Most music critics are of the opinion that western popular music in India is still light years away from making an impact on the world scene. Whether this view is correct or not is open to debate, however, looking at the number of bands that are mushrooming in the Indian circuit, you would be inclined to disagree. The sheer number of new bands that have begun to multiply all around the country is astounding. And even for the most avid of music fanatics, keeping track of all these new acts is a bit of a task!
The social media boom has no doubt helped in the rapid spawning of these new Indian acts, and for the first time ever the average music listener is actually spoilt for choice. Be it jazz, blues, heavy metal, or even good ol rock n roll, the number of bands that are trying to enchant listeners with their compositions is staggering. But despite all this quantity there is sadly a dearth of quality and more bands does not necessarily mean more good music. It is perhaps for this reason that new acts are not always welcomed with open arms by most serious music lovers. It takes a huge effort to extinguish these flames of skepticism, but Mumbai band Symphony Novel has managed to do just that with their debut album Aria.
Symphony Novel started their journey in 2011 and being a Mumbai based act, not too many people outside of their home territory have heard of them or their music. The fact that they dabble in so many genres (progressive / post rock / experimental / world / instrumental) may raise a few eyebrows. Luckily, this young act lets its music do the talking, thus confining any sparks of skepticism in the background.
Their debut album Aria is indeed, one of the better musical efforts put out by a young band. It comprises of just 6 tracks a short album, no doubt and not all the songs will blow your mind away. However, it would surely be a mistake to give this album a miss. This album is layered in so many ways that just one listen will not satisfy you. While it is true that certain musical elements in the album may irritate you, the more you listen to these tracks, the chances of you getting swept away is higher. Each song is packed with dynamite and the vibrant images inside your head at the end of each song is testament to the beautiful soundscape that the band carefully lays down for you to savour. And the fact that stalwarts of the Indian music industry, Virendra Kaith, Gino Banks and Sheldon D Silva, have lent a hand to Symphony Novels effort does give both the band and the music on the album much needed credibility.
The first song is the eerie but beautiful ‘The Chant’ where vocalist Bhavika Shetty haunts you with her whispering while the music in the background slowly builds up to a bone-crunching crescendo. The lyrics of the song comprise solely of two slokas, addressed to the Hindu deities Saraswati and Shiva. It takes very little time for Bhavikas hypnotic chanting to get into your head and by the end of the song you would probably be transported to a progressive metal paradise, thanks to the pounding rhythm section and the guitar riffs, which effortlessly take over from the stylistic Indian classical feel that envelopes the listener at the beginning of the song. It is interesting to see the interplay of genres within a single composition, but what is more surprising (and pleasantly so) is the fact that it works remarkably well. The level of maturity that is displayed on this track makes it a wonderful album opener.
The next track ‘The Lake’ happens to be my personal favorite among all the songs and this time Gauri Aayer takes over the vocal duties and mesmerizes you with her beautiful voice. Similar to ‘The Chant’, this song has a subtle start to it, but it doesnt take too long for the drums to kick in powerfully. The use of the guitars is indeed noteworthy and while it manages to provide a platform for the song, the guitaring does not steal focus from the vocals. ‘The Lake’ is a stand-out composition and you probably will not hear too many similar tracks that are capable of conveying such depth in mood.
‘Disorder’ is the third track on this album, and the first instrumental track that is showcased in the album. The composition starts off with a mellow acoustic guitar intro that evokes a feeling of calmness and warmth. This feeling,however, does not last too long. Rachit Sachdevas electric guitar very soon takes over and he uses his axe to cut through the acoustic wall of sound like a razor-edged knife. His electric guitar assault is joined in by an impressive bass and drum comboand the musical disorder that they bring about is an absolute treat to the ears.
Gauri Aayer comes back on ‘Infirmity’. She hypnotizes you with some chanting at the beginning of this song after which the accompanying instrumentation takes charge to create a dark, gloomy ambience. This song is very gothic, doom n gloom and most definitely heavy and the expert rhythm section does a wonderful job in getting this feel through to the listener. Gauris magical voice adds that extra zing to this composition, and in the end, all these elements put together work very well to make this a song worth listening to again and again.
The fifth track ‘Tranquilize‘ is another instrumental. This is no doubt an interesting composition and is surroundedby a layer of heaviness, similar to the other tracks on this album. The drum and bass combo sets up a pulsating beat and Sachdeva on the guitars does a fine job on this track.
