Michael Emanuele’s concert images have brought him to center stage.
by J. Ken Conte | photos by Michael Emanuele
Most working people end up in one of three classifications. They love what they do and do what they love; they do what they do because it’s a good job; or they work because they have to.
Mike Emanuele of Fort Collins–based photography business Backstage Flash fits none of those stories. His passion for rock and roll music came early, while his passion to be part of it artistically developed over the next 40 years—all while he owned and operated a successful painting and construction business. It took persistence, business savvy, a touch of faith and a healthy dose of luck.
Emanuele grew up in the Bronx when it was gritty and dirty and AM radio was king. In 1970, when he was eight years old, he was sitting on his front porch with his transistor radio when he first heard “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones. “That opening guitar riff immediately got my attention,” he recalls. “I thought to myself, What is this? Hearing that song changed my life.”
His family moved to a more rural location, but he could still pick up Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 countdown that played the Stones, the Doors, Led Zeppelin and everything else that makes up today’s “classic rock” catalogue. Those bands created a soundtrack for his youth and fired his imagination.
At just 10 years old, he rode his bicycle to John Jay High School in Hopewell Junction, New York, hoping to attend a show featuring the Long Island–based band Mountain and LA sensation Jojo Gunne. Emanuele longed to go inside, but with a father who was a mechanic and a mother who worked part-time, funds were tight. He rode closer to the front door, and on the sidewalk, right in front of him, was a $10 bill. He grabbed the money, stashed his bicycle in the bushes, scored a ticket and walked up to the entrance like he was destined to attend. The long-haired ticket taker happily admitted the 10-year-old fan, and Emanuele stood in awe before a huge stack of Marshall amps as he watched Mountain perform “Mississippi Queen,” the hit he’d heard on the radio dozens of times. That was the first of many occasions where he had to explain his whereabouts to his parents, and it created a yearning to get close to the musicians and be part of their world in some way.
Cory Clarke (left) and Sarah Slaton (center) at FOCOMX, April 2019.
The summer of 1975 brought another first for Emanuele, then 13 years old: He saw the Rolling Stones perform live at Madison Square Garden.
“It was the ’70s,” he recalls, “I was obsessed with the Stones, and there wasn’t an easy way to get to Madison Square Garden for a 13-year-old. We got creative and ended up at the show. They hadn’t toured in three years, and the experience was mind-blowing. They had 1,000 steel drummers come in before the Stones hit the stage. That was followed by a giant Chinese Dragon that wound its way through the Garden. They had just started using the Lotus Stage, which was a giant lotus flower that opened up and revealed the band, designed by drummer Charlie Watts. It was the largest and most expensive stage production touring arenas at the time. Mick was on a trapeze; they took the whole production of a live show to a new level. It was a life-changing experience, and I have seen the Stones on every tour since.”
You read that correctly: Emanuele has seen the Stones at least once on every U.S. tour since 1975. He has also seen them on a handful of tours in South America and Europe. Eventually he ended up photographing them.
But a lot happened before then.
The Fixx’s Cy Curnin at Washington’s, August 2019.
Jonathon Boogie Long at the NOLA Crawfish Festival, April 2019.
Marco Benevento of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead at Red Rocks, August 2019.
’Cause I Try, and I Try, and I Try…
In 1977 Emanuele had a job at Rainbow Music, the local music store in Hopewell Junction. With all the concert venues close by, it was never a surprise when big-time rock bands showed up on their way to gigs to check out vintage instruments and gear. At that time, no band was bigger then Lynyrd Skynyrd. They were touring in support of their recently released Street Survivors album, with .38 Special as the opening act. When both bands stopped in at Rainbow Music prior to their show at the nearby Mid-Hudson Civic Center, they bought some gear and handed the owner and Emanuele backstage passes for that night.
This was the late ’70s, so you can imagine what backstage at a Lynyrd Skynyrd/.38 Special concert looked like.
It was debauchery at its finest, and Emanuele was along for the ride.
