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The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

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The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival wasn’t promoted as vociferously this year; while we’re wondering why, we’re also thankful that it panned out that way because the number of festival attendees this time during peak hours was just right – it wasn’t claustrophobic and it wasn’t marred by huge patches of empty grass/tables with people desperately trying to look like they’re having a good time.

Counterculture in Whitefield, known for its extremely chilled-out vibe (you can take your dogs with you to a gig), was buzzing with activity a little past ten a.m. on D-day. It was amusing to watch people bustling back and forth toting everything from humongous ladders to newspaper sculptures to kites! Quiet warnings of “watch it!” or “duck” were uttered more than once by friendly bystanders.

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

While the food counter wasn’t open that early (the event was to begin at 11 a.m.), people already had the tenacious audacity to walk around with bottles of Millers glued to their fingertips (whiskey was our poison, so we’re not judging)! The venue itself had been done up with kitschy, unusual displays of art made from recycled stuff. The dragonflies, with tea strainers for eyes, bobbing happily above the bands while they played, were particularly amusing as was the centipede-like structure in a far corner. The fest had displays of art by Ari Jayaprakash, literally strung up, and featured a counter with Astral Cat creations.

Members from the Chennai-based hard rock band Totem got onstage to set up a little over an hour after go time. They had the misfortune of playing the earliest set to a crowd that was only just getting lulled into the appreciative mood. There was a short burst of a riff with an electro tinge to it and the ten second vocal that was belted over it was impressive. Anticipation heightened as the band started in earnest but while the sound was fine and the vocals were noticeably good, they didn’t come together as they should have. The bass was particularly impressive with even, deliberate plucking; it overrode all other instruments, not only in technique but also in sheer volume.

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

The songs they performed, while filled with angst, didn’t bring anything new to the table. We were three songs in and still waiting for something to sound as good as that ten-second sound check. The vocals were impressive in parts and we even appreciated the on-pitch maniacal laughter that accompanied the song ‘Little Gravity’. The last song was a bass-driven number with elongated notes but the incomprehensible lyrics were a tad disappointing.

After the relatively enthusiastic applause for Totem died down, the band introduced their successors – Mushroom Lake. This band’s set was soothing and the words “ambient sound” were being flung around as people walked back and forth between the outdoor area with the stage setup and the indoor area with the food.

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

This band had a settled feel to them, not only because they were seated for the most part, but also because of the sound they produced; there was a definite hint of whale song at certain points. A minimum of five minutes for a song, but what songs! While they were repetitive, there wasn’t any complaining about their finesse. The band was in sync all throughout despite the fact that they weren’t even looking at each other!

All four band members were bent over their instruments, hair shadowing their faces while they strummed, plucked and tapped for all they were worth. ‘6 A.M.’, ‘Acid Rain’ and ‘The Day After’ had the audience lulled into a sense of comfort as any beautiful Saturday morning should.

When Adam and the Fish Eyed Poets sauntered on stage later that the evening, we smirked because we were one of the few in on their secret. Here it is: there is no Adam. The frontman is Chennai-based singer songwriter Kishore Krishna who formed the current lineup of the Poets to promote material from two previously released albums. The four-member band put on a quick fire set with short punchy songs. A consistent post-punk sound with characteristic overdriven guitars sound punctuated with staccato-like riffs and break sections, a heavy chorus with extensive use of the crash, blended with some lyrical wizardry made for a brilliant show.

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

We happened to walk in right on ‘Little Monkeys’ and couldn’t help but notice Krishna’s Telecaster with analog stomp boxes. Typically up-tempo and energetic with classy crunchy-fuzz guitar tones and with running bass lines, the songs had Krishna moving from whispers to a rough-voiced lad to full throat screams. Often, even his vocals were drowned out by the music and the lyrics unfortunately were barely discernible. A few songs later, the band pulled a switcheroo with the guitarist and bassist exchanging places on a couple of tracks to end the show. The audience hollered for “one more”, and the boys obliged much to everyone’s delight.

