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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane photographer captures passion, drama from the Gorge with new book

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 5, 2021

The photograph of Fishbone’s Angelo Moore clasping hands with a fan while performing at the Gorge Amphitheatre a generation ago conveys racial unity, passion and unpredictability. The image captured by Spokane photographer Darren Balch is one of many stirring shots from his new book “Rock & Roll on Columbia: Tall Tales From a Short Attention Span.”

The project, which was released in May, is a perfect companion to the documentary “Enormous: The Gorge Story,” which hit theaters this month. Balch, 58, captures the sublime chaos of Fishbone and Moore, arguably the greatest frontman of the post-hair metal era, while he encouraged extreme fan participation during the band’s anthemic cut “Swim.”

“There is nobody like Dr. Madd Vibe (aka Moore),” Balch said from his Spokane Valley home. “When people talk about that photo I took of him, they ask, ‘Was that my hand?’ Fishbone was a phenomenal live band. I remember that show so well since they were connecting with 20,000 kids. They were pulling kids onstage so they could stage dive during ‘Swim.’ The energy was incredible. It was an amazing experience.”

Balch delivered just like the bands he shot during his stint as the house photographer at the Gorge from 1993-95. There’s a great shot of Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro playing while the music is flowing through his body. Balch nails it with a photo of Tina Turner emoting while singing and Janet Jackson, who broke choreography in order to strike a provocative pose.

“After I took that shot, I felt this heavy hand on my shoulder,” Balch said. “It was this guy, Paul. I don’t know his last name. But he said, ‘I don’t know what you got going on, but she never does that.’ He asked me to shoot his crew, and I did.”

Balch was born in Ellensburg and grew up in Yakima and Pullman, but he had an epiphany while watching Van Halen at the Spokane Coliseum in 1981.

“I was floored watching Van Halen,” Balch said. “I knew I had to do this. I had to be a photographer.”

Balch joined Scene Magazine in the 1980s and honed his skills, but photography remained a side gig.

“You have to come home from the circus sometime,” Balch said.

While working in electronic manufacturing for Itron in Liberty Lake, Balch spent weekends shooting at the Gorge for three memorable summers.

“It was a grind,” Balch said. “I would spend almost every weekend at the Gorge and then drive back to Spokane to get back to work at 6 a.m. every Monday. I would not advise anyone to keep such a schedule. I couldn’t pull it off forever.”

Balch continued to shoot on occasion at the Gorge and at other venues. His passion for live music never diminished, and his portfolio is enviable and extensive. Unlike some of his peers, Balch never shot endless rolls of film.

“I’ve always been like a bow hunter surfing this wave looking for a great opportunity. I didn’t machine gun shots. That wasn’t economical either,” he said.

Balch details his Gorge experiences at points during “Enormous.”

“It was cool being part of that film,” Balch said. “There’s just no place like the Gorge. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to be part of it. I ended up getting so much from the Gorge experience.”

That includes meeting his wife, Kathy Morgan, on a bus to the Gorge for Lollapalooza in 1995. Their first date was Live in 1997, which is the last show Balch photographed at the iconic concert site. After living throughout Washington, Balch and Morgan, who he dedicates “Rock and Roll on Columbia” to, have decided to remain in Spokane.

Balch, who works for Northwest Pump and Equipment, plans to retire in Eastern Washington.

“I love it here,” Balch said. “I love the pace. I also love that certain stillness you get out on the Palouse where you can experience a breeze from start to finish.”

It’s ironic Balch is taken with the stillness considering the raucous concerts he enjoyed as a shutterbug. However, Balch has evolved. Instead of photographing wild-eyed rockers running across a stage, Balch shoots farmers tending to their crops these days.

“Some things change,” Balch said. “But some things remain the same. I’m still taking photos and will always do so. Some people when they retire play golf or fish. You’re going to find me in a dark room when I stop working.”

However, Balch will still catch concerts. As civilization comes out of the pandemic, the indie-rock fan is hoping some of his favorite recording artists visit Spokane soon. None of the acts Balch is looking forward to could play the Gorge.

“They’re all club level, and that’s fine,” Balch said. “I would love to catch the Finger Guns out of Seattle, Frank Black and the Catholics and Bob Mould.

“I love music, and it’s given me so much. It’s been 40 years since that Van Halen show inspired me to shoot. It wasn’t easy doing what I did as a photographer with a full-time job, but I made it work. I did my best as a photographer and loved every minute of it. The cool thing is that I have a book of the photos so everyone can see what I do.”

For more information about “Rock & Roll on Columbia: Tall Tales From a Short Attention Span,” visit virtuallyonstage.net.

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