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Festival Review: How a Dark Cloud Hung Over Bacardi NH7 Weekender, Pune 2018

Although the ninth edition of the festival witnessed some stellar performances, there remained a sense of unease from attendees and performers alike

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David Britto Dec 18, 2018

American guitarist Joe Satriani headlining Day 2 of Bacardi NH7 Weekender 2018.

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After last month’s investigative story by The Caravan put forward several instances of abuse of power and mistreatment as well as creating an unsafe working environment for women at Bacardi NH7 Weekender organizer’s Only Much Louder’s (OML) headquarters, several attendees began selling their tickets for the Pune edition of the event and even artists such as Bengaluru electronica producer Disco Puppet and New Delhi indie label Azadi Records pulled out of performing at the festival.

It didn’t help that the ninth edition of the festival in Pune also included withdrawal from big draws for entirely different reasons. Australian neo-soul band Hiatus Kaiyote called off their India debut due to vocalist-guitarist Nai Palm’s recent diagnosis of breast cancer, while U.K.-based singer-songwriter Dot. said she was “going through a difficult period in my life” and hip-hop heavy-hitter Divine had logistical issues.

With last-minute reliable replacements in place, Weekender went ahead as scheduled between December 7th to 9th albeit with a slight tension in the air and awkwardness (especially when the safety for women video would play on the large screens in between sets). Like last year, we witnessed plenty of brand integration (Levis, Thar and more), a plethora of food stalls, festival and artist merchandize counters and a flea market at the spacious Mahalakshmi Lawns. But if you were present to take in all the music you can, the event had quite a chock-a-block schedule on all days.

Day 1: Benny Dayal brings the funk and God Is an Astronaut channel space rock

The first day kicked off with prog rock power from Mumbai outfit Across Seconds and Bengaluru djent-fusion band Pineapple Express. Mumbai’s Ladies Compartment brought their blissful four-part harmonies to The Doers Club stage while the Bacardi Arena geared up for the first international act of the festival, Australian post-rockers Sleepmakeswaves, who were making their India debut and performing plenty of material off last year’s Made of Breath Only. The band joked about writing about frigid climes despite being from sunny Sydney, but said they were happy to be in India.

Bass prodigy Mohini Dey.

Up next, Mumbai bass prodigy Mohini Dey brought her complex, intricate and ability to make the low end sound sweet playing to the Bacardi House Party Sessions stage accompanied by drummer Darshan Doshi and guitarist Rhythm Shaw, with the trio taking a surprisingly brutal detour with a sample of Lamb of God’s “Walk With Me In Hell.”

While praising the “real” fans who attended on Friday, Mumbai-based Ankur & The Ghalat Family showcased folksy and melodic tunes that went down as easy crowdpleasers at the Doers Stage. Simultaneously, New Delhi producer Lacuna presented his glitch, trap and bass heavy elements at the Breezer Vivid stage and fellow artists from the capital, contemporary-pop and Hindustani classical duo Shadow and Light ”“ joined by bassist Steve Peter and drummer Aveleon Giles Vaz ”“ took over the the Insider Other Stage with blues and jazz vibes. Singer Pavithra Chari amazed us with her crooning and keyboardist Anindo Bose delivered a bunch of lush solos.

Ankur Tewari from Ankur & The Ghalat Family.

Among the most awaited performances on day one was American prog metal band The Contortionist, who opened straight off with their biggest hits “Language I: Intuition” and “Reimaged,” vocalist Michael Lessard’s ability to go from growling to singing just like that. It became among the most evocative sets, even getting the moshpits started for “Primordial Sound,” although metalheads probably weren’t prepared for the gas cannons, streamers and fireworks that was part of their hour-long set.

As far as hype went, Pune-based post-rockers Aswekeepsearching pulled out all stops at the Bacardi House Party stage. The band ”“ who performed material off 2015’s Khwaab and its follow up Zia was joined by Sambit Chatterjee (from Kolkata rockers The Ganesh Talkies) on guitar and percussion. The group even invited two contemporary dancers to join them to make for a visually pleasing experience, including a bit of pyrotechnics.

Benny Dayal brought the funk and some.

While day one was filled with plenty of rock ”“ it was refreshing to hear the tasty, groovy and funky tunes of Chennai-based Benny Dayal & Funktuation. The group was by far the best act of the day, driven by the effervescent Dayal, who went between catchy tracks like “Dragon Warrior,” the Eighties disco track “Dhekle,” the kazoo welcoming “On Repeat” as well as Dayal’s Nucleya collaboration for the 2016 Bollywood film Kapoor & Sons, “Let’s Nacho.”