‘Smokin’ Sap’ is the sixth and the final track on Aria. This is the closest that the band comes to being peppy or energetic and Gauri Aayer is at the top of her game on this composition. Once again the rhythm section does splendidly in driving the tempo throughout the duration of the song and the guitars also lend some fine touches to this track. This is also probably the closest that the band comes to delivering a track that is mainstream in an album that otherwise leans more towards the alternative. But this does not in any way hurt the album, and is a welcome contrast to the other vocal-oriented tracks.
In their first attempt, Symphony Novel succeeds in delivering an album that would make any established musician proud. It is very evident that a lot of thought has gone through the composition of each of the six tracks in Aria, and one would be hard-pressed to find a single weak track here.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the album as a whole. The concept behind Aria was probably well thought out but the thought-process seemed to be missing with the sequence of songs. If anything, the flow of the album feels disjointed, especially with the inclusion of the instrumentals ‘Disorder’ and ‘Tranquilize’. Make no mistake both these instrumentals are a delight to the ears, but the star attraction of the album is without doubt the female vocals-oriented tracks. It is these tracks which define the mood of Aria and it is probably these tracks which will make you hit the play button again and again.
Arguably Indias most loved Blues band, Shillong-based Soulmate are into their 11th year of dazzling crowds, national and international with their brand of heartfelt, no-nonsense, no-pretense blues. They are also the only band to feature in all of the editions of the world-renowned Mahindra Blues Festival. Ahead of performing in the 2014 edition of the festival where they launched their third album Ten Stories Up, Soulmates Rudy Wallang and Tipriti Kharbangar (Tips), quite like their music, did not hold back in a candid conversation with WhatsThe Scenes Ganesh Viswanathan, on playing the Blues, completing a phenomenal ten years and on playing with living legend Carlos Santana.
WTS: Studio or live?
Tips: LIVE, FOR SURE! WHAT KIND OF A QUESTION IS THAT?
WTS: Why do you prefer live?
Tips: Because there are people!
Rudy: Its the energy. We love to play live and I think any band would love to play live rather than sit in the studio and just record.
Tips: Id rather see people than see an engineer.
WTS:Tell us more about your songwriting process.
Rudy: Lyrics first and then the melodies happen after that. We keep writing as and when ideas strike, we put down lines that sometimes we build over time or sometimes they just come out straight.
Tips: I write when I feel like I need to write. It comes out easily.
WTS: So you have a third album (Ten Stories Up) coming up. Could you tell us more about it?
Rudy: There are ten songs in the album as the name of the album suggests. The albums about ten years of Soulmate being together; in fact, ten years was last year, so this is our 11th year. We have played all of them on the road before recording them; so people are familiar with a lot of the songs, already. We hope that they sing along.
WTS: You release albums almost once every four years. What are the challenges that you face when you release it over such an expanse of time?
Rudy: Its not because we dont have songs; our songs are always there and more are always being written. Its just that after the last album (Moving On) that we released in 2009, weve been really busy playing and like we said, we like to take the songs on the road with us and play them all, cut down the fat and then take them to a studio and then record. It wasnt a deliberate thing that we took 4 years. At the same time, there were some financial constraints because recording at Yash Raj Studios was pretty expensive for us, but we decided that after two albums, we owe it to the people who listen to us to come up with a really good product, so it took us a little time.
WTS: Going back to earlier in your career, what was the turning point where you thought, Yeah, we can be big?
Tips: We never thought like that.
Rudy: It never ever struck our minds that we could be big. Were just musicians, we play and love the blues; were very passionate about this music and I think that comes across when we perform on stage and the connection we have with the audience.
Tips: We just have a big connection and not that were big (ourselves).
Rudy: Thats very important and thats why we are where we are today in this position, to be able to share the stage with some great musicians.
WTS: Speaking of sharing the stage with great musicians, you had recently played in Delhi to open for Santana and the great man himself joined you on stage while you were playing ‘Lie‘. How was the whole experience? Was it a surprise?
Both: Totally, yes!
Tips: That was a present sent from God.
Rudy: It was a total surprise because we thought wed only meet him backstage. We never expected that hed walk on stage and jam on our song.
