Festival Review: Bacardi NH7 Weekender, Shillong
Everything from Farhan Akhtar’s Bollywood shtick to melancholia courtesy Steven Wilson
“Listen, I’m really happy to be here,” announced Steven Wilson wryly somewhere in between insidious set-opener “Ancestral” and the full bloom of “Hand Cannot Erase”. “But I couldn’t help but notice that this festival is known as the ‘happiest music festival’. But I don’t do happy music, so I hope you like sad, melancholic, depressing shit, alright?” To which the vocalist-guitarist was greeted by the (surprisingly cheerful) roar of thousands, now drunk on Bacardi buckets and the prospect of their headliner’s profoundly depressing prog rock. It was just one of the many ways in which Wilson and co. would claim 2016’s first leg of Bacardi NH7 Weekender as it returned to the North-East.
Knowingly or not, Wilson’s presence had a rippling effect even before he took to the Bacardi Arena to sign off day two of Shillong’s second Weekender edition. The UK prog musician’s rehearsals on day one of the festival—in a backstage space built especially for the band—delayed the gates and the rest of the day’s schedule by 20 minutes. (In Weekender time, that’s a fairly big delay, considering the tightly-bound itinerary the festival runs by.)
But if there’s anything Weekender has established itself for with its past six editions, it’s an unyielding punctuality that persists even in the face of technical issues. So by 3.30pm, while the winding improv-heavy solo of Wilson’s “Regret #9” wafted out from somewhere behind the Bacardi Arena, Guwahati-based indie rock band Elephant in the Elevator and Mumbai singer-songwriter Tejas Menon quickly took center stage as the first acts of the day.
As is almost always the case with opening slots, neither drew a particularly sizeable crowd. Menon, to his credit (and fresh off a bout of dengue) was in top form with his backing band as they ran through tracks off his 2014 debut EP Small Victories, and newer material like the John Mayer-esque “Come On Love, Give Me A Reason to Want You” from his upcoming crowdfunded album. Weekender debutantes Elephant in the Elevator had much fewer takers, most of whom quickly migrated to the opposite Dewarists stage when Hindi pop/rock act Ankur & The Ghalat Family made a bright start to a consistently solid set.
Up until now, it seemed like most attendees—many of whom had traveled from across the country—had stumbled into the out-of-the-way venue of RBDSA Sports Complex by accident. Maybe they were distracted by the Breezer Game Arena’s life-size zorb-ball bowling experience. Or the Instagram-friendly #BacardiHouseParty tub, giant photo frames and funky Periphery Art Project installations that peppered the festival grounds. Or—albeit less likely—the rows of food stalls, ranging from local Bhoirymbong delicacies to North-Eastern cuisines of Garo, Naga and Khasi and even a paan centre (!).
Things started to pick up as local trio Dossers Urge turned it up to 11, and then some, back at the Bacardi Arena. As siblings David, Romeo and Gideon Kom jammed out with a confident, clanging recklessness—all power chords and power stances—it wasn’t tough to see why they had made it all the way to recording in New York’s Converse Studios earlier this year. Up next, electronic/dream pop duo Parekh & Singh were received warmly as they worked through one of the festival’s best sets, with music as quirky as their outfits. While Nischay Parekh flawlessly handled guitar and vocal duties, Jivraj Singh maneuvered a curious-looking set-up of part synthesizer, part percussion and part Macbook; together, the two took on heady, glitchy jams like “Panda” and the Wes Anderson-inspired (and approved) single “I Love You Baby, I Love You, Doll.”
But if electronica really was a preference among Weekender attendees, it certainly didn’t show until day two of the festival—the isolated Breezer Vivid Village saw few party animals for the Mumbai-based lineup of electronic artists, whether for Mumbai producer Kumail’s warping beats or New Delhi artist Su Real’s trap-leaning ‘Twerkistan’. Instead, the crowd preferred the stadium-sized rock ballads of Alobo Naga over Sickflip’s tune-twisting but soon thronged around Vir Das’s gig as he rolled out his brand of formulaic comedy rock.
Back at the main arena, penultimate headliners Vertical Horizon may have been faced off with guitarist and local favorite Bipul Chettri at the Dewarist Stage, but the American alt rock act still pulled in a packed crowd. The Nineties rockers brought much of their India ecstasy to their otherwise-lovelorn, career-spanning set. “Bharat vapas aake mujhe bohot khushi ho raha hai [It feels great to be back in India]!” stumbled frontman Matt Scannell, in between “I’m Still Here” and “Instamatic.” But speaking Hindi was not the only difficult task Scannell breezed through—the vocalist-guitarist, whose guitar string snapped during the mellow “Best I Ever Had,” coolly handed his instrument backstage during the Depeche Mode and New Order-inspired “Lovestruck” and retrieved it in time for his own spotlight-claiming solo.