Over at the Doers Club stage, more emphatic Bollywood was on offer, courtesy of composer duo Salim ”“ Sulaiman. From the emotional “Ali Maula,” a pumpy mashup of the title track from the 2014 Bollywood movie Bang Bang with Bruno Mars’ “24k Magic,” the folk leaning “O Re Piya,” the energetic “Dance Pe Chance” as well as their magnum opus “Chak De! India.” Throughout the day the Breezer Vivid stage received a low turnout, even when New Delhi drum and bass artist Tarqeeb played a closing set. The producer showcased his hip-hop, grime and even reggae selections, boldly finishing with Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Three Little Birds.”

Space rock outfit God Is an Astronaut headlining Day 1 of Weekender.

Closing the Bacardi Arena was Irish space rock band God Is an Astronaut who blazed the stage with layered guitars, emo vibes and melodic harmonies. The band put on a stellar performance with tracks such as the atmospheric “The End Of The Beginning” and the resounding “All Is Violent, All Is Bright.” Day one of Weekender got off to a slow start, although for rock lovers it was a blessing. While we were surprised that EDM received no love from attendees ”“ going by the low turnout at the electronica stage ”“ it was probably due to the fact that more attendees were to reach the festival over the next two days.

Day 2: Satriani solos, Sandunes’ immersive set and more

On the second day, we arrived at the venue during seven-piece Australian garage rock band West Thebarton’s set at the Bacardi Arena. The band’s high energy, punk leanings and heavy components — four guitars fighting over each other and although some would be put off by vocalist Reverend Ray’s screechy, sometimes off-key singing, but that’s give-a-damn music for you.

Artists have always been eager to prove themselves on a Weekender stage, and that seemed to have involved a scaled up performance for most. On day one, New Delhi electronic music producer and drummer Rijul Victor aka Corridors had scaled up to a full band at the Breezer Vivid stage, the second day featured specially crafted sets by the likes of Mumbai R&B/jazz outfit Kimochi Youkai, with vocalist Ambika Nayak’s refreshing vocals accentuated by harmonies from singers Shreya Bhattacharya and Azamaan Hoyvoy. Over at the Bacardi House Party stage Chennai electronica duo Sapta ”“ who were joined by a four-piece string quartet ”“ took live electronica to a whole new level and performed plenty of material from this year’s Heart Disk. New Delhi’s Komorebi scaled up to include bass, guitars and additional vocals at the Doers Club stage, while Mumbai outfit Ape Echoes offered attendees their crunchy and groove-based electronic-jazz sounds. The ones who already had a solid hold on this format of live electronica – like New Delhi producer Dualist Inquiry (joined by drummer Suyash Gabriel, keyboardist Anil Chawla and violinist Sayan Sinha at the Bacardi House Party stage) and Mumbai/Bengaluru trio DCF_Shapes – delivered impressively.

Kimochi Youkai’s Ambika Nayak.

New Delhi arena-rock band The Local Train were repeating history from 2017, performing to a full house even later in the day, bringing euphoria to what may be their last performance at an OML event, considering they released a statement to withdraw from all future association with the company. While there was one attendee who claimed to have played hide and seek with security personnel to don a sign protesting against OML’s problematic workplace, Rymbai/Shillong reggae outfit Dewdrops had good vibes but also a message. Vocalist Rowynk Dkhar said before their last song, “We don’t like sexual harassment at all.”

(Right) Electronica artist Sandunes with vocalist Sohrab Nicholson.

At the Insider.In Other Stage Kochi folk rockers When Chai Met Toast delivered a fun performance and kept the happy vibes going with songs such as “Firefly,” “Believe” and more. One of the best Indian performers on day two was Mumbai electronica artist Sandunes’ set at the Breezer Vivid stage. The producer ”“ accompanied by drummer Dhir Mody and vocalist Sohrab Nicholson ”“ put on a display of perfection with her involvement not just as a DJ but also a keyboardist, fiddling with a xylophone sounding instrument and being an overall conductor. Sandunes definitely delivered the most immersive performance of the evening. A stark contrast was the adrenaline-fueled desi bass of producer Ritviz, for whom the entire Breezer Vivid stage area and the bar outside was filled to the brim, pyro, bass drops and a sing-along to his hit “Udd Gaye” clearly elevated the young producer’s clout.

Joe Satriani.

Probably the biggest name of all three days at Weekender was about to grace an Indian stage once again after 13 years. American guitarist Joe Satriani’s high octane and dynamic performance filled all the space available with guitar loving attendees at the Bacardi Arena. Satriani’s wails, skills, speed and precision was quite a sight. The guitarist sent everybody into a tizzy when he pulled out songs such as “Always with Me, Always with You,” “Crowd Chant,” “Satch Boogie,” “Flying In A Blue Dream” and the ever pleasing “Surfing with the Alien.” Solos galore and screaming fans brought an end to quite a busy day two at Weekender.  