Tips: I guess Santana felt the song and he wanted to join in. Thats what I feel. Meeting a musician like him was big! He is big, but he was not big when he spoke to us; was just normal as anybody like you and me. But I think its the music that we played that touched him and made him want to come on and play with us.
Rudy: The first thing he said when he met us backstage was, I listen to the same music you guys listen to. So, the connection was there. For us, that was a big thing and gave a boost to our confidence and the music we make.
WTS: Any collaboration planned for the studio or for live performances?
Rudy: Right now, were working with Khasi folk musicians for the gig today (Day 2 of the Mahindra Blues Festival 2014). Were trying out Three songs, to see how it works, how people accept the music. This is the first time doing something like this live. Weve played with them on Fox Traveller for one song. So if it works, were open to collaborate more.
WTS: Any Indian band that you wish to collaborate with in the future?
Tips: No. I dont know, Im being truthful (both laugh). There has never been a time that I saw a band from my country and thought that I would like to collaborate with them.
Rudy: Maybe not a band, maybe another musician. She loves Shubha Mudgal!
Tips: Among artistes, I like Shubha a lot and I would love to collaborate with her because shes got the power of the Blues.
WTS: Any other artistes in mind?
Rudy: I dont know, cant really say. Anything can happen and we keep that open. We dont make decisions like that. If we feel like somethings going to work out, then we just go with it. Because thats the way the blues also is. To tell you the truth, Im not really a big fan of fusing stuff, especially where the blues is concerned. We realized that connection is there with the Khasi folk. It is very rootsy. Were concentrating this time on the folk drum beats. So yeah, if we feel it then we go ahead with it.
Tips: We never plan anything. Everything just happens. When we started this band, we never planned for it to be big or we never planned or saw anything coming up. It keeps happening and is a mystery for us. Its amazing when you do not plan things too much, you know? Because you just do it from your heart and it happens.
WTS: Any gig that sticks out from your memory as one that you enjoyed yourself the most?
Rudy: Opening for Santana, thats an obvious one. But I think the jam that we had with Robert Randolph here last year was also one. This year too, Id love to jam with Derek and Jimmie Vaughan.
Tips (to Rudy): Dont you think Memphis was great also? The second time?
Rudy: Yea, the second gig. That was fantastic!
Tips: I think its fantastic to play to a crowd that understands and knows your music, theres nothing like it! Its not about how nice the venue is, but how intense the crowd is. So tonight might be the best!
WTS: Do you believe in practising on the job or do you set aside a time for practice?
Tips: Yea, we always practice at home.
Rudy: See, because we go through different musicians also, especially drummers. Weve had a lot of drummers. Gino (Banks) is playing with us today. Back home, we have a young guy just getting in; so I hope we can start working with him, try getting him up to speed. At home, we meet and practice thrice a week.
Tips: We are very strict when it comes to practice. But when were touring, we just relax.
Rudy: Then we practice on the stage (laughs)!
Tips: If we practice before going on stage, the feeling is not the same anymore. We just chill, try and sleep late, have the best meal, meet people. Then we go and just do it! I like to be like that, I dont want to think about later. As a vocalist if I think too much, my throat gets dry and tense.
WTS: Wow. Okay, so you would have seen a lot of up and coming blues bands in your journey so far. Why do you think not all of them have the same longevity as you have?
Rudy: You know, yesterday, I was telling two girls who had interviewed us that the blues is all about feel. Its all about being honest, open and real. Yesterday, when we went to stage 2 where the bar is, we met Zac Harmon there and he said exactly the same thing. You have to be real if youre singing the blues.
Tips: You cant fake it. And if you try too much then it spoils everything.
Rudy: There are a lot of people who are wannabe blues musicians, who play blues songs but dont actually play the blues. So if you have to play the blues, you have to live that and cannot afford to hold back.
Tips: You have to be naked.
Rudy: You have to bare yourself and be emotionally naked.
Tips: When Rudy plays one note (pauses), then I have tears rolling down because I know that is exactly what he means. Just one note, no *vocalizes shredded notes*. Just one note! *hums one beautiful note*
Rudy: So we play one gig today and then one tomorrow, they wont be the same because I might feel differently. It might sound even better!
Tips: Sometimes we are surprised by ourselves, at we do. Were not going to the stage to do what we did last night.
Rudy: So we feed off each other. I listen to her sing and then the feel that I get goes into my guitar playing.
