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NH7 Weekender: How a music festival should be
A well-organized event, happy people and plenty of music are enough to make this the best indie music festival ever held in India
In his interactions with festival goers, goateed Abdul, the mean looking security guard manning the entrance gate to the Bacardi NH7 Weekender in Pune on December 10-12, prefers friendly chatter to fisticuffs.
And he isn’t the only cheery personality at the debut of a big, new indie music festival for India.
“Happy people are what we most wanted,” says Girish Talwar, co-founder of concert production house and indie music label Only Much Louder who organized the festival together with U.K. partners Martin Elbourne (joint organiser of The Big Chill and Glastonbury festivals) and artist manager Stephen Budd.
“It’s been a dream to hear so many people who come up to me and say, ‘I’m feeling the happiest I’ve felt in a very long time,’” says Talwar.
After many years of failed music festivals in India, happy fans are a tremendously positive sign.
In building fan trust and successfully staging more than 50 bands across eight stages, this year’s NH7 Weekender marks itself out as the largest and most enjoyable indie music festival ever held in India.
Logistics, venue layout and bartenders in Black Sabbath
Initiatives like extra ticket counters at the gate ensure we spend more time watching gigs and less time lining up, while the pocket-sized program guides us punctually to our favorite gigs.
Pune’s parks and cool weather also win plenty of fans.
The thought given to the venue layout is even more impressive. It ensures each of the three outdoor stages has distinct vibes. The Eristoff Wolves Den electronica stage, for instance, has a giant disco ball hanging from a crane. By contrast, the Dewarists fusion and rock stage with its white posters and lush lawn lined with blankets for fans to recline on has a more chilled-out feel.
The Bacardi Black Rock Arena meanwhile, is, well, very black.
Nice touch to have bar staff wearing band T-shirts of the likes of Led Zeppelin and Lamb of God. The innocent looking barman in the Cannibal Corpse tee is the best, though. He has no idea he is promoting a death metal band with lyrics so extreme they would make a terrorist blush.
All indie music's stars are out at night
Thankfully, festival organizers don’t neglect that other small detail either: the music. With more than 90 percent of the acts India-based, NH7 Weekender gives Indian music’s stars from all genres the country’s biggest stage to strut their stuff.
India’s big daddy of Bollywood and rock Vishal Dadlani is predictably to the fore, fronting a rousing Pentagram gig on Saturday at the electronica stage.
Saturday is also the day folk fusion takes over the festival. The wacky and funky Indian folksters Swarathma entertain fans at the Dewarists stage before handing over to Indian music’s elder statesmen Indian Ocean.
Folksy Raghu Dixit Project’s “Hey Bhagwan” has been spun countless times on the radio and at gigs now. Yet we still think it can lay claim to being the festival anthem if for no other reason than the gusto with which fans sing along to it.
On the Bacardi Black stage, popular band Junkyard Groove plays straight up rock to a big crowd while Lounge Piranha’s atmospheric post-rock appeals to a young audience.
Asian Dub Foundation were a highlight among the internationals. Their charged set feeds off the energy of playing to the largest crowd at the festival.
The Reverend Soundsystem also play a live-wire performance that impresses most fans, except for the punter near us, who thinks the band are lip synching. He may be right.
Stage fights: Choosing which band to watch
As fun as the NH7 Weekender’s wonderful music line up is, it brings with it some difficult choices between great bands playing different stages at the same time -- always a sign of a successful music festival.
Our most tormenting choice comes on Sunday night when we have to choose between recently reunited Mumbai rockers Zero, electronica stalwarts Midival Punditz and U.K. indie groovers The Magic Numbers -- all playing at the same time.
Zero and Warren Mendonsa’s axe wizardry, in the end, keep us glued longest to the Barcardi Black Rock Arena but we can't resist sneaking off to see The Magic Numbers also.
Surprisingly, the U.K. artists kick off their set to an eerily empty Dewarists stage due to fans still making their way over from the electronica stage where Shai’ir + Func have just finished.
It doesn’t stop The Magic Numbers lead guitarist and vocalist Romeo Stoddart from enjoying the gig though, especially once the crowd grows.
“I was blown away that the audience knew our songs,” Stoddart tells us by phone after the festival.
