I was very dubious about going to this concert, and I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for the convenience and curiosity factor of the location. But, I am so glad I did! It was awesome! Well, at first, kind of boring. But then awesome!
This is actually the 3rd Indian concert I have been to. 4th if you count seeing a classical tabla and dance show years ago (so long ago that I don’t even remember the names of the performers. I want to say Zakir Hussain, but that could just be because he’s the first name I think of with tabla). After that classical show, years later, I bought tickets for the SLAM tour within 48 hours of them going on sale, and then spent 5 hours screaming my lungs out at a sold out stadium. And then I bought tickets for Asha Bhosle at the same stadium, but more like within a week. And spent 3 hours alternating mild boredom and sleepiness with moments of peak excitement (“Dum Maro Dum”!). And a friend who is very generous gave me a last minute ticket for A.R. Rahman Live in Concert at a fancy downtown theater (otherwise, I never would have been able to afford seeing him). And now I’ve seen Vishal and Shekhar at a weird weird weird theater.
All of the shows had a few big things in common. For one, they were mostly in Hindi. SLAM was the best (for me) with the Hindi. There was minimal English, but the Hindi they used was mostly song and film quotes or obvious jokes, so I could figure it out. Ashaji was the worst, because she is a very classy, very old, very nice lady. So it was all very formal and fancy and high class Hindi that went completely over my head.
A.R. Rahman was actually mostly in English. Which felt partly because he might be more comfortable in English than Hindi. But also because his show as the one that was most accessible to a regular non-desi audience. The theater he was in is one of the classic famous historic theaters in my city. I’d been there plenty of times before to see non-Indian shows. Plus, most importantly for Rahman, it is famous for having perfect acoustics. There are plenty of other newer and larger venues he could have performed at, but for a musician, this is the best in the city, maybe even the whole region. His show there felt very much like a formal music concert, just like any other show that might be there. Well, except for the crowd. The crowd was still mostly desi, and let me tell you, they got ROWDY by the end of it! Lots of screaming for him to play his big hits, after we had all sat through two hours of experimental jazz and weird new electronic instrument experiments. I mean, he was almost aggressively non-crowd pleasing! Like, he played the title song from Roja, but he did it all acoustic, and by the third verse, the crowd was shouting out their own “ROJA” to finish out that fabulous build in the chorus.
(ROJA. I also scream it, but usually while driving alone in my car, not while in a theater watching the composer play it live)
And then, finally, for his encore, he came out and did an almost acapella medley of “Jai Ho”, “Chaiyya Chaiyya”, and “Mental Menadhil”. Which was what we had been wanting all along (I saw “we”, because I wasn’t quite brave enough to yell at the stage, but I was getting pretty bored with the electronic experiments also). So, that was a weird concert experience, having the musician on stage wanting to talk about his music with a capital M, and the crowd thinking it was okay to yell things from the audience and rush the stage and dance at the end, and it’s all happening in the same theater where I’ve seen the Bolshoi Ballet perform.
But after the concert last night, this all makes sense! Oh my gosh, it was so much fun! And so much more relaxed and friendly and casual! If this is what non-stadium concerts are usually like, the ones at more intimate settings, then I can see why the crowd thought it was totally appropriate to dance and yell at Rahman. Although, this one wasn’t at the big fancy world-class historic downtown theater. It was at the super super funky Polish community center theater way out in the old Polish neighborhood.
(Old European style bar in the lobby, busts of Copernicus everywhere, series of plaques on the wall honoring famous local Polish politicians, and a lobby filled with desis in formal wear. It was awesome!)
Before the concert, my friends and I explored the whole theater, counted up busts of Copernicus (Copernici?), checked out the donated library of books, and then tried to go to the bathroom before the concert. Which was challenging, because it was filled with people in costume putting on make-up. And then we tried the other bathroom, which was filled with a whole second group of people in different costumes. One of my friends, who is much braver than me, asked them if they were performing tonight and got the full details. The bathroom 1 group was actually the dance team from the University in my neighborhood, they got called up by the organizers to fill out the show. The bathroom 2 group, I think was from a local dance school.
And then we went into our seats, sat down for about a minute, and then were chased out (along with the few other people who had already sat down) by an usher, who was then yelled at by somebody with a badge because he was supposed to be guarding the doors. Because of course sound check was going 40 minutes late, so no one could go in until the very last minute. And then the show itself started like 20 minutes late. The two dance groups went up first, but the bathroom 1 group had technical difficulties with their music, like it stopped playing in the middle of their routine or something, and suddenly the lights went up again, and the ushers started hustling everyone up in the balcony cheap seats and encouraging them to go sit in the floor seats and fill them out. Which I have never had happen before at a show! I mean, the ushers tell you that you can go down if you want, but I hadn’t had them actually try to force me down before!