Tips: The sequence of the song is there, but the approach is different.
WTS: What would you say to those who ask why dont you sing the blues in your native language?
Rudy: Shes singing a couple of songs.
Tips: Ive started writing. Of course, when nobody knew us as Soulmate how can you sing to them in your native language? Nobody will want to listen to us. We have to get connected with people in the language that everybody understands. Then now, 11 years after, I can sing in my language and people will listen even if they dont understand.
WTS: Since you have more than one songwriter in the band, how do you resolve creative differences?
Rudy: Weve never really had a conflict. Tips comes up with a song and then I help her arrange it since shes starting out.
Tips: Music is so beautiful that all these negative vibes shouldnt be there. You have to come to terms.
Rudy: You have to come to some understanding in the end. Even when she was writing her stuff, shed bring it to me; shes got the basic thing down already.
Tips: Rudy is my hero. Ive learned from him and I approach him for everything and he leads me, hes my mentor.
Rudy: Ive been making music for a long time now and produced and arranged in the studio for a lot of people as well, so I tend to see the bigger picture. So Tips brings her songs and its very raw, its got these chords but my mind already starts working and thinking that it might sound like this, might sound like that. Then I change the arrangement, maybe change some chords; but we try and keep everything simple. The song and the music are simple; the only thing that can get complicated are the emotions. And thats the tough bit and very hard to explain. Its tough to explain how one feels at that point of time.
WTS: So, even the arrangements are synchronous with how you feel on stage.
Rudy: Yes. Once we write a song, we cant keep changing the song structure. But the feel of the song can change. Its very tough to explain that. Today I may feel this way, tomorrow I might feel another way, but the basic structure of the song is the same. The moods that I play and the moods that Tips sings in will be different. Sometimes hardcore fans will come to us and point to us Oh you didnt play that solo that you played the other time and I go, Which solo? I dont remember. But some songs have fixed solos, like Set Me Free and The Price. Those are just apt, I change them a little during rehearsals but live I feel like those solos are just right for the songs.
WTS: Where do you see Blues in India in the next 2-3 years?
Rudy:The way things are going right now, promising, especially seeing the number of young people at a gig like this. The media has really helped and online media as well in bringing the artistes closer to the common man. Now its not like stars, like when fans used to be in the awe of Elvis Presley and Cliff Richards. But now, even yesterday when Derek and Zac Harmon had finished their gigs, they were just walking around, posing for photographs; it has all come together. Its a really positive thing what Mahindra Blues is doing. Its helping the young musicians understand more about the roots of the music theyre playing. Whether theyre playing heavy metal or classic rock, now they understand where it comes from. So if you know your roots, even if youre not born in the States or the Mississippi delta or Detroit, you still understand where this music comes from; so you start playing with that attitude instead of blatantly imitating what you see on TV or what you hear on CD. So I really hope that the blues gets really big in the next two years. One of the main reasons Soulmate has been there for ten years is to propagate this genre of music. And Im so happy to see it happening, quite a few blues bands in India now. So maybe we should have a National Blues Festival as well, giving a chance to young musicians to share stages and perform for their own satisfaction and for the people in India. Right now were at a stage where Soulmate can play, but there are a lot of bands who cant get on stage yet. So having a national blues festival every year will give them a chance to play and to get better and better and then one day, theyll come and play here! I think thats the only way itll work.
If Day 1 was anything to go by, the acts on Day 2 had their work cut out. However, Soulmate, Lil Ed and The Blues Imperials and multiple Grammy-award winning blues legend Jimmie Vaughan have been silencing doubters for a living and were well equipped to make sure that the festival ended on a really high note.
On day 2, even before the first act, music was already in the air as faculty from the True School of Music, Mumbai performed some pleasant acoustic jazz on an outdoor stage set up at the venue. Near the performance was where Soulmates third album Ten Stories Up was to go on sale for the first time (read an exclusive interview with Rudy and Tips here) along with the rest of the merchandise on display.
