Festival Report: The Old and (Somewhat) Gold Shine at ShiRock 2019, Manipur
American glam metal party-starters Extreme and Scottish hard rock veterans Nazareth pulled in apparently over 30,000 people to make ShiRock one of the most popular music gatherings in the North East
On our way up to Ukhrul from Imphal, one of the first unofficial signs of their annual festival ShiRock is a makeshift bamboo stall, which has a printed out paper sign “Café Nazareth.” We didn’t need to guess what music that shack was blasting. Although a three-hour drive from Imphal, the town of Ukhrul was a verdant and serene space for a rock and metal show. It also hosts the Shirui Lily Festival, which ShiRock is part of.
Through the course of four days, Scottish hard rock/metal band Nazareth (headliners on day one, October 16th) and American glam metal/rock band Extreme (closing the festival on October 19th) took to the stage, along with 22 other rock bands from across the North East competing for a huge grand prize of Rs. 10 lakh. Additional performers included Manipuri folk/blues hero Guru Rewben Mashengva (who brought out some boisterous energy to start on October 16th), ShiRock 2018 band competition winners, metal band Reverse Tragedy, and more.
Even though heavy rain delayed proceedings, ShiRock being a government sponsored festival meant that they could run on a bit late if they had to. Ultimately, different days wrapped up at different times than scheduled – between the range of midnight to 10:30 pm. It didn’t matter too much, because thousands showed up over the course of four days. Festival estimates counted over 10,000 people attending Nazareth’s shimmering, nostalgia-inducing rock performance, while Extreme’s headline set was attended on ground by nearly 30,000 people. Passes were free but to be collected beforehand from a ticket center, which meant that anyone who took the effort could attend.
The only sort of dampener – apart from the rain and heavy dew that would settle on the grounds as the festival evening wore on, making everything a little slippery – was the 30-feet gap between the stage and the audience. While media personnel and “premium gallery” visitors would have a closer look at the bands, the hardcore fans were behind a barricade that made even the front row feel a tad disappointed. Perhaps for security’s sake – there were innumerable armed forces arriving by the truckload to Ukhrul and spread across Bakshi ground – but it poised an amusing problem for bands. For the most part, they could barely hear the cheer from the audiences or have them sing along audibly.
Even Nazareth’s frontman Carl Sentance was surprised at the gap. “You’re so far away. You’re the most important people,” he said in a sympathetic tone. Nazareth provided nothing short of feel-good, singalong rock, including songs like “Hair of the Dog,” “Heart’s Grown Cold” and songs off their latest album Tattooed On My Brain, including “Change.” Once frustrated that guitarist Jimmy Murrison’s guitar picks didn’t even reach far into the media pit, Sentence found his way down and amongst the crowd as Murrison blazed a solo on stage, chucking a goodie bag into the audience during “Changin’ Times.” The frontman took a moment to talk about the Shirui Lily – which seemed less like a plug and more like a genuine thought – and then launched into “Love Hurts,” one of their more popular renditions.
Contrast that with Extreme – headlining on October 19th – and there was a lot more anticipation but not the best show in the world necessarily. After nearly an hour of waiting, the American band took to the stage with little fuss to kick into “It(’s A Monster).” Gary Cherone, dazzling for the most part, left many a bit wanting with his vocal game, especially when you’re belting out stomping, arena rock and glam metal. Where he may not have hit all the notes, guitarist Nuno Bettencourt and bassist Pat Badger backed up Cherone solidly, much to the crowd’s delight. They ran through songs like “Get the Funk Out,” the chunky and wiry “Rest In Peace” and “Hip Today.” Bettencourt was a star of the show, making his guitar sing on “Kid Ego,” leading the band with a semi-acoustic detour and then sitting down to jam out on the glittering “Midnight Express.” Much like Sentance, Bettencourt too was peeved about the massive crowd control. He said to the audience at one point, “You should be right in front. Can we make that happen? Is anybody from the government here? We’re hoping they can let you up in front here, where you’re supposed to be for a rock concert.”
When obviously nothing of that sort happened, Extreme rolled on, hitting the spot with “Cupid’s Dead” and “Decadence Dance.” It’s a total blast from the past, as people are launched on shoulders of their friends and the crowd jumps in unison. Cherone and Bettencourt come out to play the most anticipated song of ShiRock 2019, “More Than Words,” but leads into Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” wishing he’d written that song. Nonetheless, “More Than Words” has every voice in the crowd singing, many with a phone up in one hand and the other hand waving. The encore also included their triumphant cover of “We Are the Champions,” one more song all of Ukhrul was ready to sing along to.
This was a crowd that was equally warm to the 22 bands who competed in the band contest, but also critical. From the audience, you’d hear everything from “ShiRock rocks!” to “There ain’t no once more for you buddy.” The bands (plus the 13 singers taking part in the voice competition) majorly binged on the high-pitched, Robert Plant and Rob Halford-esque style of singing, but there was still something refreshing on offer. Our favorites included Jowai, Meghalaya’s pop/funk band Larger Than 90, Assamese metallers Nephele, Imphal’s own prog band Chasing Proxima, Aizawl neo-soul/funk band Origami, Nagaland’s indie/grunge mainstays Papersky and Imphal hard rock band Innocent Eyes. The emergent winners took us by surprise, with first place going to Sikkim prog band Nightmares, second place shared by Papersky and Mizoram prog band Sword Tune and third place secured by Manipur’s own AC/DC tribute band (yes) called High Volt.
Putting aside the obvious contentiousness of band competition results, the tens of thousands who showed were undoubtedly happy that a festival like ShiRock is putting Manipur on the map. Their band competition might be borrowing a whole lot from Hornbill International Rock Conest’s decade-long success in Nagaland, but it’s enough to garner attention and support the main headliners.