Facing the Music
In spite of the commercial wisdom backing the headliners, the sad turnout was a lesson learnt at Rock ‘N India’s third edition
Agreed, it was the stuff of travesty. DNA, the organisers of one of the country’s biggest rock shows/festivals did kind of blaspheme in the name of rock when they announced the headlining acts for Rock ‘N India’s third edition, Backstreet Boys and Richard Marx – after having brought down metal/rock heavyweights in the likes of Iron Maiden and Megadeth the past two years. There was a minor internet uprising which went as far as some trying to hack the official Rock ‘N India site in attempts to make some nasty alterations to it. Besides the headliners, the lesser-known and more rock-worthy acts scheduled to play the festival included South African alt rockers Prime Circle, UK-based upcoming artist Jayce Lewis and home bands Swarathma and Indigo Children. While the country’s rock listening audience was all riled up, only a faint echo of the uproar had reached Lewis – who felt it a privilege to be playing alongside such a huge pop sensation in its own time – and Prime Circle – who were unsure as to what the whole fracas/row was actually about. Regardless of all the internet bashing and anti-Rock ‘N India campaigns, I felt Backstreet Boys had enough muscle to pull in a large number in Delhi if not Bengaluru. Especially since it was the first time the festival was being held in the capital and also because Delhi is known to have quite an appetite for pop music.
It would be fair to say that only about a fourth of the vast NSIC grounds in Okhla, Delhi – where the show was being held – were occupied, with the turnout at about two thousand, it seemed a manifestation of the detractors’ prayers. While there was still light, Bengaluru indie-folk outfit Swarathma and local new age punk/pop trio Indigo Children duly did their bit of warming up and welcoming an audience most of which had clearly come for their bit of nostalgia tripping with Marx and Backstreet. As the evening caught on, Lewis took to stage and the solo artist from South Wales was well received with his brand of high-energy electro-rock. He played tracks from his yet unreleased material which shall be out on his debut album scheduled for release later this year. Lewis’ most popular single ‘Icon,’ – which receives fair play on VH1 and is his only officially released track online – whipped up a bit of a sonic frenzy and got the rock rolling with the audience. Lewis’ music is a mash up of NIN rage with a hint of his influences in the likes of Fear Factory, which he dishes out live with his guitarist, bassist and a digital groove master, while he takes on vocal duties and steps in on some live drumming (a subtle reminder of his past with alt rock band Losing Sun.)
South African band Prime Circle who performed next, salvaged a slice of the rock in India with its Nickelback meets Three Doors Down brand of alternative rock. Prime Circle got quite the roaring reception with tracks like ‘All I Need,’ ‘She Always Gets What She Wants,’ ‘Let Me Go’ and ‘Hello Hello.’ ‘She Always Gets What She Wants,’ one of the band’s more popular hits (off its latest album All or Nothing) exposed numbered fans in the audience who were singing along, and eventually vocalist Ross Learmonth managed to get a greater share of the audience to work the chorus with him. Both Prime Circle and Lewis have performed in India on different occasions last year, and after this one it seems they managed to increase their fan base, whatever little.
If one were not to play the fussy cynic and rock fanatic, Richard Marx’s dose of pop rock was the highlight of the night. His performance justified his live stage presence with a tight backing band and some stellar dynamics. Though in his forties, Marx beamed with boyish charms as he rolled in one smash hit after another with numbers like ‘Over My Head,’ ‘Satisfied,’ ‘Endless Summer Nights’ and ‘Now and Forever.’ The humble gathering managed to rise up to the lung capacity of a packed house as they cheered him on and sang along. Marx closed his set with the sober twang of an acoustic guitar on his popular tearjerker ‘Right Here Waiting.’ The man simply did his job well, no matter what your taste in music.
And then in the darkness that followed, madness ensued – a deafening roar accented with high pitched squealing. Backstreet Boys were up next and with the fanfare the crowd just went berserk – going by the cacophony, everyone in that audience was assuredly a Backstreet fan or had been at some point in time, because for two thousand people they sure did manage to make up for all who didn’t show up. The now four piece band – Brian Litrell, AJ McLean, Howie Dorough and Nick Carter – opened with ‘Everybody’ and knew better than to play from their more recent albums. They mostly sang songs off their first three albums which were also perhaps their most popular. The band strung through many of their love ballads – ‘Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely,’ ‘As Long as You Love Me,’ ‘Quit Playing Games’ – and pop anthems – ‘Larger than Life’ and ‘Everybody.’ The crowd’s enthusiasm was a mite unreal as the boys seemed more like outdated performance jocks doing a redundant routine – the boys broke into the robot whenever the beats obliged – whose vox one suspects were bolstered by original recordings. Truth be told the audience was completely sold on them, but it was in the disappointing turnout that I believe one could measure what the Backstreet Boys might be worth today on their maiden performance, even in a city like Delhi. When the boys finally wrapped their act up and exited the stage – with a promise to play India again – there was not one shout out for an encore, the audience turned their back to the stage just as quickly, and I still can’t figure out why.