Tips and Tricks
Soulmate, the only band with the distinction of having played in every edition of the Mahindra Blues Festival so far, took the stage armed with an all-Khasi folk ensemble. A pipe folk intro set to a tribal beat on the ksing provided the backdrop for versatile vocalist Tips melodic chanting complemented well by a stylish slide guitar riff by Rudy Wallang. Tips high notes in her powerful tenor voice set a meditative mood as Rudy expertly filled in the pockets with some slick interludes. For their next piece, the band completely reinvented Set Me Free, one of their most cherished tracks from their second album Moving On; the revised arrangement featuring the duitara and folksy flute bridges and still losing none of its raw Blues energy. It was refreshing to see a folk ensemble taking to the Blues like a duck to water.
The set got a lot fuller as drummer extraordinaire Gino Banks, precocious bassist Leon Wallang and keyboard prodigy Karan Joseph joined the artistes on stage for another jumpy folk number before a powerful blues-rock piece where Ginos groovy drumming and Leons bass work were a joy to behold. Rudy took over vocal duties, added a solo and then followed it up with a neat bridge to move to a brief instrumental contemplative Blues piece in a straight 4-4 rock beat. Other hits like the jazzy Tell Me and the uptempo Ill be Around followed wherein the signature soulful playing of Rudy and Tips wild-and-whacky vocals got a thunderous approval from the audience.
To put it simply, if the point wasnt already made, Soulmates musicianship live was a spectacle to behold. Gino Banks drumming although different from what the audience were familiar with, was tailored to spotlight tenfold what the band played. Rudys immersive guitar playing, hardly the same in any two gigs, stood out not just because of the choice of notes but also because it breathed in all the right places. Tips was an expert improviser too, and as a front-woman, she was a perfect yet humble channel to voice the bands music through to the audience. The band, in all, played with the true blues feeling of the music itself being their reward.
Lil Eds Blues From Chicago
Lil Ed Williams, supported by his band The Blues Imperials stepped onto the stage facing an already aroused crowd from the Soulmate set and he chose to win them over in his own way. The ever-smiling Chicago Blues slide guitarist-cum-vocalist chose to begin with a minor Blues piece in 6-8 supported by a fluttering rhythmic backdrop by guitarist Mike Garrett. The flow of energy from the stage was completely at the mercy of the diminutive frontman and his expressions both on his guitar and his face were a treat.
There were plenty of theatrics to go along with the performance Lil Ed chugging a bottle of beer, kneeling and playing on stage and even running backstage and into the crowd in the middle of a powerful slide solo without losing any of his accuracy but there was never a doubt in that the band were truly having a good time. High octane renditions of Jump Right In and Mess Around were some of the standout pieces of their set.
Despite Lil Ed And The Blues Imperials not hitting the ground running, it was well worth the wait. Lil Eds style was old-school blues yet rare and lovable, akin to sitting with a fun friend over a drink while he tells you stories from his past, some filled with emotional highs and lows and some rather quirky and embarrassing. And he was an impressive story-teller at that; his delivery was artful as he shifted his body language from contemplative to groovy, making his words dance and most importantly, letting his music breathe between the words. By the end of the set, he certainly had made a lot of friends. He exited the stage, leaving the last few minutes for The Blues Imperials to engage in an epic marathon jam, a tidy bass solo being the hallmark of it.
Youve been Vaughaned
Being thoroughly sated till the penultimate performance, the crowd could be forgiven for being in a very relaxed mood for the last but certainly not the least act multiple Grammy award-winning blues icon Jimmie Vaughan. A clear masterstroke from the organizers as this was a certain way of making sure the festival ended on a high and had everyone roused enough to sing with the master.
Armed with the Tilt-a-Whirl Band a well-orchestrated 2-piece horn section, a double bass and a rhythm guitarist – Jimmie Vaughan began with an instrumental piece based on an uptempo Blues riff, very characteristic of some of the early 60s Texas Blues. Jimmie then went on to render a 12-bar standard Blues, Without You with the groove coming from the horn section which was a nice touch throughout the set. Jimmies playing was minimal and selfless but whenever he took over a solo, he poured all of heart and soul over it.
The first mammoth track of the set came with a Rosco Gordon cover Just a Little Bit set to a neat latin R&B beat. Jimmies silky solo was followed by up-beat trombone and baritone sax solos, then Jimmie orchestrated it back to the groovy head of the song. The middle of the set saw the cameo appearance of singer Lou Ann Barton, who walked on to the stage with a swagger, blowing smoke through her nostrils. The Austin-based singer who turned 60 on the day, impressed the crowd with her robust and husky voice which blended well with Jimmies guitar tone on the piece Im in the Mood for You. After the contemplative blues number Just Leave it to Me, Jimmie picked up a harmonica, a first by any artiste at this edition despite its strong association with the blues, for the song Come Love and then did a handful of both duet and solo numbers like Scratch my Back, Wheel of Fortune and the quirky and Texan-accent-heavy I Miss You So. Jimmie then saved the best for his most famous number Boom Bapa Boom where he swung the guitar over to the back of his head and continued playing his solo. Jaws dropped everywhere, but not Jimmies precision.
