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Festival Review: Vh1 Supersonic 2018, Pune

Scaled up with total conviction and a billing of impeccable performers, the diversified fifth edition was probably a gamble that paid off

Vh1 Supersonic decided to expand their roster of artists for their fifth edition to include more rock bands, pop, dance and hip-hop acts. Photo: Courtesy of Vh1 Supersonic

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After setting the bar to a new high for music festivals in India with its fourth edition last year, Vh1 Supersonic had a lot to prove in 2018 and knew it. The music festival which took place from February 9th-11th in Pune saw a weekend of pulling out all the stops in its endeavor to grow bigger, better and all-encompassing.

It’s common knowledge that India’s obsession with EDM is waning; while it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the scene, it’s enough for concertgoers to crave a breather from the same old trance, house and Calvin Harris/Chainsmokers blends. Vh1 Supersonic seemed fully aware of this, deciding to expand their roster of artists for their fifth edition to include more rock bands, pop, dance and hip-hop acts. There was great variety among the headliners alone, with pop-dancehall trio Major Lazer, English indie rock band Alt-J, American rock band Incubus and Jamaican hip-hop artist Sean Paul. Prog house producer Marshmello and American DJ Dillon Francis did however round off things for EDM loyalists.

Devil’s in the details

This year’s Sonic Realm was its most spectacular avatar yet. Photo: Courtesy of Vh1 Supersonic

This year’s Sonic Realm stage was its most spectacular avatar yet; designed  by interior designer Varsha Jain of Artrageous Designs, the theme centered around fairy tales, paying homage to characters from several famous stories from around the world including Alice In Wonderland (the Madhatter’s hat), Icarus from Greek mythology (his wings on the DJ console) and many more.

Both Spectrum and Labortoire were a little smaller in stage design this year and it was most likely an effort to accommodate the addition of the crowd-pulling new Live Arena which included mostly rock and pop acts. The area also included a Changeover Stage which sat right next to the Live Arena, (bringing the total number of stages at Vh1 Supersonic to six if you include the 10,000 Lions Sound System stage at the massive Beer Garden) and the idea was phenomenal. Several indie acts received a platform to showcase their talent in between the set-up time for bigger artists’ performances.

We must admit we ended up neglecting Spectrum and Labortoire a little this year much like the rest of the attendees; crowds flocked to the pop and rock acts at Live Arena and then to the headliners at Sonic Realm and otherwise seemed to prefer lounging around the numerous bars instead of doing the crowded walks between stages.

Crowd Control (?)

Vh1 Supersonic also brought back their convenient cashless mode of payment this year””each entry wristband carried a microchip that recorded transactions””but unlike last year, there were a few small snafus. There were three separate incidents where the vendors’ machines scanning the cards malfunctioned but each time a Supersonic crew member arrived within minutes, doing their best to sort it out.

Security at Vh1 Supersonic was tight; the intense frisking and confiscation of anything edible, flammable or otherwise suspicious-looking made reappearances. There were careful examinations of wristbands at every bar, lounge, stage and entry/exit point. Fire trucks, first-aid tents and ambulances were as usual on stand-by and thankfully there were no injuries reported this year.

Everything was going fine until Day 3 during Sean Paul’s headlining performance; while at first the crowd wasn’t very intense and in fact seemed a little thin towards the center, we realized a little too late it was only because many were still at Incubus’ gig. By 9:30 pm, there was a sudden influx of people and no more room to breathe, with several men climbing climbing on the barriers and hooting. There was some respite in the women-only bars, but it also meant sacrificing a good vantage point to watch an artist you love. Either way, we ended up spending half the show telling people to move their elbows out of our faces.

Day 1

Jivraj Singh of Parekh & Singh at Vh1 Supersonic. Photo by Saahil Singh Yaduvanshi for Rolling Stone India

We arrived right on time for Kolkata dream pop duo Parekh & Singh‘s whimsical set full of glowing lights, dapper suits and pink neon at the Live Arena stage. Along with premiering new music (including a sparkling, mellow song titled “Evening Sun”) the duo also announced they plan to release their sophomore LP Surgeon sometime this year, previewing retro sounds that veered into the late Seventies and early Eighties.

Mumbai artist Your Chin got to show off his brand of electro-pop right afterwards at the Changeover Stage and get the crowd hyped for Alt-J who were up next. The British indie rock trio breezed their way through an immersive set, including some of their most famous tracks like “In Cold Blood,” “Deadcrush” and their break out single “Breezeblocks.” The stage lighting at Live Arena was flooded with blues, whites and deep purples, adding a thrilling eeriness to the entire experience.

