It may well be true that the larger the population, the larger the niches. And yet, it is equally true that this is India we’re talking about, and therefore it’s entirely likely that the niche you’re after has been hounded out of business, simplified into charmlessness, or had simply never existed in the first place. In any case, a festival which billed itself as a showcase for “new sounds” was certainly going to be a “niche” event – new sounds aren’t India’s most pressing concern – the question, though, was, what sort of niche?
I had reason to be wary. I’m always on the prowl for a little bit of Bangalore I can call my own, and a music festival is a good place to start, but things like these attract all manner of quackery – dilettantes, trend-hoppers, shtick merchants, the wilfully abstract and the compulsively weird, charlatans of every hue. Still, better a new sound than a Metallica gig, I suppose, so off I went.
The good news is, the best of it was spectacular. By this I mean there are bands playing smart, worldly, original music, confidently and with vision and taste, far superior to anything I’d bargained for. And that the audience responded to all of it wholly and without pretence. The insecurities you see in a lot of Asian bands – the occasional stubborn attempt to be complicated in order to be different, the ill-thought out genre aping, the clinging on to classic rock – were not in evidence, not with the good ones anyway. The bad news is something you already know: all of this is still a sub-culture, rarefied, inbred and expensive, a small, closed, escapist circle which has nothing to do with the India which hems it in, the India of Sri Manjunatha Wine Bars, murderous driving, dust everywhere and no-flats-for-bachelors.
It didn’t start well. I walked in on what turned out to be my worst New Sound nightmare come to life, a DJ, a keyboardist and a guitar player who, over their set, revealed themselves to be completely unchecked by the demands of taste or common sense. Schizophonic – and an apt name it is too – are one of those things experimental music throws up now and then, a vision of a post-Ornette Coleman apocalypse, as if they’d started off playing normally and, over time, wandered leftwards and kept going till they came to inhabit this debris-strewn desert at the end of the known musical world.
In my years of gig-going, I’ve developed mechanisms for coping with mediocrity, with shallowness, with wilful esotericism and with transparent self-gratification. But I’ve never had to sit through something that was so disjointed as to be incoherent. Half an hour of this, and I had been reduced to feeling senile, giggling with incomprehension and amazement, too fazed to scream blue murder – it was brain-damage, systematic and orchestrated, and I may forget but I won’t forgive.
(Oh, and: the guitarist had probably the most startling beard I’ve ever set eyes on, a magnificent bit of lushness spreading over all of his face and most of his chest. Later that evening, I saw another man wandering about with a similar amazing growth on his chin, which makes it one of the best beard-spotting days I’ve had in my life.)
What sort of crowd does such an event attract? Not trousers-slippers-and-moped citizenry, certainly, but also not the mojito swilling five-star hotel party boys and girls I’d half-expected. There was – appropriately for the venue – a lot of counter-culture about. Abstract art, hand-painted trainers and kites (!) on sale, people in kaftans, PJ bottoms and genie pants roaming about smiling beatifically dragging labradors on leashes – like I’d wandered through a rupture in the fabric of Bangalore’s reality into some sort of neo-hippie dreamland. This sort of thing normally fills me with suspicion: you never know when it’s all going to turn out to be a lot of grown people squandering their inheritance playing flower children for the weekend. You can’t trust the sort who get kicked around outside and then wash up at these things to fly kites. But – once you’d got past that – who’d think there was a venue like that in Bangalore though? A little field behind a converted factory, with a barbecue going and enough beer to make a summery afternoon worth your while?
And there was another sort of crowd too, a lot of young people who were no more hippie than I am, people cheerfully drinking beer and gunning for a good day out watching bands, people who seemed to be, for once, so eminently normal that you wonder how there aren’t more of them in the world.
If Schizophonic got the stoned freakheads off, what followed a set later, and continued for the rest of the evening was one for my lot.
What followed later, then, was this. The ‘Phonic had been trailed by a trio of earnest and very young noodlers whom, because of their sincerity and clear inexperience, it seems churlish to criticise. I didn’t really mind these lads – the Family Cheese they called themselves – but they weren’t doing much to raise hopes. When Adam & the Fish-Eyed Poets (where do these people find these names?) came on, therefore, looking as shabby and out-of-sorts as I’ve ever seen a band look, and proceeded to lurch around the stage twiddling knobs and getting their cables tangled up, I was almost certain that the day’s cause had been lost.