When it appeared like the set and the night ended, the crowd were stunned by the presence of six renowned blues artistes on stage Jimmie, Lil Ed, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Doyle Bramhall II and Zac Harmon for the festivals traditional all-star jam, although there were murmurs of discontent at not seeing Tips, Rudy and Warren Mendonsa join them. The all-star jam featured classics like Let the Good Times Roll, Baby what you want me to do and The Sky is Crying and had all the artistes bring their unique origins, influences and styles to the table, soloing in turn. Susan Tedeschi and Lil Ed were once again impressive on the vocal duty.
The takeaways from the festival were plenty. The choice of artistes, each a different kind of blues artiste Chicago, Mississippi Delta, Jacksonville Florida, Texas, Mumbai and Shillong – was a masterstroke by the organisers. It was no surprise that the festivals Facebook page announced the milestone of 100,000 likes after the show. The festival organizers can take great encouragement from the fact that people were already discussing potential candidates for next years edition. But most importantly the quality of the music that filled the venue over the weekend, certainly gave the crowd plenty of memories to retain for years to come surely.
On the 15th of May, somewhere in Mumbai a bunch of doctors successfully performed a rare heart operation, construction work came to halt, and Mahesh Bhatt noticed that Sanjay Dutt had been crying. Away from all of this, within the stylistic confines of The Blue Frog, a hundred or so people grooved as if in a trance. Mumbai based band, Tough on Tobacco had transported its audience from the usual laptrap of the city, into the world of funk, reggae, rock and eccentricity.
The band was launching their second album Big Big Joke with a gig at the Frog that night and they started off their set with College of Life. The catchy intro on rhythm proved to be the perfect crowd puller and by the time the band moved on to their next song Come On Down, the crowd really had come down. The only setback was the backing vox which could hardly be heard through the mix. The reggae, funk styled song had most of the house on their feet.
The band then moved on to Rock N Roll Party. The chirpy upbeat tempo alternating with a headbang-worthy beat proved to be a rare treat for the audience. The crowd jumped and nodded their heads to the unabashed rhythm of this energy avalanche and appreciated it with a generous amount of hooting. This was followed by the song Dog that saw Jai Row Kavi go crazy on his drum-set and Door with Gaurav Gupta on vocals for the intro.
This is a song about you, said Sidd Coutto before beginning with the bands next song, Wonder. The song was magic combined with the effect of the blue gobo-filtered lights and caught the audience spellbound. It was the perfect build-up required to play Happy which seemed to completely consume the audience in a sort of musical hug. The first half was given the perfect end with the song Alone, which was a crowd favourite.
Sidd Coutto finally took a break from his robo-hipster influenced stage antics and got down to talking about their new album. ToTs second album was being launched after a hiatus of four years, he said. The projection screens started to drop down as the band announced Watch this video about the making of the album and the album art.
What ensued was an absolute cracker. The people in the audience were beside themselves with laughter as they saw Jai(aunty) pointing disgustedly with an eeee at her daughter(Johan Pais) as she(he) spitted food out. The video captured this being repeated around four times in order to capture the perfect shot. Jai(aunty), was clearly the crowds favourite for the night with a stride and pitch that was very much stereotypically lady-like and actions that were not at all. The video was a piece of marketing wizardry with five humorous lads/band mates/family members trying to tickle every bone in your body.
Then video ended, the screen was lifted up and ToT dived straight into the first song from their new album, Do What You Gotta Do. Its not really new material since the band has been playing songs from its second album before official release since 2010. The song, Yahweh, came next and like its predecessor saw many in the audience singing along with the chorus. The third song from Big Big Joke was Follow Your Dreams. Sidd Coutto is perhaps one of the few front men out there who dont look down upon their audience from above stage. Whether he is singing about following your dreams or singing about how happy it has made him to do so, the lyrics can be seen reflected on his face as emotions. Raw and real, just as he is. Its probably this very quality that enables Coutto to engage a viewer and truly be able to move them.
