The first time I saw My Morning Jacket was at an absolutely incredible show at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon. But it being in 2004, I couldn’t tell you every song they played. I bought a t-shirt after the show as a memento, but the real souvenir I got a year or so later: a concert poster by Portland artist Guy Burwell. And though the shirt has long since deteriorated, the poster remains as beautiful as ever.
Souvenir, memento, keepsake: something we acquire from a place or an event for the memories we associate with it, the memories we seek to preserve. The concert poster—also known as the gig poster—certainly acts as a kind of souvenir, but these posters are more than that; they are, in fact, Art.
Art itself serves to “preserve.” A painting can preserve a landscape, a person, even the beauty of an assemblage of simple objects. What does a gig poster preserve? Maybe the show itself, though the posters can certainly be made before the show and so before the artist themselves experiencing the performance. But the gig poster is itself a performance, and what it truly preserves, I think, is the spirit of the band, the power of the music, the effect it has on the artist. The poster art is sheer interpretation.
Take the poster for the Crystal Ballroom show I saw. In a single image, an entire story seems to exist. A crashed spacecraft with a broken wing marooned on an ice planet; on a windblown knoll, what look like graves. The foreground is dominated by a figure in a lea of snow, the long hair combed by a wind that could have been blowing for a hundred years. The body, withered, dead, disappearing under the snow. Two technological oddities resemble, faintly, a guitar, a microphone. The figure, of course, is emblematic of My Morning Jacket singer Jim James.
The colors are simple: two shades of blue and black. The highlights are the white of the paper. The poster is a simple screen print, which most concert posters are—with a minimum of colors, the artist must make a palette that is at once gripping and moody. The paper, too, is not ordinary stock paper to be stapled to a bulletin board or a wooden pole but is rather thick stocked and durable. And “screenprint” calls to mind Andy Warhol, whose art was derided as simplistic at the time but has since gained indisputably in reputation.
The print I bought was signed by Guy Burwell in an edition of 300. The price I paid: $25, if memory serves. What’s it worth now? Depends on whom you ask. I’ve seen some offered for sale for twice that, even up to nearly six times that. And that is only the print! My poster, any of mine, are also professionally mounted on archival board and framed under museum glass. They are, like the memory of the show, preserved. This only increases the value.
I bought the crazy Captain Ahab poster of My Morning Jacket’s Aladdin Theater show from 2005 not long after the show—it, too, was a great show, the Z tour, and the poster captures the joy of it perfectly—was purchased for, I’d say, $25 or $30. Recently, Burwell reprinted it by request of the band themselves. Today, the new version is selling for $75. The original is, of course, long out of print.
Burwell’s prices vary widely. One Widespread Panic poster sells for $25; an Iggy Pop for $85; a Trey Anastasio for nearly $200. These prices are a new development in the last couple of years, which suggests that, as with any art, this one is only increasing in popularity and value.
It is also apparent that the art itself is increasing in mastery. The articulation of this 2018 Nine Inch Nails screenprint poster is apparent, the colors increased to five, the detail extravagant to the point of amazement. The image is at once dramatic, horrifying, and hilarious. The imagination behind it, as behind so many gig posters, is what makes this art form utterly new and, indeed, utterly American.
Paris had Toulouse-Lautrec. Portland has Guy Burwell.