It’s worth noting that, at this point, the audience were largely sat down in little clumps on the grass not really paying attention. And that, two chords into Adam’s first song, they rose as a body; by the third, every foot was tapping; by the fourth, the stage had been rushed. And it says a great deal about books, covers, and judgements that this ill-assorted bunch of badly dressed, unshaven misfits went on to deliver one of the most snappy, exciting sets I’ve had the joy to twitch to.
Adam – whatever he calls himself off-stage – is a songwriter in a mould that I didn’t believe existed in this part of the world, a young lad inspired by, of all wonderful things, XTC, Robyn Hitchcock, the Attractions and the Kinks. And genuinely inspired at that, not a name-dropper: a writer of rat-a-tat pop songs with great, big, shiny chords splattered all over bone-rattling drums, not a bit of dreary self-absorption, no limpid philosophising: every track a gem, every track clocking in under two minutes, just as God intended.
Sometimes I think that all I need to make me happy is ten smart, catchy songs played back to back. Adam & the lads had left me glowing with optimism and good cheer. Adil & Vasundhara – particularly Vasundhara, who seemed to be built entirely of curves, with her big drama-queen eyes and her jazz-voice and her kitty-cat voice and all her other voices – consolidated the victory, made sure there was no way the evening could go downhill from there.
I don’t want this to turn into one of those “The Arse Bandits rocked their adoring fans with their edgy, yet strangely melodic riffage” reviews. You can look up the roster of groups yourself on Facebook: they’ve all got their songs up, and you can decide if they do anything for you. The only thing you need to know is, The Jass B’stards and the Peter Cat Recording Company were phenomenal. The JB’s have the best rhythm section I’ve ever watched perform; PCRC bill themselves as “cabaret/punk/gypsy” and then live up fully to the expectations something like that sets – melodrama, waltzes, thumping bass playing. Watch both without fail if you can. Bicycle Days is a good band name for an average band: the kind of group who do one good idea every ten minutes and then fail to take it anywhere. Adam and the Fish-Eyeds still need work on their stage act – too awkward, too many painful silences between songs, mumbling frontman, a prolonged and confused soundcheck – but one hopes that’ll come with time. Thus far, they keep their audiences engaged with the considerable strength of their material and haven’t fallen into any of the traps aspiring bands often do. So, no attempts to break into endless soloing to impress college girls or arbitrarily slipping into 5/4 time just to prove some obscure point about musicmanship. Adam is clearly chasing his Muse and I hope he doesn’t stray. The evening was one of the best I’ve had in ages, not just for the entertainment, but also for the revelation that there is a world of talent which, for two years, had been completely out of my sight. It felt like finding life. And where there is life, there is hope.
Some way through the bizarre and outlandish Schizophonic set, there had been an announcement over the PA about an illegally parked car. This silver Toyota had been left where it shouldn’t have been, and could the owner please remove it immediately. Turned out this car belonged to Le Beard himself, who started shouting about it from his spot on stage – only, being “experimental”, he didn’t have a microphone to shout into, and his wide-eyed, beard-quivering indignation went largely unheeded by an audience he had himself numbed into submission with his “music”. It would be the lowest point of my whole musical life if I ever had my car towed away whilst in the middle of a guitar solo, but this fate seemed fitting for this man who had flung so much artistic wreckage at us with so much obvious self-satisfaction. One impertinence deserves another. Justice would have been done.
India still doesn’t do pop culture in any really widespread or meaningful way. An event like this continues to come across as being too insular, too disengaged. Sometimes one senses an almost obstinate desire to conjure a scene up out of thin air – not letting the city outside (sheet metal workshops, shack-like truck tyre dealerships, sleaze, sweat, moustaches) in, cutting oneself off, pretending it wasn’t there. There’s often too much pretension (“let’s hear some real jazz”) and standards set too low (“I dig Schizophonic!”), sometimes in the same person. These things are still the work of a minority, so it’s easy for all of it to seem free of a greater context. And this tends to nourish insecurity and it’s ugly and destructive twin, self-congratulation – bubbles are frightening to live in and its easy to want to hug each other to stay warm. But, in the midst of this, the best groups still seem to bloom. Adam & his boys will grow and go far. The Jass B’stards and Peter Cat write and play with the swagger and the ease of lads who are about to charm the pants off a waiting world. Great things are on the horizon. This place is better than you think.