NH7 Weekender Diary 2015
When we walked into the festival grounds at the Pune edition of the Bacardi NH7 Weekender on Friday, December 4, we decided to play a little game. How many minutes would it take us 30-somethings to think we were too old for this? The answer: roughly ten minutes, during singer-songwriter Prateek Kuhad‘s set at which we found ourselves surrounded by teenagers wearing headbands with plastic flowers. Somewhat surprised by the relatively large turn-out on a Friday evening when only three of the five stages were operational, we decided to play round two of the game: how many minutes before we met somebody we knew. The answer: 20 minutes, which wasn’t bad considering the crowd, which reached a record high, say the organisers, of 60,000 people over the three days of the event, more than double the 25,000 cumulative attendance for 2011.
A large part of that number can be attributed to A. R. Rahman, whose headlining set recalled Amit Trivedi’s polarising appearance last year. However anybody carping about how the festival has lost its indie vibe should have really known what they were in for. We, on the other hand, have developed selective vision while at Weekender and view things in the way we read The Times of India. In other words, we’ve figured out to how glaze over all the blanket branding and only see what our eyes want to see: a handful of top quality acts we wouldn’t get to watch at any other outdoor festival in India.
This year, that list included Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, whose music was at times both dream-like and danceable; Mexican acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, whose chemistry was palpable; and British DJ and producer Mark Ronson, whose hip hop-heavy, Bollywood-sprinkled set would have made an ideal party with which to end the fest. Instead, he played the relatively early slot of 8.15pm on Saturday, which was rescheduled from 7pm to avoid too many people packing the limited capacity Breezer Beat Camp. As a result of this, we had to miss Pierce Brothers whose gig we’d heard good things about. But we didn’t feel too bad because the Australian folk rock duo were on at the Moto Spotlight stage, which, based on what we heard of Kuhad, Kannada rock band Peepal Tree and UK indie pop pair Thumpers, suffered from less-than-ideal sound.
We’re not sure why Ronson wasn’t programmed at the Bacardi Arena but it was good to see a few acts that had started their Weekender journeys on smaller stages move up to the biggest of the fest. They included Dhruv Ghanekar who presented his jazz fusion project Dhruv Voyage, the diverse elements of which worked surprisingly well together; electronica star Nucleya, whose Saturday night show received the most energetic response of the first two days combined; and folk-fusion bands Swarathma, which benefited from playing just before Rahman on Sunday, and The Raghu Dixit Project. We commend TRDP for playing an almost all-new set but unfortunately, their Saturday evening performance, which featured a three-member horn section, drew a less-than-capacity crowd because there were up against Ronson and Niladri Kumar. We only caught the last few minutes of Kumar’s gig at The Dewarists stage but they were enough to show us that the electric sitar player is a genuine rock star, just like Rodrigo y Gabriela displayed through their Iron Maiden cover that even acoustic guitarists can be metalheads.
By having Baba Sehgal perform immediately after them on the neighbouring Jack & Jones All Starr Jam stage, the festival went from the sublime to the facile. The 1990s rapper drew a crowd of college kids who weren’t born when he scored his biggest Indi-pop hits. Yet they knew most of the words, proving that Sehgal has successfully transitioned from has-been to social media star thanks to his deft use of Twitter and YouTube. While some came for the sake of nostalgia (we’d like to think the chap carrying the inflatable dinosaur was making some sort of snarky visual statement), others came for a laugh. While Sehgal’s show had a novelty factor, Weekender’s fondness for lowest-common-denominator musical comedy was restated with the return of Vir Das’s Alien Chutney, among the acts bumped up to the Bacardi Arena. That they command a huge audience was evident when we heard a couple of revellers planning their schedule around their set.
Equally questionable was the decision to feature on the Dewarists stage singer Raqhav Sachar whose by-the-numbers Hindi pop was the most blatantly commercial-sounding music we’ve heard at a Weekender stage. Which brings us to the Bollywood quotient of the fest this year. ‘Ustad’, Vishal Dadlani’s tribute to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, which featured his Hindi film music co-composer Shekhar Ravjiani and a few other playback singers, drove some folks into a frenzy. To our ears however, it was occasionally so loud and screechy that we felt the legendary qawwal might have stirred in his grave from the cacophony in his name.
In contrast, A. R. Rahman’s festival closing concert felt almost too subdued at the beginning. His long keyboard intros and ballad-dominated first half made us wonder if he realised he was playing an outdoor music festival and not the NCPA (never mind if his set was the only one where we felt like we weren’t the oldest people around). Thankfully, he picked up the pace and ended it all on a high with uptempo tunes such as ‘O Humdum Soniyo Re’ from 2002’s Sathiya and ‘Sadda Haq’ from 2011’s Rockstar, even if we felt somewhat disappointed that people walked out of the Laxmi Lawns singing a Hindi film song at a festival that was created to give alternative forms of music a larger platform.
Then again, Rahman was one of over 50 acts on the bill, including American genre-hopping electronic music exponent Flying Lotus whose set, which was on at the same time as Rahman, we had planned to check out but couldn’t because we were packed in like sardines. We reminded ourselves that Weekender, even though it has changed considerably in shape and form continues to introduce audiences to acts they’ve not chanced upon before. We were pleased to find that friends were impressed by singer-songwriter Bipul Chettri‘s simple yet soulful renditions; smiled when we heard a group of guys who were probably seeing Raghu Dixit for the first time express surprise that he was wearing a lungi; and got a little kick from reading an acquaintance’s tweets about “discovering new bands” like Soulmate and Swarathma.
As for all those logos, we know they help bankroll all the bands but what’s gone is the subtlety with which things were done before. The food court, the shopping bazaar and all the embellishments in between – like the bucket-shaped elevated viewing point – were plastered with branding. Also absent were such distinctive elements as the installations that gave each stage a unique appearance. Perhaps the pressure of pulling off two festivals simultaneously in Pune and Bangalore meant the organisers had to sacrifice the small touches for the bigger concerns like crowd control, which they executed relatively smoothly.
But as Only Much Louder founder Vijay Nair said in his closing comments, the Pune edition has outgrown the venue. Many festival goers feel they’ve outgrown Weekender too, both literally and figuratively. Nair mentioned the possibility of making Weekender a camping festival next year. However that for him and his company would be unusual as they would be following a trend as opposed to starting it. Given their track record, we’re reasonably confident that Weekender 2.0 will be of international quality. Though if it is indeed a camping event, we will make our final judgement after seeing the facilities.