Songs Ordinary, with Gaurav on the lead vocals and Big Big Joke, the title track, were played in quick succession. The soft mellow tunes were like a sweet balm, add to this Pozy Dhars sweeping solos, and you have a very happy audience. Rock ballad Love Love Love followed by Blow Yourself Away were the highlights of the night in terms of Couttos dramatics. The band members were grinning playfully at each other and making comical faces. They seemed to be really enjoying themselves on stage. Midway through Blow Yourself Away, Coutto introduced the band in his typical sing-song manner.
The set, as usual, was ended with a hot favourite Smoke Some Ganja with a guest appearance by Tracy Pais, wife of Johan Pais. Coutto called her on stage to celebrate her birthday. Jai Row Kavi is handed a mic and Tracy and him work out a funny on-the-spot Marathi improvisation laced with nonsensical exclamations and animated voices that has the audience rolling on the floor, laughing. Then the song reached its climax and the audience and band members went crazy in unison jumping and dancing to the upbeat second half of Smoke Some Ganja. The song ended too soon and the band was already packing up as Sidd thanked the audience and briefly explained where one can get access to the download codes.
Among the audience that seemed to be coping with what looked like withdrawal symptoms after having consumed some very addictive tunes, one could see many celebrities from the Indian independent music scene. There was Vishal Dadlani, Karsh Kale, Gino Banks, Vinayak Pol, Warren Mendonsa , Bobby Talwar, Rohit Pereira, Akshay Rajpurohit to name a few. As the show concluded, they all had one thing in common as did everyone else in Blue Frog. Smiles of contentment.
When a leading newspaper advertised the ‘Splendor of Masters’ show, the first thing that drew attention was the eclectic mix of musicians roped in to perform under the aegis of the performing arts company, Banyan Tree. With my nose wrinkled due to the lack of a bassist in an ensemble that contained flutes, saxophone, tabla, drums and a harp, I warily approached the venue looking for a parking space for the car, and as I quickly found out, parking at the Chowdiah Memorial Hall was a pain in the clutch box.
The warning bell proved to be a useful system to usher in the crowd. The lights dimmed and then brightened up again, whetting the musical appetites that I’m sure the close-packed audience had. Quite the anticlimax, but I was glad the show started on time, and when the curtains drew to reveal a 6-foot high glistening harp that drew oohs and aahs, I was willing to bet the collective thought at that point in time was: we’re in for a treat.
Gwyneth Wentink played three classical pieces in all, and took pains to harp about the harp in an amusing (and not so condescending) way. To say that the performance was soul-stirring would be an understatement; her performance showcased not only her skill, but her understanding of the Indian audience’s ability to appreciate the technicalities of Western classical music.
Right after this, Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia (flute), his protégé, and Subhankar Bannerjee (tabla) concluded the first half of the show on a slightly soporific note, not to say that what they played was bad in any way, but a lilt and a skip here and there would have ensured that three of my neighboring audience members did not drift away into sweet slumber. (Or was it intentional?)
A ten-minute breather after this first section saw samosa-lovers proceeding to the kiosk outside while strict crew members ensured that no one sneaked eatables into the auditorium. Kudos to the crew and ushers: who manned the isles during the show, urging people to turn off their cell phones, the eternal curse of gigs, or helping restless babies’ parents and restless parents’ babies to exit the auditorium, for obvious reasons.
George Brooks walked onto stage ‘blowing his own trumpet,’ nodding his head and dancing to his own tune on a tenor sax and dished out a groovy piece with Gino Banks displaying his skill on the drum kit. I thought the bass drum seemed too boomy initially, but as we settled into the ‘groove’, the feeling went away: either due to acclimatization, or because it sounded so bloody good, thanks to Mr. Banks finesse on the drum kit.
The grand finale with all the musicians present was delightful, and what helped was the excellent sound at this venue on this day. The western instrument players displayed their feel for the nuances of Indian classical music, and Panditji was phenomenal in the way he led the troupe. He humored the crowd after an encore, and played a piece each in the Hamsadhvani and Pahadi ragas.
Banyan Tree intends to bring together Indian and International artistes in this manner, and if they pull off a gig such as this, rest assured, I’ll be there.