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Ground Ziro: Following Lee Ranaldo and the Dust

Being on the band bus with The Dust may not have been thrilling, but their set at the Ziro festival was eine kleine blizzardmusik

Indrajit Hazra Oct 12, 2013
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Lee Ranaldo and the Dust. Photo: Shiv Ahuja/Ziro Festival of Music

Lee Ranaldo and the Dust. Photo: Shiv Ahuja/Ziro Festival of Music

It’s around 9:30 at night in the quiet valley town of Ziro. It’s Sunday. But then, at this time of night in any part of Arunachal Pradhesh, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a weekend or a weekday. It’s almost always quiet, especially here in the rolling meadows just outside Ziro town. Almost always. But not tonight.

A White middle-aged guy with an I’ve-just-got-out-of-bed shock of white hair  is coaxing his guitar with a bow Jimmy Page-style. With each stroke, a sound cluster erupts that’s like a whale song. It’s not only about someone being flashy on stage. It’s about making Ziro valley at night reverberate with a power groan that seems to come from the black horizon itself.

The spectacle and the sound comes from Lee Ranaldo and the Dust’s presence on the stage at the second Ziro Music Festival. Guitarist and frontman is straining out the long ”˜distort jam’ of the track ”˜Hammer Blows’, turning his guitar into a guitar-cello. He ends the epic number with a series of hand thump on the fret board and waits for a raucous silence to descend. It does. Which is immediately followed by a different roar, this time from the crowd who have come to witness the (ex-?) Sonic Youth guitarist turn the knob up in Ziro.

Only three days before, I meet Ranaldo for the first time at a stuffy, hot Guwahati Airport (the airport staff had gone on strike). He’s trying to be as affable as possible, but because of the long wait at the airport, he seems to be making a hash of it. Unlike two other members of his band, former Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and bassist Tim Lüntzel. Even in the pile-driving mugginess, Shelley is wearing a smile under his moptop hair. He looks anything but a drummer, and certainly anything but a Sonic Youth drummer. Shelley has the air of an early dotcom billionaire about him, while the younger Lüntzel, playing Ron to Shelley’s Keith, looks like a rock’n’roll Chewbacca with a bass clef tattooed on to his sleeveless forearm.

But it’s ”˜Sonic Middle Age’ Ranaldo I find myself discreetly staring at from time to time. This, I tell myself, is the guy who plays guitar in ”˜Teen Age Riot’, sings “Hey Joni” (“In this broken town, can you still jack in/And know what to do?”) and the gorgeous “Rain King” all on Sonic Youth’s majestic 1988 album, Daydream Nation. This is the same guy, who along with Sonic Youth’s ex power couple Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, redefined rock guitar-playing.

“You on the band bus?” Ranaldo semi-barks at me. I look suitably flustered and shrug and ultimately take another vehicle that will take Ranaldo and the Dust along with us stragglers from heat-swamped drizzling Guwahati to heavenly Ziro in a hellish 17-hour road journey. Ranaldo’s already snapped at my fellow-traveller and writer Palash Krishna Mehrotra for lighting up a cigarette in the band bus. “No smoking! No smoking in the band bus,” he says. After Mehrotra (and I) have disembarked from the ”˜band bus’, I reckon the rock’n’roller in Ranaldo realizes that he’s not sounding too rock ’n’ rollish. So he softens a bit and asks Mehrotra, ”˜Is that weed?’ When the contraband member replies in the affirmative, the anti-tobacco lobbyist in Ranaldo wakes up again asking Mehrotra, “But there’s tobacco in it, right?” The end result: Palash has to smoke outside the band bus.

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As frontman, Ranaldo probably has to bear the brunt of being first holed up at Guwahati airport for some two hours and then another two after the planned chopper flights that were supposed to take us to Ziro from Guwahati are summarily cancelled. Even after getting permission the day before, the organizers are told that the Indian Air Force chaps have scrapped the permission with no explanation given. So understandably, Ranaldo is in a foul mood and has no intention of suddenly becoming slack on Big or Small Tobacco and its worshippers.

In Ziro, it’s bassist Tim Lüntzel who decides to let his shaggy hair down. After already getting a few sneak swigs of Royal Stag whiskey (”˜Barrel Reserve’) from my stash during a pit stop on the road, I find him lugging around his own new bottle of Royal Stag in his knapsack. But this time round, he’s not happy with the non-premier whiskey’s taste. “Aah, it’s not the Barrel Reserve,” I explain. So, during the rest of the festival, Tim sticks to beer and locally brewed rice beer.