So the whole thing felt very rough and thrown together and a little disorganized. But also, kind of friendly and almost “we’re all in this together!” feeling. Like, inviting a local group to perform with them, and picking this funky neighborhood theater to perform at, it set a whole tone of really wanting to make the crowd feel welcome and be a part of our city, not just performers who fly in and do the exact same show they would do anywhere else at a theater just like every other theater in America.
But that wasn’t all completely clear at the beginning. At first it mostly felt kind of rough. One of my friends who was with me has experience in theater tech and she was just dying with all the disorganization. But it all made sense later. Only, before I get to where it made sense, we had Neeti Mohan, the opening act for Vishal-Shekhar and their co-headline. She had an amazing voice. She was actually the whole reason I was first interested in this concert, after Bombay Velvet, which she almost single-handedly rescued based on her voice alone, I was super eager to see her live. And she did not disappoint! Not only did she nail every song, she even danced a little and moved around the stage, and really sold the songs, plus pulled a girl from the front row up on stage to dance with her during “London Thumakda”, which was super fun. But it wasn’t like really really crazy fun, and the crowd wasn’t super into it. They were just sort of sitting back like they were waiting for something, and I couldn’t figure out what they were waiting for, because this was a pretty good show already!
(She sang this, doing both voices at once, which just blew my mind. I mean, it is a super complex song to begin with, but then to manage to do it solo instead of as a duet?)
Anyway, right before intermission, Vishal and Shekhar finally came out, to the strains of “Tune Maari Entriyaan”, and Vishal jumped off the stage to interact with the crowd, leading to everyone on the floor seats leaping up and rushing the stage. Which explained why they needed the floor seats filled! It would have been a whole different concert if there hadn’t been a crowd down there. He also lifted Neeti Mohan down into the crowd, and I had a moment of worry that we would never see her again, because she is a little bit of a thing. And then intermission.
So, now it makes sense! Most of the crowd was clearly smarter than me, and knew that any opening act, no matter how awesome, was going to be nothing in comparison with the energy of the headliners, and was saving all their excitement for that. And they also knew enough to go down to the floor seats ASAP. Although, really, I still didn’t want to go to the floor. It looked really crazy down there!
One of my friends couldn’t stand it, and decided to go down and check it out from the floor seats. My other friend and I decided we were too scared of being trampled and just stayed back in the balcony. And we were also a little doubtful that the second half could keep up the energy of that pre-intermission moment. Oh man, were we ever wrong!
First, bathroom 1 dance group came back out, apologized for the technical issues, and finished out their routine. And they were amazing! Lots of hometown pride for me. Not that I went to that University (my University had an okay Indian dance group, but not world class), but I walk by campus on the way to the train all the time, so I feel a connection. And then Vishal and Shekhar came out and went right into “Right Here Right Now” (hip-hop version, of course). Followed by “Dus Behaane”. Followed by “Salaam-Namaste”. It was like I was in college again! Also, did not realize that I have somehow managed to memorize every lyric to those songs until I found myself shouting along.
But what was so great was, they wanted us to shout along! And they really had no interest in maintaining a distance between the audience and the performers. Like, multiple times during the show, they stopped to ask security to NOT have the crowd disperse, please let them through and let them stay close to the stage. Twice a parent managed to lift a small child up onto the stage, and both times Vishal/Shekhar just walked over, hugged the kid, and then lifted him up and passed him back to the parent. After the 4th or 5th time they had to ask security not to disperse the crowd, they also leaned over and gave the security guy standing in front of the stage a big hug. At one point, an actual grown person managed to walk onto stage, and he did not get a hug, but was removed by security. But it also didn’t seem to really phase any of the performers that there was suddenly a stranger walking around behind them during their song. I am guess they are used to it.
So, yeah, every song was turned into a call and response, we were encouraged to clap along, and there was basically a huge disorderly mosh pit going on through out the floor seats for the last 2 hours of the show. My favorite moment, they did a medley of old hits, starting with “Pyar Hua”, and suddenly a couple of people pulled out their umbrellas and opened them and started throwing them in the air.
Rahman ended his kind of boring low energy concert with a five minute explosion of crowd-pleasing to reward us for demanding an encore. Vishal and Shekhar, there was no chance of an encore, because they had already used every ounce of crowd-pleasing energy for the past 2 hours with no stop. The last two numbers were “Tu Hai Meri” and “Deewangee Deewangee”. There’s just no topping that. Well, unless it is a whole other concert. They also ended by promising to come back again next year, and if they do, I am SO THERE.
(Now, picture this with 300 hundred people clapping along, screaming their lungs out on the chorus, and jumping up and down in a 100 year old theater with busts of Copernicus looking down on them)