Dillon Francis took the stage at Sonic Realm in the meantime, starting off on an underwhelming note with same old tropical house remixes, Top 40 regulars like “Mi Gente,” and easy crowd-pleasers like Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” but finally upped the game when he slipped into hip-hop territory with a trap remix of Missy Elliot’s  “Get Your Freak On.” As his set progressed, Francis dove into more menacing mixes of his tracks “Candy” and “Bun Up the Dance”, proving the darker he gets, the better he is.

Major Lazer’s four exceptional female dancers turned out to be the true stars of the show. Photo: Saahil Singh Yaduvanshi for Rolling Stone India

Dance music trio Major Lazer hit the stage sharp at their allotted time of 8:45 pm and were easily the best headlining act at Vh1 Supersonic 2018. Clad in Indian cricket team jerseys, the DJ trio–led by American producer Diplo with DJs Jillionaire and Walshy Fir– are possibly the most ideal act for Supersonic: both are versatile, multi-genre infusing with a base in electronic music. Major Lazer’s set featured hip-hop/ trap (Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang,” Skrillex and Rick Ross’ “Purple Lamborghini” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble”) and, much to the crowd’s delight, generous doses of desi remixes of “Humma Humma” (extra points for playing the O.G. 1998 cult classic by A.R. Rahman instead of the heinous 2016 Badshah version) and 2009 Punjabi super hit “Amplifier” by Dutch-Pakistani singer Imran Khan and “Mundian to Bach Ke” by Panjabi MC. It was funny, surprising and showed Major Lazer had done their research. “Despacito” which followed soon after didn’t draw as much excitement, proving there is hope for humanity yet.

Diplo is a master of transitioning between tracks, and slipped seamlessly from old-school Usher remixes to Major Lazer’s biggest hits like “Run Up”, “Light It Up” and “Bubble Butt.” The producer also got slightly emotional when he left the console to talk about how much India means to him and Major Lazer, following up his speech with the 2015 break-out hit “Lean On” and 2017’s “Know No Better,” both of which have music videos filmed in India before finally ending the show with numerous fireworks and streamers.

However it was Major Lazer’s four exceptional female dancers who turned out to be the true stars; they stole the show with their incredible energy and acrobatics. At one point all four of them brought out drums to ”˜play’ along to the track, pairing the moment with spot-lighting and pyrotechnics for an impressive spectacle.

Day 2

Marshmello may be a man of few words but is an absolute pleasure to experience live. Photo: Saahil Singh Yaduvanshi for Rolling Stone India

We started Day 2 of Vh1 Supersonic by watching Indian-American hip-hop artist Raja Kumari at Labortoire, before cutting through the Live Arena to catch a little bit of Isreali act Buttering Trio’s bass-flooded, dreamy fusion at the Changeover Stage and then heading to the festival’s flea market. Things were a little rushed at this point to see as much as we could, but Super Flea didn’t disappoint. With over 50 stalls hawking merchandise, temporary tattoos, jewelry, snacks and confections, there was no room for boredom. People either relaxed with a late lunch in various little teepees scattered around the area or played numerous games or got foot massages while they waited to see an act.

We spent most of the day there, socializing and talking to fellow festival-goers, and there seemed to be a difference in the audience demographic from last year: numbers were indeed up but stages seemed empty around the day time and flooded for the headliners.

Buttering Trio frontwoman KerenDun performs at Day 2 of Vh1 Supersonic 2018. Photo: Saahil Singh Yaduvanshi for Rolling Stone India

Some had bought passes just to see one or two acts in particular rather than last year when most festival-goers were trying to catch as many acts as possible. “We came here just for Alt-J,” a group of fans from Bengaluru had told us enthusiastically the day before while brandishing their one-day wristbands and now another boisterous group from Mumbai (dressed head to toe in white) kept chanting ‘We want Marshmello!’ throughout our conversation with them.

We followed them to Sonic Realm to catch said masked man’s headlining set and watched as he burst onto the stage in a flourish of technicolor and confetti with a cheeky remix of the 1993 Hindi song “Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai.” Roars of approval from the crowd followed and Marshmello sank properly into his uplifting brand of electronic music. The producer splashed refreshing, subtle infusions of jazz and tropical house across his fare, performing all of his most famous tracks including “Summer,” “Moving On” and “Alone.” Sonic Realm’s screens were flooded with rainbow graphics and animated caricatures of Marshmello and his signature mask. The entire show was playful, funny, happy and littered with moments of pleasant surprises including the appearance of his collaborative track with Florence Welch, “I Can Fly.”

