It takes a lot of doing, and the stars and the gods aren’t usually in favour, but there is still such a thing as a good night out – a genuinely good night out, I mean, not one of those where you have to grit your teeth and force yourself to believe that yelling yourself hoarse over an oblivious crowd drunk to idiocy is somehow more genuinely fun than just staying in and wanking to cam sites, listening to the Heebie Jeebies’ Greatest Hits – and, no, not even the broken, ill-lit ugliness of this city, nor the deadening conviction that the little happiness you squeeze from it is provisional and frail, can take that away.
The F-16’s have two afros, two beards, and ten legs. Their music is modern, schooled in a world after the Arctic Monkeys, and if the Mac on stage looks like a bad omen, it isn’t: they’re at ease with electronics in a specifically 21st century way, so there are no clear lines between electric guitars and computer noises. They’re hooky and jumpy, with great keyboards and great rhythm, and they change colour and pace often enough that the show doesn’t turn into one indiscernible indie song after another: whether by instinct or by design, the F-16’s set has enough detail and dynamic to hold attention over the hour or so that it lasts. Playing in a country in which your audience are as likely to have come for the dinner & drinks as to watch a band, this is a handy showman’s trick to have up your sleeve.
The unique strength of the F-16’s show, and the reason why those who watch them always like what they see, comes from delicately balancing a planned-out routine with natural charm. Put in too much of one, and you have a restaurant novelty act; too much of the other, and it’s yet another student-age group whose vision stops at just showing up and playing in jeans and tees. And, seeing them, I was struck by the alarming hunch that the band themselves were wholly unaware of this, that they had no idea at all what it was that set them apart from so many of their unremarkable contemporaries.
Because it is this unselfconsciousness that is both their secret weapon, and the thing most likely to bring them down in the end. Playing pop music in India is serious business. The idea is still fanciful and ill-understood enough that it pushes any musician worth his beans into being awkwardly aware of themselves, to the point that rock ‘n’ roll ceases to be music to blindly get toasted to, and comes in danger of becoming a cerebral, considered artistic stance instead. The F-16’s sidestep this trap: they seem to play because they can, and are allowed, and that, right there, is getting something totally right. The ugly, burdensome questions about the larger meaning of all this amount to nothing in the face of all that guileless good cheer.
But self-consciousness has its uses too: in a scene which still lacks any kind of confidence in its own identity, in which you are constantly bombarded by cheap imitation, hack ideas, poor artistic choices, and an overall absence of good aesthetics, making thought-out decisions about who you are and what you stand for is a survival trait. It would be terrible if these guys were swept into the tide of bullshit that threatens to drown you if you’re not careful enough: they’re far too good for that.
A great rock ‘n’ roll show is a fragile thing. It takes a good venue, a good crowd, the right sort of day, and a band who can work the room to everyone’s satisfaction. Here, where all these things are hard to come by, it’s a happy accident at the best of times, and the F-16’s have their part in this completely worked out. They give the people what they want, and they give it to all manner of people: the bum-shakers get their groove, the chin-strokers get their intellectual kicks from spotting the references. All but the most joyless go home happy, and this is really the whole idea of a rock ‘n’ roll night out.