, ‘I want you, but I don’t know how to tell you I want you,’” Lanelle says.

It’s clear that Lanelle and Trow have an easygoing give-and-take. When customers come to the snack shack and interrupt the couple’s dancing, Trow attends to business without grumbling. Lanelle handles the easier job of answering questions. When the line grows much longer, they scramble together, laughing as they feverishly scoop strawberry lemonade into cups.

Lanelle has barista experience, so she easily prepares coffee, chai and kombucha. But she doesn’t have anything with kratom in it, much to the dismay of one old man.

Lanelle says Trow is better at being friendly, while she tends to be more assertive and straight-to-the-point. Regardless, it’s clear she wants to go the extra mile for people, treating them to random acts of kindness. For example, she does her best to give away fancy drinks for free. Nobody told her she had to charge for cinnamon sticks, so she ensures every customer knows about her free cinnamon water.

An excuse to cheat?

Being isolated from others during the pandemic was difficult for the couple. Even after college, dancing is still an integral part of their life. Canceled festivals meant no live music, no group dancing and an immense loss of community. It’s been two years since the last Shakori Hills Festival. Trow was also deployed for much of the pandemic.

Lanelle says having multiple relationships with people other than Trow helped her stay afloat during this time. When asked to elaborate, she bristles a smidge, her tone becoming slightly defensive. It’s as if she’s used to being judged or misunderstood when sharing this part of her life.

People unfamiliar with polyamory often assume it’s a thinly veiled form of cheating. They also accuse polyamorous individuals of not truly loving their primary partners. If they did, wouldn’t one person be enough?

Lanelle says polyamory is distinct from cheating, since everyone involved agrees to participate in a relationship with some degree of non-monogamy. Trow uses familial relationships as a metaphor to explain how he can easily love more than one person. If you ask parents which kid they love more, they typically say they love them both. It’s the same for people with multiple partners, Trow says.

Polyamorous couples are often harshly judged by the monogamous. But Lanelle says people who refuse to venture beyond monogamy are missing out: They’re losing the ability to learn better communication skills. She says people in relationships are used to cheating and not talking about it, while people in polyamorous relationships are used to talking about complicated feelings — and not cheating.

Free love

Trow and Lanelle embrace freedom through their relationships and beyond. It’s apparent from their bare feet, Trow’s kilt and the fact that they spend most weekends flying their own plane to other states, including Florida and Colorado. You never would have guessed this is how they spend their time if you had just asked for some kratom and left.

This realization begs you to pay closer attention to as many faces as possible, although you know you’ll never have enough time to hear 9,000 life stories. Still, you reconsider the entire crowd of drunken, moshing, laughing fist-pumpers. They might not all be polyamorous jet-setters, but they likely share a good deal in common with the Wards: They are forming community and charting their own paths.

Shakori Hills festivalgoers are kind enough to offer you a seat at their campfire. They’re thoughtful enough to persistently suggest that you put up your tarp before it starts raining. And when the downpour inevitably begins, they dance with abandon, each body flailing to its own beat. Each body part of the same crowd.

These are the kind of people that return from a two-year hiatus ready to party.

Edited by Mary King

‘An adrenaline rush like no other’: Marching Tar Heels return

By Lindsey Banks

 

“Three, four…”

 

Joe Figliolo takes a deep breath. He raises one hand in the air as he pats his chest with the other, setting the tempo for the musicians standing in front of him. For a few seconds, all goes blank in his mind.

 

Then both arms go up. The fanfare begins.

 

Just a few minutes earlier, the Marching Tar Heels ran down the steps of a full Kenan Stadium for the first time in over a year. The COVID-19 pandemic had pressed pause on live band performances during sporting events. For many students in the stands, this is the first UNC football game they’ve attended during college: COVID-19 restrictions kept the stadium at limited capacity during the 2020 season. 

 

This is Joe’s first performance as drum major, and it’s the last UNC football home opener of his undergraduate years. 

 

“It’s an adrenaline rush like no other,” Joe said. “It’s been such a long time, so the crowd was excited to see us.”

 

The Marching Tar Heels are the soundtrack of the game – a soundtrack powered by an exchange of energy. The roaring fans feed energy to the band; the band launches its own energy into the crowd. 

 

“It’s why the band is behind the student section and not in front of them,” Joe said. “Because the band is there to create that energy for the crowd that recorded music can’t.”

