Now that we’ve passed Memorial Day, summer is upon us, and you may find yourself barbecuing—as this gentleman, rendered in a mid-century graphic, is doing. What an image, so summery, so retro, even the bear in the background, the beehive over its head apparently no longer as inviting, wears a smile that calls to mind a cultural hero, Yogi Bear (who debuted in 1958). The date of this show, May 8, falls just about where we are, and we could expect the woods of Colorado to soon look a whole lot like this…relatively speaking, I mean. And this whole feeling gets attached to one thing: Wilco.
This poster, for Wilco’s 2008 show in Colorado Springs, came out about a year after the release of Sky Blue Sky, and by then, the band, headed by Jeff Tweedy, was already legendary. With classic albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Summerteeth, Being There, and A Ghost Is Born behind them, the band was entering a new era but still retained the semblance of Americana that had made them famous. Even a cursory look at the array of Wilco gig posters by as many artists demonstrates that. In fact, the posters themselves encourage that mythos of Americana, creating a mystique around the band.
The poster above, as well as this second version, was designed by illustrator A. Micah Smith, whose clients include not only Wilco but TED, ESPN, Pepsi, and the Country Music Hall of Fame, as well as bands like Spoon, the Hold Steady, and Phish.
Smith’s Wilco work, in particular, is really something. In addition to gig posters, he designed one t-shirt for the band’s 2011 The Whole Love tour, as well as another worn by Seth Rogen in the movie Funny People. And his show posters for other bands also use that 60’s aesthetic with aplomb.
Check out his 2008 poster for Moby. This show, a MySpace Secret Show at the Smart Bar, is lemon-bright, with black being the only other inked color. And that record player! Is there any other instrument people wanted more in the ’60s? And now that they’ve made their comeback, with vinyl again valued like gold, this poster feels simultaneously retro and contemporary.
For pure whimsy, consider the dog. This 2009 poster for the Mates of State show in New York City perfectly captures the era of graphic design and its take on animals, particularly man’s best friend.
Another example—and it’s a pleasant surprise to find Maroon 5 on a gig poster design—is in this waitress, serving wine on, what, an airplane? Judging by the wings affixed to her uniform, that appears to be the case. And wine glasses? Clearly those are not the plastic cups we are wont to see today. Somehow, I’m reminded of a James Bond movie, the early ones which are, of course, of that era too.
That crazy letting, with all the arrows, the muted colors, the dashes that form the airline seats, and, my God, even the hair, and that belt! A total period piece. And these devices serve to align the bands—Maroon 5, Wilco, Moby—with that era. What a poster like this says is, these bands are our retro bands. And Smith is right: in the same way, the bands themselves play into the tradition of popular music, which certainly got its boost in the early ’60s, the aesthetic of Goddard’s films entirely like the “mod” of A Hard Day’s Night, it’s no surprise that the posters, like poems, call attention to that.
A word on that, as it occurs to me: a gig poster is a poem. Perhaps even a kind of haiku, a flash of insight that connects, in a moment, disparate time periods under one colorful umbrella. To hang such a poster on one’s wall is to hang an entire insight, an inspiration, really, from a nail. What drove the artist, the illustrator, and the designer to create this work of art is really a thought: I the artist, like the band I am celebrating, am part of a tradition.
So that when you look at A. Micah Smith’s work on his website, you see that tradition as readily apparent, as it is here in his Okkervil River poster, the banjo, the hillbilly attire, and that most American of activities, fishing, all plays into our mutual history and culture. Gig posters, therefore, are poems of culture, immaculately created, visibly, and colorfully simple-but-satisfying.