Thoughts on the A.R.Rahman Intimate Concert in New York City.
Note: Originally written in May 2015
As we raced up the stairs at a non-descript Newark train station to catch the train that was audibly screeching to a halt on the platform above us, I was almost cursing myself and more so, my friend for being late. As we rushed our way through multiple subway stations and cluttered Manhattan streets, I told my friend jocularly that I'd push him in front of a car if I missed the first few performances. But then, that was the excitement for me, an A.R.Rahman music fanatic for life, for my first ARR concert, that too in an impressionable setting no less on one of the theaters on New York City's famed Broadway. Lining up outside the theater, it almost felt like we were at a temple on a pilgrimage. Only there were enough Pradas and Guccis to match the Sarees I guess.
So we get in, settle down and in a few minutes, the lights go off. Over the next couple of hours, 'bringing the house down' felt like a contest between the performers on the stage and the audience. But I've felt that over the years, that has become the essence of ARR's work. Packing so much into one little album, soundtrack, venture; And that is precisely what we saw as the lights went off and the stage lights came on. There he sat to the left, surrounded by a grand piano, a Roli seaboard, an ipad, a Macbook and a few other programming thingamajigs. He started off by a subtle Raaga invocation on the seaboard, followed by a prayer to the almighty in the form of a few lines of 'Maula' from Delhi 6. Haricharan joined in for the vocals only to stay back and remain a powerhouse for the rest of the evening.
But before that, I had to register the band; folks that I'd seen performing in stunning youtube videos and have been wanting to witness live. There was Keba on the guitars, the prodigal Mohini Dey on the bass, the jubilant Ranjit Barot on the drums, the sublime Anne Marie on the violin, lined up in the second row by a three folks on the keyboards for rhythms - Annette Philip, Karthikeya and Shiraz Uppal; flutist Naveen Kumar and a superb percussion guy whose name I was too busy to note when the credits rolled up.
You know there is going to be something special when you see three rhythm players! And yes there was! The set-list started by paying homage to where it all started - 'Chinni Chinni Asai', followed by 'Tu Hi Re' and another Mani Ratnam track I can't recollect now, given my miniscule memory for details. What I can remember was Haricharan and Jonita Gandhi's powerful vocals leading us from track to track effervescently. These two folks should seriously consider insuring their voices. But what else could I expect from two singers that Rahman has obsessed over for his soundtracks successively over the past few years. Concerts on every evening through different cities and their voices remained unfazed, the energy thousandfold, the pitching perfect. Even ARR struggled through his tracks, self admitting to his voice giving up after successive concerts.
But it didn't matter; what with so much else sublime going on, just like in a typical ARR track. There was ARR juggling between everything from an accordion to vocals to the Roli to a funkily tuned note on the piano. There was Keba juggling between leading guitar notes on the acoustic to very touching backing notes on electric guitars. Then there was Mohini awing everyone as her fingers slithered through the lenghty fretboard on the bass guitar.
And there were the best surprises of the evening, in no particular order, detailed here under: A filler piece from one of his OSTs ('Warriors of Heaven and Earth', I presume) that had an amazing crescendo with the drums, percussions, bass, violin and Annette Philip on the vocals doing a stand-off. Talk of Annette Philip (cue: Berklee College of Music) brings fond memories of the 'J' club element from the night - when Annette Philip caught unmitigated attention with her smooth vocals for the jazz number 'Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na'. I can't quite pinpoint on what grabbed me more - the Annette - piano - bass - violin standoff in the song's interlude or the ARR - Annette duet where Annette went 'full jazz diva' on us as she leaned on ARR's piano and looked him in the eye. (Yes, finally a saree clad Jazz diva - oh you wickedly beautiful almighty!) Then there was the subtle duet between Annette and ARR in an ode to my all time inspiration anthem, 'If I Rise'. Somewhere down the line, ARR and Ranjit went into 'Sheldon' mode by wearing wrist bands and ankle straps and playing music by waving arms and stomping their feet. And then into Rock-Jazz stratosphere as ARR extended 'Oh humdum/Endrendrum Punnagai' into a svelte afterlude standoff between the bass-drums-piano. But my moment of the night belonged to the time when Solange Merdinian guest appeared (the benefits of a concert in NYC meant terrific artists can descend down on you, unannounced) for the sublime 'My mind is a stranger without you'. As Solange and ARR played mellow with the vocals, the bass-drum-percussion arrangement left the theater spellbound.
Then there were the usual moments one expects from ARR's music. Arrangements in tracks that deserve album releases, but, sigh, wont get any. Just like the countless cues from the background scores he's composed. Then there was the extensive list of artist/programmer credits projected in the backdrop, set to 'Vandemataram', during the break before the encore. And the list of many euphoric moments goes on.
This diary-entry can go on, but before I start spoiling the wonder for further concert goers in this series, I'll stop here, go sit in a corner and reminisce last night. And ponder my options before I buy the JBL 'ARR' Raaga series headphones that Harman threw a discount coupon to, stuck to a few lucky seats in the theater! So long...