The night before Ranaldo and the Dust’s headlining gig at Ziro, Tim decides to break off from his fellow Dust members and do his own thing with us. At an after-party party, Lüntzel and I both agree that the DJ, Suryakant Sawhney, frontman-singer of Delhi burlesque cabaret prog-pop outifit Peter Cat Recording Co, is sucking behind the consoles. Filmmakers Kiran Rao in a blue hoodie and ”˜Q’ Mukherjee in a Brazil football jacket may be jiving away to the loungey nonsense, but Tim and I are looking for a better distraction. So we start talking in front of the dance floor about how fantastically fabulous Nirvana was.

Thankfully, Raxit Tewari, frontman of Mumbai indie-band Sky Rabbit, in his solo project avatar as Your Chin spins some magic music and saves the night.

Later that night-dawn, Tim, under the influence of the ”˜real Barrel Reserve’ Royal Stag’ shares a hilarious story about Roy Orbison that involves him exclaiming in the trademark Roy Orbison way, ”˜Oh mer-cay’, on discovering a large stash of cocaine.

The next day, I meet Ranaldo, Shelley and Dust guitarist Alan Licht, who looks like a depressive Carl Sagan, at the house of the Arunachal Pradesh minister of tourism. A hearty breakfast and a cute press conference in the minister’s living room later, Ranaldo and gang proceed to the venue for their soundcheck. I see Tim, still Royal Stagged-up, grinning from ear to ear on the stage as he Ranaldo plays puppet master with crew and the audio check guys.

The Dust's Tim Lüntzel (extreme right) Photo: Shiv Ahuja

The Dust’s bassist Tim Lüntzel (extreme right) Photo: Shiv Ahuja

By the thick of the evening, with Sky Rabbit coming as a healthy nibble before them, Ranaldo and the Dust takes to the stage. The night erupts almost immediately in the pop-hooked sound of “Off the Wall” with Ranaldo, looking intense and staring into the mic and sounding just that wee bit off in his voice, singing “It’s written in the sand/ The life and death of man/ As old as stone/ Take me as I am/ Take my hand.” The Dust settles in pop-rock mode with Ranaldo-style lyricism seeping out from the stage.

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“Tomorrow Never Comes,” with its lo-fi trippy jingle-jangle follows. But the crunch comes when the guitarist-singer breaks into, ”˜Xtina As I Knew Her’ (the ”˜Xtina’ mysteriously pronounced as Catherina) which Ranaldo explains before singing the song is about a girl he once knew, “who hung out in our group and we thought would go places”. Dark swirling clouds of drums and bass guitars amass on the guitars while Alan curls strings to Ranaldo’s faithful retelling of someone who is now lost. Ranaldo’s guitar solo smells of ecstasy.

“Lost” has a great pop hook again, reminding the core to the Sonic Youth ”˜experimental’ sound. “Last Night on Earth,” the title track from Ranaldo and the Dust’s new album (it would be released ten days after the Ziro gig), which follows is a folk-baroque verse-chorus-verse masterpiece. Ranaldo, sounding more sinister than when he suggested I get off the band bus, tells the rapt audience to “Stay away from the window/ chill out of your bones” as preparation for any personal apocalypse, the thumb sliding across the fret-board to drive home the seriousness of the song.

The band then launches into covers that “have inspired” Ranaldo: a cranked-up version of the Talking Heads’ “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel.” The military stomp accompanied by the David Byrne-trademarked ”˜oh-oh-uh-oh-oh’ and ”˜ay-ay-ay’ mixes well with Ranaldo’s guitar swirl with the cloud of sound rising up to the trees and then into the sky in that meadow dock of night-time Ziro.

A rock ’n roll-grinder cover of Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues” follows while I try and figure out whether we’re all now standing in a mist or inside a cloud. The 1972 punk class-action act “She Cracked” by the Jonathan Richman-led Modern Lovers gets a Sonic Youthful makeover that leaves the crowd breathless and agitated at the same time.

Sonic Youth’s “Karen Revisited” is pumped up in a sort of REM speed giving the distinct feeling that Ranaldo’s playing a fast-evaporating guitar leaving the resultant cold behind to sweep through the crowds below. A noise riot and feedback snarl ends the sonically charged night in Ziro. It’s apt that I feel zzzz’s buzzing all around me as I turn to catch my drive back to Guwahati at 10:30 at night. Ranaldo and the Dust gave me a full-dosage of eine kleine blizzardmusik. Which makes me forgive Lee Ranaldo for being an anti-tobacco Nazi as well as for politely chucking me off his bus.

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