We caught up with Krishna after his set for a little conversation about his influences and aspirations. The sound they have arrived at can be mostly attributed to the late 50s Stax/Volt Record Label’s music era along with the late 70s post punk movement. He said he prefers using his analog pedals because with the limitations in terms of sound, comes the opportunity to arrive at a distinct original sound. It definitely scores over a multi-light-bleeping-console with so much processing power it could take the focus away from the simple things. Since the material draws so much on the songwriting and lyrical themes, their next album has a very imaginative and dystopian concept album with an alternating first person narrative of a 30-year marital setting between a Dyke and a Schizoid. Heavy!

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

We were just getting comfortable with watching a good act on stage when Adil and Vasundhara walked on. Adil Manuel (guitar) and Vasundhara Vidlur (vocals) head this project that experiments with Latin-jazz, jazz-rock and funk grooves with an extremely intimate RnB and soul-influenced vocal style. Adil and Vasundhara performed songs off their self-titled debut EP that was recorded after they formed the outfit in January of 2009. Most of their tracks on the recording feature as soulful acoustic melodies, so Adil went unplugged for the first few songs of their set. Saurabh on bass and their short-notice replacement drummer provided a funky, low-key groove backdrop to the dominating foreground of Adil’s vast repertoire of nomadic jazz voicing and inversions, harmonically balancing Vasundhara’s soul singing.

Tracks like ‘Just Another Blues’ and ‘Pinocchio Times’ showcased Vasundhara’s dynamics with a powerfully projected voice that could playfully shift from sultry and husky to a strong, big-bodied high note effortlessly. Her impressive stage presence is complemented by Adil’s fluid, McLaughlin-esque solo spots that leave you dazzled for their complexity. You could catch the bass and drums always right in the groove pocket, even over an odd-metered time that Vasundhara simply soared over, powerful and elegant at the same time. Adil had a ball with his ‘Cry Baby’ and went beserk on a solo section. On one Latin beat, Saurabh provided the bass and chord voice with a two-finger tap sequence over the guitar solo.

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

They ended their set with a powerful song ‘Blue Bashing’, about a spat between two people that Vasundhara wrote after one such incident with Adil! While neither has been trained formally in music, Adil’s biggest inspiration is the legendary Allan Holdsworth and finally had a chance of meeting his idol recently in Mumbai. He also cites greats like Scott Henderson, John Scofield and Frank Zappa for their techniques that continue to inspire his sound. He says it is critical for a musician to develop a sense of “vocabulary” that speaks for your music. Without developing and improving on a vocabulary, musicians cannot achieve an individual style and would end up sounding like just another guitarist. He went on to say if Indian musicians took the effort to work on their identity and sound more original we would not have to seek fame and riches elsewhere. Adil has been a professional musician for years now, having played in bands like Asphyxia, MRP, Polio, The Rock Opera and more commercially with Bandish, Silk Route and Indian Ocean.

Vasundhara said her vocal techniques initially developed while performing with the Choral collaborative ‘Artists Unlimited’ in Delhi, where she was exposed to Gospel, Soul and RnB sounds. She has since performed with international composers and even voiced characters on-screen. Her strength also lies in the fact that she is comfortable singing in French and has performed for various French Music festivals.

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

After a fitful conversation with Adil and Vasundhara, we had spotted this deranged looking guy with a suit in the audience and thought “Man is he at the wrong gig!” Turns out it was Nikhil, the drummer for the band The Jass B’stards, who incidentally was celebrating his birthday. We had seen a video of these B’stards supporting the Indie singer-songwriter Noush Like Sploosh and were mighty curious about them. There’s an aura of what-are-these-guys-about-ness that surrounds and shadows them. A gamut of instruments was brought up on stage, some shakers, some tambourines, a Theremin (which didn’t work) and two fezs. Stefan (keyboards), Tony (Bass) and Nikhil (Drums) belted out their first track ‘Samba Sin Titulo’ or roughly translated from the Polish – ‘Samba without a title’, a wild instrumental jam led with an Electric Piano melody. Nikhil’s up-tempo, double-time style drumming kept the beat super-pacy along with Tony’s consistency on the bass.