“I was with my boss, Bill,” he says, “and we ended up in the parking lot of a hotel at 6 a.m., with the band and crew. They started up a game of Frisbee as cars streamed by on their way to work. It was surreal. I’m playing Frisbee with Gary Rossington and Steve Gaines in the parking lot of their hotel in Poughkeepsie, New York. Out of nowhere, one of the crew members, in a rental van, comes screaming into the parking lot on two wheels and runs right into the middle of a brand new Pontiac Firebird. The car starts to smoke, and flames come out of it. A few members of the band go and drag the crew member out of the van right before it becomes engulfed in flames. They saved his life but threw him a beating for being such a dumbass. That was our cue to leave.”
“It was another one of those moments when I was in a situation I could have never dreamed of.”
Samantha Fish in London, April 2019.
(Lynyrd Skynyrd only played nine more dates before, on October 20, 1977, their CV-240 plane crashed, injuring over 20 passengers and killing lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines.)
Later that year Emanuele attended his first concerts by the Grateful Dead, Hot Tuna and Billy Joel. He also started doing lighting, sound and roadie work for smaller acts. He saw the Stones again in 1978, this time in Philadelphia, and remembers reggae legend Peter Tosh opening the show to boos—a gesture that displeased Mick and the boys.
Around this time Emanuele discovered another passion, mountain bike racing. He found the rush of adrenaline balanced him out. He also started working in commercial construction, and over time he opened his own firm, Residential Repairs and Painting.
Fast-forward to 1996, and Emanuele relocated to Northern Colorado and brought his business with him. It didn’t take him long to realize that Colorado had a vibrant music scene, and he frequented shows at the then-named Starlight Lounge (now Hodi’s), Mishawaka Amphitheatre and Red Rocks. He still kept up with the Rolling Stones, seeing them on every tour, and started collecting fine art and photography from Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood. This hobby led to a chance encounter with Matt Lee, one of the world’s leading collectors of Rolling Stones memorabilia, at a London concert in 2007. And that’s how Emanuele ended up at Ronnie Woods’s 60th birthday party in Richmond, England.
“It was another one of those moments when I was in a situation I could have never dreamed of,” he says. “Mick Jagger, Pete Townsend and Jeff Beck were all there, and I was in the middle of it all. I’m glad I wasn’t actively taking pictures at that point, because it would have ruined the moment. I started taking pictures as a fan at those shows in London over 10 years ago, but I had no idea where it would lead.”
He took those early pictures with an inexpensive point-and-shoot. But he was up against the stage, with fantastic tickets, so he had great angles and light. He knew what a great photo looked like, because he had been poring over music magazines for decades. It didn’t take long for him to start showing some of his work to other photographers, who encouraged him to keep pursuing it. So Emanuele—while still maintaining Residential Repairs and Painting—began taking pictures at every show he attended. Beginning in 2013, he assembled a catalogue of work that few people saw other than family and friends.
That’s when Emanuele launched Backstage Flash.
Emanuele officially launched Backstage Flash in 2017. He bought high-end gear and started hauling it to shows, asking for access, which was usually granted. He started shooting and never looked back. He started out by shooting local music at NOCO venues, becoming the house photographer at area stages such as Stanley Live in Estes Park and Washington’s in Fort Collins. Emanuele’s photos of popular local acts such as Whippoorwhill, Gasoline Lollipops, My Blue Sky and Kind Dub brought him to the attention of some national touring acts, and he started scoring gigs all over the world. He’s had the opportunity to photograph performers such as Samantha Fish, Devon Allman, Ziggy Marley and, yes, the Rolling Stones, taking images that appeared on album covers, magazine covers, website banners and other highly visible locations.
“I love to shoot interesting subjects,”says Emanuele. “I try to look for moments of dynamic energy. I want to connect the music to the audience with an image in a subtle way. I always knew I’d be in the music business. It just took me a little longer than I anticipated.”
When you’ve chased satisfaction your entire life, the realization of it becomes a bit sweeter.