 

The energy reaches the football players, who put on a dance performance in front of the student section before kickoff. This year, the band learned a song especially for the football team: “Halftime (Stand Up & Get Crunk!)” by the Ying Yang Twins. Band director Jeffrey Fuchs had heard that the team listens to it in the locker room as they prepare for games.

 

Down on the field, the band assembles for the pregame show. It’s the same show every game, and senior tuba player Jennings Dixon knows it by heart. The sun is low in the sky, but it still draws out a bead of sweat on his forehead. He waits for the signal.

 

Two thumps on his chest. Joe cues the band for “Hark the Sound.”

 

Jennings brings his tuba to his mouth and blows, moving the bell from right to left in time with the beat. The alma mater melts into his favorite song, “Here Comes Carolina,” then into “Carolina Fight Song.”

 

Fireworks erupt. The football team charges onto the field and exchanges high-fives. The crowd shakes the stands. The Marching Tar Heels play on.

 

The performance ends with the national anthem, and the musicians return to the stands, relieved. The season’s first pregame show was a success.

 

The hours of practice may go unnoticed by the crowd, but the band feels them in every deep breath and sore muscle. Game day begins long before 7:30 p.m. The band starts with an open practice at 3 p.m, and it plays for the team arrival at 5 p.m. Then it moves to the Pit, then to Wilson Library, then finally down Stadium Drive to Kenan Stadium. It’s an all-day performance.

 

Kickoff marks the official start of the game, and the band takes on the duty of meeting every Tar Heel success with the appropriate song. Joe assumes his position in front of the band for the first quarter of the game. He keeps tempo with his arms and cues songs with practiced gestures.

 

A hand under his chin. One finger in the air. Two thumps on his chest.

 

The band watches and reacts.

 

Three other drum majors rotate in between quarters, so Joe gets a break before the halftime show. He stands next to the band section with a headset, communicating with his director up in the press box. Each band member has an app called FlipFolder on their phone that automatically displays the sheet music.

 

Between songs, Jennings pauses and looks around. He can feel the energy vibrating through his chest as the crowd shakes the stands. He can see it as the fans wave their hands in the air and jump. He can even smell it: a combination of AstroTurf, giant pretzels and sweat. It all comes together and creates something tangible: Some might mistake it as humidity, but Jennings calls it magic.

 

“It’s not football unless there’s a marching band,” Jennings said.

 

At halftime, the band sets up on the field. Joe takes his position in front of the group and climbs up the ladder. He waits for his director’s cue. 

 

“We’ve got a treat for you,” Director Fuchs announces to the stadium. “From Lil Nas X’s new album ‘Montero’ that just dropped yesterday, here is our version of ‘Industry Baby.’”

 

Diana Godoy, a senior in the student section, recognizes the song from the first three notes. She smiles and looks to her friend, fellow senior Kayla Ausbrooks, who sits next to her. They both pull out their phones to record the moment. It’s their last season opener in the student section.

 

The band dances along, singing the words with their instruments. They have their own language, and for those few minutes, they don’t need a translator. Everyone in the stadium understands. 

 

Joe keeps the tempo with his arms. Jennings stands in the back, swinging his tuba left to right. Diana dances in the stands, singing along. Kayla shares the video with her friends on Snapchat. 

 

A round of applause.

 

The band returns to the stands for the final time that night and sends sounds of encouragement to the field from above. “Hark the Sound” marks another Carolina victory, and the band is joined by thousands of voices singing Carolina’s praises, shouting N.C.U.

 

The crowd disperses, but the excitement lingers for a little longer. Diana and Kayla hang back to listen to the band play everyone out of the stadium. With the band’s rendition of “Carolina in My Mind” by James Taylor, it hits the two seniors that their days in the student section are numbered. 

 

The song ends with another round of applause from the fans who stayed behind. Joe and Jennings unknowingly share a sigh of relief. It’s an emotional experience, knowing every performance this semester brings them closer to their last as Marching Tar Heels. But they’re both hopeful it’s going to be a long season.

 

“The better the team does, the more opportunities we’ll have to play and perform,” Jennings said.

 

The band will provide the soundtrack for the rest of the season. And if the team makes it to the ACC Championship – the sort of game you’d find in an epic sports movie – the Marching Tar Heels will play the score.

 

After all, what is a successful football team without its marching band?

 

Edited by Mary King