But turns out no guitar solos and Nineties’ anthems are really as appealing as the pull of Bollywood hits. It didn’t matter whether headlining act, singer-actor-filmmaker Farhan Akhtar and his backing band were in tune or not—all the screeching fangirls and shirtless enthusiasts really wanted to do was belt out chartbusters like “Main Aisa Kyun Hoon” and “Sinbad The Sailor.” Akhtar’s set was a cruel reminder that no matter how much independent music and its dedicated music festivals have grown, Bollywood is still going to retain its stronghold for many more years to come.
Day two turned out to be Wilson’s for the taking, but hosted equally memorable sets by most local acts through the day. That held true right from Prateek Kuhad’s early afternoon slot at the Dewarists stage, where the New Delhi-based singer-songwriter won over the front rows of fangirls with his quivering falsettos and four-chord strumming on tunes like “Oh Love.” Mumbai-based instrumentalist Rhythm Shaw, who took over next, had his own share of guitar-play too, but forayed far beyond simplistic accompaniment. Shaw and the rest of his band (including bass prodigy Mohini Dey) looked barely old enough to secure the above-21 festival wristband, but the jazz/instrumental collective brought what felt like decades’ experience of guitar noodling and solid rhythm work to the Insider.in Other stage.
Speaking of solid rhythm work, Shillong experimental metallers and RSMA 2015 Best Emerging Band Aberrant were unapologetically brutal as they dove into twin guitar attacks and double-bass assaults back at the Bacardi Arena. Tracks like “Shell Shocked” and “Circumvent the Hex” saw front-of-house moshpits, laying the ground for the next few metal acts. Kolkata experimental metallers What Escapes Me kept the energy up with tracks off their fusion metal debut Egress Point—what with powerhouse frontman Shourav Dey leaping about the Bacardi House Party stage, alternating between the most primal of growls and pitch-perfect clean vocals.
But if there’s anyone who truly nails a primal stage act, it’s New Delhi-based metallers Undying Inc.—whether it’s hulking frontman Shashank Bhatnagar’s ability to growl out to 2014’s “Xenophobe” while surfing the crowd, drum machine Nishant Hagjer and bassist Reuben Bhattacharya’s lethal grooves, or guitarist Biswarup Gupta’s ripping solos. One verse into “Pit Mechanics” and it’s not tough to see why the new Delhi metallers are one of the country’s most ferocious live acts, and have returned to play NH7 Weekender every year so far.
And if all the mainstage metal was too much to handle, there was enough laid-back electronica unraveling itself back at the Dewarists stage with London-based Wild Palms’ experimental spoken-verse-meets-synth; and enough club-friendly tunes back at the Breezer Vivid Village courtesy Chennai duo Sapta and Mumbai duo Madboy/Mink. Kolkata rap rockers and college circuit favorites Underground Authority brought their own party too, only with more of a socio-political strain. “Do the lines on the map define my enemy?” questioned frontman Santhanam Srinivasan Iyer aka EPR at one point. At other points during their stand-out set, EPR seemed to answer himself with songs like “Gypsy” and the pull-out-your-lighters moment on “Microphone.”
Language—or the lack thereof—was hardly a barrier for the majority of the crowd present. It’s as much a moment of wonder as a cause of amusement to hear thousands of locals singing along with and cheering on Bangla rock superstars Fossils, without really comprehending much of what’s going down. And although there was much less to sing along with when it came to post-rock act Aswekeepsearching, the pan-Indian band held the audience in just as much rapture through the ebb and flow of their instrumental wizardry.
With only two hours towards the close of the Shillong Weekender 2016, the number of festival-goers was now at an all-time high—and spoilt for choice of headliner. (Press release says 40,000 festival goers, but 15,000 seems more realistic.) There was blues giants Soulmate owning the Dewarists stage, bass king Nucleya taking over the Breezer Vivid Village, and Steven Wilson making his much-anticipated India debut at the main Arena. Although his touring band may have been greeted by deafening chants of “Wilson! Wilson!,” they were also greeted with 20 minutes’ worth of technical issues—a small hitch in the face of the artistry that followed. Wilson, donning an “ART IS TRUTH” T-shirt no less, led his band—drummer Craig Blundell, bassist Nick Beggs, guitarist Dave Kilminster and keyboardist Adam Holzman—through a somewhat career-spanning set-list. With soaring visuals of characters and storyboards that have become synonymous with the album, Wilson recreated much of 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. catalogue—the aching loss on “Routine” and the booming cynicism of “Home Invasion,” to name a few. Inevitably, the band also gave in to more crowd-friendly Porcupine Tree classics like “Lazarus” (dedicated to David Bowie), and “The Sound of Muzak.”
“Happiest music festival,” Wilson scoffed again, before veering from melancholia to morbidity on the freakish “Index,” an ominous instrumental with “Vermillioncore,” and finally mellowing on “The Raven Refused to Sing” to close out the night. With quadrophonic sound, life-sized visuals and stellar musicianship, Wilson’s set was less a performance than it was an immersive experience, much like Bacardi NH7 Weekender is growing to be.