This summer we bring you a new column for all things musical, but with a dash of lime. By composer and song writer Neel Adhikary who needs no introduction. This month, a lowdown of the Kasauli Rhythm and Blues Festival.
Ignoramus is my pet name and Logic sometimes evades me. I just discovered that Kalka is a place four hours from Delhi by the Shatabdi Kalka Express. I always thought that The Kalka Express is named after a famous scientist or a fearless freedom fighter. The Kasauli Rhythm and Blues Festival happened one and a half gorgeous hours away in Kasauli, not to be confused with the hippie hot spot Kasol.
On reaching, we walked into a wet venue where the sound equipment was being covered by tarpaulin. The atmosphere was tense at the Baikunth Resort because a substantial chunk of the sound check had been rained out. God shuffled his cards and the cloud cover gave way to a gorgeous sunset that kicked off the festival.
The tarpaulin came off. The mercury dropped.
Big Band Blues slid into an energetic set and worked the crowd. They even managed to auction a CD of their contemporary blues songs at three thousand rupees. The money was donated to the fund for the treatment of ten terminally ill children that Genesis foundation had organised this festival for. Mini Coopers were littered all over the resort and Jack Daniels was on the house. The sky was orange. The two main sponsors had set up a truly eclectic ambience.
Multicoloured chinese lanterns lit the stage as the fusion rock band Mrigya slammed into the crowd with their odd meters and complex blends of Raagas. Vocal and Violin alaaps that sat comfortably on a bed of drums, tabla, bass, electronics and guitar. Ex-Orange Street bassist Neel Hariharan formed this band almost a decade back and has been going strong since. A very democratic band I must say. Everyone got their solos in equal measures in each and every song. Sukriti’s vocals humanised the mathematics in the music. The audience was on their feet.
Several jacks down, everyone wanted something they could sing along to, whether they sang Sahi or Ghalat. Ankur and the Ghalat Family was the perfect act for the situation. The attention suddenly shifted to the words. Ankur Tiwari is a script writer who writes great rock songs in hindi and sings them like he means it. He writes and sings the odd bollywood song but functions in the festival circuit mainly. The lyrics were tongue in cheek, yet touching and the arrangements for the songs were stunningly simple yet appealing. With Sidd Coutto on the drums and harmonies, you can’t go wrong. Ask me. I’ve played with him. The crowd sang along on almost every song. One could tell his music was well known as the crowd got closer to the stage and started dropping their inhibitions. Strange dancers with experimental jellyfish moves were spotted.
The last act of Day 1 was Papon and the East India Company. After winning the Jack Daniels award for best male vocals this year, his act was on a high. No pun intended. From “hello check” we could tell that a big voice was on stage. His hits Banao Banao, Jiya baitho Jai and Rang Barse had the audience glued to the stage. He sang several Assamese songs as well. We’ve all heard how music transcends cultural, social and linguistical barriers and he exemplified it. The band was an adept and able rock act with raunchy guitars and pounding drums. They killed the crowd.
The sound had been awesome.
As I reflected on the day while walking back with Avinash (our drummer) through the hill roads lit only by moonlight and the occasional passing car, I realised that rock was the only common structure in the all the acts that played, irrespective of sub genres.
Sunshine bathed the day. Everything was spanking new and fresh. The Peter Cat Recording Co. started DAY 2 of the festival at 4:30 pm. The crowd was quite obviously, still getting over the hangover from last night’s excesses. The setting sun created this magic light which complimented the band’s waltzy trip. Classic yet very contemporary. Suryakanth was singing like a nightingale, but he always does. The drummer switched roles and became a harmonium player in some songs. The crowd lay on the grass and soaked it in. The band was uncomfortable with the lack of energy displayed by the crowd, which was unfortunate because they sounded really good and everyone seemed to be digging it.
We were next on. Neel and the Lightbulbs gradually becomes Desert Funk! We still had about half an hour left before sunset. The crowd was waking up. The first two songs went down great. And then pooooof! The genset blew. We started after a fifteen minute break during which the organizers changed gensets. Our set started with just four of us playing our songs in English. Then we got in Gafoor Khan who joined our songs with Kadtaal (castanets) and Morsing (Jews harp). After five of our songs, we got the two monsters in. Kutla Khan (vocals) and Nathulal Solanki (Nagada). Seven of us on stage created pandemonium. Three rajasthani folk guys and the four of us. Drums, Bass, Guitar Acoustic Guitar, Nagada, Kadtaal Morsing and Vocals. Tritha had backpacked from Delhi and joined us on stage for a couple of songs. The line between the stage and the audience got blurred. Everyone was almost on stage. Strange Jellyfish dancers were spotted again. We ended our set with an auction of our EP. Prathamesh Navarane who manages us and Sridhar and Thayil, sold three Neel and the Lightbulbs cds for six thousand bucks which we donated to the fund.
The next act was one I was dying to see because I had met the band but never seen them play. Sridhar and Thayil came in and changed the mood completely. Suman’s sensual voice, Jeet’s crunchy guitars, incendiary lyrics on a down-tempo bluesy jazzy non conformist vibe. Tala played some blinding solos on his saxophone and some great rhodes. Then at one point the stage cleared out and Suman sat on the Electric Piano and sang a few songs on her own. Tala joined her on the sax for a couple more and then Jeet brought the band back. They performed songs from the last album STD and some from their upcoming one. They had a successful auction too but the digits were lost on me by then. The show over and pressure lifted, levitation had kicked in. They had tripped out the audience.
The last act of the festival was The Raghu Dixit Project. Everyone in the band was huge. Tall and BIG. After touring the UK extensively, amongst many other countries, he gave the sound guy a tough time. Or maybe it was the other way around. Raghu’s message was clear. “Stop tripping and start dancing”. His grasp on the audience was unreal. “Madam standing in front and looking pretty won’t do! You have to sing! ” He made the crowd sing Kannada folk songs. He even made the crowd improve their diction and synch by repeating the exercise. Happy chords and sweet melodies on a solid groove will always get you. The guitar player was technically one of the best and most effortless players I’ve seen. A seven foot tall babyface. He shifted to the ukelele for a few songs. It was day music at night, but it worked really well.
The festival disintegrated into many micro parties all over the resort. I floated from scene to scene before resuming the walk back to the artists’ hotel through the hill road. Not all festivals turn out as good as this one. The crowd had donated quite a bit. Later I heard that Raghu collected a huge sum for the kids after the show. Kudos to Genesis Foundation and Nanni Singh who runs the show. The key to a good festival, I realized, is good programming and good sound in a place with character. Pour yourself a glass of condensed music from a can of two days. It beats everything.