It was more than evident these guys were having way more fun – with their antics and tomfoolery – than the handful of free spirits right below the stage gypsying around to the groove. Stefan scurried off to return with a transistor radio, belting out some static-scratchy Hindi tunes off it. It’s amazing how furiously a drummer can play even with a tweed suit on, so furious and erratic that the other two had to tackle him just to keep his impulses from hurting himself! Stefan kept things wacky with a conductor’s whistle, crying away over some looping convoluted sounds and textures on his Nord keyboard. It was fun all the way with the B’stards, so much that they called on Gauri – another prominent Indie singer songwriter – for a song they haven’t played before. But that’s okay; The Jass B’stards have refined the art of not practicing to an unattainable level. Gauri sang over some improvised lyrics and music, with a bold, broad tom-boyish vocal range, before she darted off stage to an equally improvised ending. Their last track featured some vocals by Stefan, poetry even with small mellow sections in between the main groove sequence that had a sense of terror rising within the music, creating epic tension that crescendoed into a dramatic piano-led outro.

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

We met with the band post set, and must confess, had the best interview ever. You cannot get a straight answer from these guys and each question meets with pithy, wry, sarcastic humor bouncing off each other just like on stage. It’s worth mentioning some of the band’s influences include the smell of a damp cat, poorly translated Chinese menus and creaky wooden stairs. Nikhil mentioned that of late, he’s been listening to some good Russian music. That was a marked improvement from the bad Russian music he’d been listening to all this while.

Nikhil – “You should also listen to some fine porn music”

Us – “What’s the best kind?”

Nikhil – “Vintage of course”

Four-piece ensemble Peter Cat Recording Company took to the stage next. My only regret is not being to meet with the band post gig, because these guys have the freshest new sound on the block. Their music has been attempted to be described with tags like Gypsy Jazz with Midnight Moonlit Car Chase music inspired by Frank Sinatra and old Bollywood film music. The music has lyrics that are cynical and sinister which, accompanied by Suryakant’s smoky velvet voice, make it sound like ‘failed circus music’. There was a light drizzle in the air when they took to the stage as the penultimate band. Their music is so ethereal and bizarre, yet has this reassuring old world charm like a black and white film soundtrack on vinyl.

The Big Mushroom Cloud Festival at Counterculture, Bangalore

PCRC started out as material written by Suryakant Sawhney in San Francisco, which he continued when he moved back to India in 2008. He met members of a local metal outfit Lycanthropia with Karan (drums), Rohan (Bass) and Anindya (Guitars, Keyboard) to form PCRC to record their debut album. They performed the opening track of the album ‘Pariquel’, which seems to talk about delusional lovers and prostitutes, a recurrent lyrical theme. ‘Love Demons’ featured an extended surreal sequence, plunging into a heady mélange of sounds with a quasi-harmonium/Russian organ. The audience just had to have another song, the band brought on the popular ‘Clown on the 22nd Floor’ which has this whimsical swingy carnival sound that ends with a Hindi film dialogue playing in the background.

At the end of the festival, we caught up with Abhishek from Logic and Madness who said the intention of this year’s format was to open up the festival to new sounds and new bands. An alternative festival to bring together off beat culture, art and music and form a collective that would manifest in an out-worldliness of influence on contemporary images and sounds.

It was rather unfortunate that we had to inevitably miss out on the performances by Stuck in November, Avilente, The Family Cheese, Schizophonic and The Bicycle Days; we’re sure we’ll catch them some other time!

Sharanya Nair

Sharanya is a 'writer' and an 'editor'. You know the type. She loves her music too much to share.

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