I was struck down by a fever the evening Suman Sridhar and Jeet Thayil were bringing their travelling electric soul show to town. Not one of your wussy bouts of the ‘flu, this one: here was a bone-crushing, mouth-fouling attack of misery which came upon me quite suddenly and then simply refused to leave. Fevers are spiteful acts of god which suck the joy out of everything; and yet this pair had been on my wishlist for some time: could I go or couldn’t I? So I reached for the fires & emergencies handbook – ever a man’s friend in need – flipped it open, and jabbed at it with a questioning finger. “Do not take shelter in the toilets.” Fair enough, I suppose: a little obscure, tho’. Flip again, jab again. “Crawl if needed.” Right, that’s pretty unequivocal. So, the next thing I know, I’ve brushed my teeth and faced the worst of the rush hour, and I’m propped up against a pillar, shaky but eager to watch a group who’ve raised hell, done centrespreads and been axed on grounds of edginess; who now have their first record out and are taking it around the cities, hoping for things to click.
Genre-pigs bill Sridhar/Thayil as “experimental/electronic”. Hip as that is, this description falls wide off the mark: experimentation and electronics make up the detail; the foundation of S/T music, though, is all-natural big-beat, jazz-funk, and performance art. The premise sounds disastrous – the jazz-funk-Art alliance has thrown up countless nightclub horrors these last forty years – but the results are captivating. The styles they mine lend themselves easily to long-winded indulgence, unnecessary displays of prowess, and repetitive riffing which is more fun to play than to hear: luckily, S/T sidestep most of these traps. The grooves keep the room twitching instead, the solos – which may sometimes seem like naff bluesy improvisations if you think about them too hard – sound perfectly in place; together they successfully rise above pub cliché. They and their band are pros, a very different proposition from the young punk rats who I hope will run the country one day. Wherever slick, smooth musicmanship might stand on your personal scale of tastes, it is, and will always be, one of the best things in the world to see a tightly locked-in band with perfect command over what they’re playing, getting a roomful of people to nod, sway, and fall in line to every crash and snare crack.
Suman Sridhar is a tiny, twinkling, colourful bundle of drama with the voice of a scratchy sex-kitten. Jeet Thayil is a deeply self-absorbed character who plays guitar with a great deal of conviction and very little apparent love for or interest in anybody watching. Sridhar makes eye-contact with her audience and has a deft finger on everything her band is up to: her muscles react to all the bumps and twists in the sound coming off the stage. Thayil growls as per programme and periodically veers off into oddball poetry – “Perseus and Oedipus – a rock, a serpent, a temple – FUCK A CUNT”, that sort of thing. Sridhar has been known to grin at people; there is no recorded evidence of Jeet Thayil having smiled at anybody, ever. As performers, the two of them are wildly in contrast to each other; this contrast drives the music, whose thrills can be as traditional as an easy, shimmering mood piece or as unexpected as loud whack-job scatting and shouting.
Sridhar and Thayil are built on a paradox. They champion small-scale, independent music-making – that they’ve pulled in home-made artists into opening for them at every stop on their little tour demonstrates their commitment to prodding Indian pop out of its inbred rut. Their music has the free-spirited air of something that doesn’t go for hitmaking so much as it gets a lot off the chests of its makers. And yet, in performance, they play with the chops and the presence of seasoned, big-name performers, without any amateurism or self-doubt at all. If the stage is a band’s best chance of selling themselves, of persuading the world that they are more important and more powerful than they seem, of making a miserable life seem full of joy and spark, then Sridhar and Thayil win. I’m convinced.