He also says the NH7 Weekender experience had convinced him to come back.
“If we could come out to India for a festival and a couple of roadshows each year -- maybe linked to the Australian summer tour -- it would be a dream,” says Stoddart.
New talents on the future watch
One of the best ideas at the festival is Dewar’s, The Other Stage, a small platform off to the side of the Dewarists main stage. Festival organizers use it to give 20-minute slots to mostly up-and-coming artists in the period between the changeover of acts on the big stage.
Charmingly, the Dewar’s small size tends to attract fans close to the stage, giving an intimate feel to its gigs that especially suited acoustic performers, such as Ankur Tewari.
A Sunday performance by two female artists, who fans in the crowd are dubbing Alisha and Alisha, is equally special. The duo aren’t scheduled to perform but at the last minute step up onto the stage. No one could have guessed the girls were unprepared, however. Their rapid-fire lyrical interplay and vocal harmonies were soaring, sharp and exciting.
When we run into them later buying drinks, they tell us they have performed in public so little together they didn’t even have a name but were thinking about the Middling Sisters. So keep your eyes out for these two.
Festival fashion: Mohawk crests and M.I.A look-alikes
Apart from being among the up and coming, the other festival category that Alisha and Alisha score big in is the zany hairdos honor role. In particular, the quiffed lick of hair curling up, that looks like a "Grease"-inspired mohawk.
For your good, honest traditional Mohawk, however, there is no beating Arun S Ravi's sharp mohawk crest, guitarist with Mumbai punk rock band The Riot Peddlers.
In mixing Sergeant Pepper technicolor kurtas and pants with cool hairdos, Swarathma would unquestionably be the band with the NH7 Weekender’s craziest stage attire. The effect of their getup is even whackier once vocalist and lead guitarist Vasu Dixit straps a plastic horse to himself and starts galloping about the stage. A well-worn performance act of theirs, that never gets old.
Most dedicated party people: Reverend Soundsystem vs. Susheela Raman
Another reason people were happy at the NH7 Weekender is that ordinary folk didn’t have to sneak into VIP lounges to be side by side with the festival’s star musicians.
Indeed, from U.K. artist manager Stephen Budd and Blue Frog’s Ashu to Arun S Ravi and his impressive mohawk, the booze and crowd mix easily everywhere.
If we had to pick the most dedicated partying team of the festival, electro rockers The Reverend Soundsystem must be up there for their successive nights of hard drinking.
At the festival's final night after-party however, British indie songstress Susheela Raman and her collection of band members give the Reverend a run for his money.
When we try to close in on Raman for a chat at the height of the festivities, the wily singer rather skilfully gives us the slip by introducing and leaving us with her lead guitarist while she makes a runner back to the party.
The Magic Numbers were another bunch who connected well with the locals. Based on a shared love for obscure 1970s bands, they made particularly good friends with Mumbai band The Mavyns and ended up jamming together until five in the morning in their hotel rooms.
Favorite festival fan: Shane Solanki
If you missed meeting the friendly Shane Solanki in his top hat and red pants, then you rank among the small minority of festival fans he didn’t chat to.
Despite being on only his first extended stay in India these past two months, Solanki has impressively been able to lay more connections and roots to the local music scene than an old oak tree to a British meadow. Whenever we run into the Brit at the NH7 Weekender, he is in deep conversation with somebody we’d never met or orchestrating the movement of a giant convoy of friends between stages.
Our last glimpse of him is at the very end of the festival. With his top hat in place, he is heading back to party at the hotel with the likes of Randolph Correia and the Asian Dub Foundation gang.
Apart from Solanki, the festival draws an even mix of rock, fusion and electronica fans. Black band T-shirts were in good supply among the rockers. And really the only clothing resembling fan uniforms are the floral dresses on female fans that seem to bloom in number once Monica Dogra takes to the stage in hers.
More love to the metalheads and the drunks next year, please
1. What were festival organisers thinking locating festival stages across two sides of a busy main road? Drunk college kids walked back and forth resulting in traffic that was bound to have cheesed off locals.
2. Why not spread the metal bands across the three days of the festival? At the inaugural NH7 Weekender all the metal gigs were on the Friday when most fans couldn’t make it.