Day 3: Groove all day

If the first day was a treat for rock fans and the second day offering diversity, the final day of Weekender had a billing you could groove on all day. While it started on a softer note with Bengaluru indie trio Cinema of Excess, Mumbai R&B neo soul band Smalltalk were at their sublime best, followed by the India debut of Scottish band The LaFontaines who showcased a mix of electro-rock and hip-hop at the Bacardi Arena, while Bengaluru hip-hop act All.OK did their best to hype the scant crowd at the Breezer Vivid Stage.

Mumbai singer-songwriter Aditi Ramesh.

The Insider.In Other Stage welcomed the Carnatic meets blues and jazz sounds of Mumbai-based singer-songwriter/keyboardist Aditi Ramesh. After performing with her band Ladies Compartment on day one, Ramesh’s lineup of musician’s for her solo set featured guitarist A.C., bassist Bijit Bhattacharya and drummer Ishan Jadwani. Ramesh performed material from her debut EP Autocorrect as well as unreleased tracks like her tribute to her Carnatic roots on “Origin,” the slow jam rap-esque “Folders” and “Don’t Be Rude.”

Mumbai electronica artist Kumail took over the Bacardi House Party stage next alongside drummer Jeremy D’souza and Nathan Thomas on bass and triggering samples. Kumail provided listeners with lo-fi synthwave and spacy elements during his performance. At the same time, New York-based world music outfit House of Waters’ technical know-how and intricate sensibilities to their songs offered a tasty flavor of sounds. Hammered dulcimer player Max ZT shone brightly on the percussion-stringed instrument, inviting fusion frontrunner Karsh Kale on tabla for their closing song.

During Bengaluru-bred DJ Gurbax’s set, security had to stop attendees from entering the indoor stage due to the influx of people and overcrowding of the area. If the EDM faithful was a sleeping giant on Friday, they definitely made their presence felt on Sunday.

U.K. punk jazz band WorldService Project.

If you ever wondered what punk rock, blues and jazz would sound like if played at the same time ”“ you only had to make your way to the Bacardi Arena and catch U.K.-based WorldService Project show you how it’s done. The band pushed hard on songs such as “To Lose the Loved” and “Fire In A Pet Shop.” Exuberant trombone parts by Raphael Clarkson and spiraling saxophone work by Ben Powling summed up WorldService Project’s emphatic set.

While the Insider.In Other Stage saw the return of Kimochi Youkai’s Nayak and Nirmit Shah with their live electronica duo Nothing Anonymous, the Doers Club was full blown Hindi rock by Mumbai’s The Yellow Diary. Vocalist Rajan Batra’s soaring vocals coupled with Stuart DaCosta bass lines and guitarist Vaibhav Pani’s smashing solos made for quite a delightful listen. The band’s set included material from their just released EP Izafa. There was more Hindi rock to heighten the senses courtesy of our May 2018 cover stars, Bengaluru rockers Parvaaz, who went on next at the Bacardi House party stage. The band displayed a groovy and energetic performance with songs off their 2012 EP Behosh and 2014’s full-length Baran and three songs off their forthcoming second album.    

U.K. hip-hop DJ Nightmares on Wax.

By the end of the festival, we were milling about to catch a fusion set by vocal stalwart Shubha Mudgal, an all-out soul, funk, hip-hop blend from U.K.’s Nightmares on Wax and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist French Kiwi Juice aka FKJ. After a steady buildup through past performances in the country, FKJ’s ethereal electronica-jazz was a party for the ears and had attendees transported to another space. His ability to switch between triggering samples, guitar, bass, keys, Rhodes piano and of course saxophone was a masterful display.

FKJ ran through songs off his 2017 self titled debut album such as “Skyline,” “Lying Together,” “Go Back Home” and “Better Give U Up” (the main riff which sounds glaringly similar to Cardi B and Bruno Mars’ 2018 collaboration “Finesse”).  The musician also presented a remix version of British singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas’ “Unstoppable,” a track he wrote on the spot with the help of the crowd clapping to create a beat, his collab with English musician Tom Misch, “Losing My Way,” and also the saxophone heavy hit creation with American artist Masego, “Tadow.”

French multi-instrumentalist FKJ headlining Day 3 of the festival.

While this year’s festival delivered with plenty of new acts, seasoned performers and can’t miss headliners ”“ what does the future hold for Bacardi NH7 Weekender? Considering the fest would be celebrating its 10th edition next year, organizers OML seem to have played a wait and watch game ahead of Weekender. Receiving backlash for their response to The Caravan story, which clarified its stance and offered no apology, some introspection will do more good than harm to the image of the festival.  Although Bacardi NH7 Weekender is not the be all and end all in the Indian music festival space ”“ it has certainly laid the foundation over the years to where the festival scene has reached. While a dark cloud certainly hung over the “happiest” music festival this year, one can only wait to see if a 10th edition is announced or if it’s the end of an era.  

Inputs from Anurag Tagat. 

All photos courtesy of Fleck Media. 

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