“Humble” made yet another appearance on a headliner’s set list and the crowd went berserk, singing along to every line and making it clear that Kendrick Lamar needs to come to India next. A few more unexpected remixes included one of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer,” a snippet of White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” and for some bizarre reason Vengaboys’ 1998 single “We like to Party!”

Marshmello’s act is an absolute pleasure to experience live. Highlights included his much-anticipated performance of the Selena Gomez collaboration “Wolves” and when he sang live on “You & Me.” He gave the audience a taste of his new single “Friends” with English singer-songwriter Anne-Marie before disappearing in a cloud of confetti and fireworks.

Day 3

Pentagram performed a set comprising hits like “Drive” and material off ‘Bloodywood.’ Photo: Saahil Singh Yaduvanshi for Rolling Stone India

When it came to building momentum for a headline set by Incubus, the festival called upon the best in the biz, from across the ages. New Delhi experimental rockers The Circus brought frenzied, psychedelic tunes (including a haunting cover of Radiohead’s “The  National Anthem”) to open proceedings, while post-rock band Aswekeepsearching brought arena-filling poignancy.

An early evening set by Australian guitar whiz Plini and Serbian composer-guitarist David Maxim Micic drew a fairly large prog-loving crowd, who were even happier when the two guitarists were out and about after their set to hang with photo-happy fans. Where Plini and Micic’s set was soulful and smooth, Shillong rockers Dossers Urge were at their punkish best, setting the stage for an flawlessly electrifying set from Mumbai electro-rockers Pentagram, who found comfort in a standard festival set comprising hits like “Drive” and material off Bloodywood.

Incubus’ Brandon Boyd performs at Day 3 of Vh1 Supersonic. Photo: Saahil Singh Yaduvanshi for Rolling Stone India

Following a warm-up act by Chennai’s The F16s ”“ who happily got people moving with material from an upcoming EP due later this year ”“ Incubus took to the stage with material that would have surprised and puzzled fans alike. Of course, if you had stopped listening to them at one point, their promo for 8 would have left you wanting songs like “Nice To Know You” and “Are You In?” but the quintet stuck to shapeshifting between songs like “Glitterbomb” and “Nimble Bastard” to their explosive best-known works, “Anna Molly,” “Stellar,” “Megalomaniac,” and “Wish You Were Here” (unflinchingly becoming the chorus to the Pink Floyd song too). Frontman Brandon Boyd’s banter was none too special, but it sated everyone in the front rows who held up song requests on placards. While there were deeper cuts such as “Pantomime” and “Paper Shoes,” the crowd roared along to “Drive” and an encore performance of “Warning.”

It was clear that Incubus’ India debut didn’t exactly appeal to the younger dance-pop and EDM-loving party enthusiasts– most of the crowd singing along and gathering at the front were 25 and up while younger patrons lazed around on the grass with whiny declarations of, ‘This is so boring, ya!’ and ‘When will Sean Paul start?’

The Jamaican rapper finally hit the stage at Sonic Realm 15 minutes late at around 9 pm and dove right into a big one with “Get Busy.”  All the big guns including “Got 2 Luv U,” Clean Bandit-collaborative “Rockabye,” Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” and Enrique Iglesias bro-anthem “Bailando,” soon followed.

It soon became clear that just seeing Sean Paul perform wasn’t enough; the audience wanted a grand spectacle which hadn’t been delivered. Photo: Saahil Singh Yaduvanshi for Rolling Stone India

On paper, Paul ticked all the boxes; he filled up Sonic Realm to the brim, kept going strong till 10 pm in an incredible show of positive energy and enthusiasm, dedicated every other song to ”˜da ladies up in here,’ pulled out an obligatory (reggae) cover of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” before finally ending with his super-hit nostalgia-inducing 2005 single “Temperature.” But right after the show ended, there was a general feeling of underwhelm we couldn’t chase away. A friend of ours remarked that while the performance was great, it was kind of just like going to the club on the weekend; there were no big moments of showmanship like the fireworks and pyrotechnics seen during Marshmello and Major Lazer’s sets and no fancy screen graphics. We realized that the precedence had been set so high, just seeing Paul perform wasn’t enough; the audience wanted a grand spectacle which hadn’t been delivered, leading to glum looks all around. Even then, there’s little doubt that all eyes will remain on Vh1 Supersonic when the time comes for their next edition.

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