Monday, 27 May 2013

Top 5 Ways to Piss Off an Indian Audience

Udit Narayan at Melbourne Town Hall last night.
Years ago Aradhna and I brought her parents to see legendary Bollywood playback singer Asha Bhosle perform with the equally legendary Kronos Quartet at the Sydney Opera House. A once-in-a-lifetime confluence of two very different musical styles performed in one of the world's most iconic venues.

Yeah, well, someone forgot to tell the audience that.

Posters for the show were dominated by a photo of 'Asha ji' and promised a night of memories -- a huge promise, considering in 2011 the Guinness Book of World Records named her 'the most recorded artist in music history'. KQ were named on the poster but the experimental nature of the show went conspicuously unmentioned. The audience was well-dressed and excited, but after two introductory songs from KQ it was necessary for Asha ji to come from backstage and explain to an increasingly unruly audience how honoured she was to be on the same bill as such an internationally renowned quartet. Her words did nothing. The people wanted Asha ji -- and Asha ji only -- and voiced their displeasure like drunks denied drink. The great lady eventually took the stage to rapturous applause but re-orchestrated old songs with cutting edge classical musicians wasn't what the audience was promised or desired, resulting in frustration on- and off-stage.

Udit Narayan takes the stage at Town Hall.
This experience came back last night as Aradhna and I took in a show by another famous Indian playback singer named Udit Narayan. This time dissatisfaction was appropriate, if not mandatory.

Hopes were high beforehand. The venue was Town Hall in the Melbourne CBD (left) on a lovely autumn evening. Posters and ads for the concert featured a giant photo of Mr Narayan and promised an evening of hits, this time rightly so, as the 57-year-old singer wasn't paired with an experimental classical ensemble. The audience was well-dressed and consisted of parents with kids and older couples who'd watched movies with Mr Narayan's playback singing for 30 years. Aradhna and I had met up with a friend at a nearby bar/restaurant on Swanston Street and arrived at Town Hall at 7:00.

We were in for a lesson on the Top 5 Ways to Piss Off an Indian Audience:

1) List 6:00 as a starting time for a show billing a single artist when that artist won't take the stage until 8:30. This may work at hipster rock shows where attendees are free to wander to a well-stocked bar and chat up members of the opposite sex. But when an audience has driven into the CBD from faraway suburbs on a Sunday night for a 6:00 pm show, regardless of an ethereal mention of 'special guests' on the ticket, you're pushing your luck by delaying the only advertised artist's starting time for 2.5 hours. Unless you're selling booze (Town Hall is unlicensed) or food (Aradhna would have killed for a samosa, but alas, no food was available) or have an array of outstanding opening acts lined up. But last night, a fateful decision was made to ...

Blue-f*cking velvet, baby.
2) Let untalented people take the stage. Unless it's a grade-school talent competition or late-night karaoke or your brother's boozy wedding, never allow amateurs to handle a microphone in front of a crowd made to pay good money to react to what is being said or sung into that microphone. People notice when they're being pummeled by hacks. People know when their time is being wasted, especially as a growing impatience clouds their better nature. When we arrived at 7:00 a local band called The Fifths were on stage and doing a respectable job warming up the audience with a mix of new and old Indian songs. The band was likable, good-natured and entirely appropriate for the type of entertainment the audience was expecting. If Mr Narayan had followed them immediately the night wouldn't have necessarily been saved, but it would have gone smoother. Instead we were left to suffer fools who think it's wise to ...

3) Abuse your audience with obnoxious offspring of bigwigs and advertising disguised as entertainment. Things took a turn for the surreal when The Fifths exited the stage. A woman in a garishly coloured saree came out and began reciting lines that could only have been cooked up by someone keen to recycle every cliche ever uttered by a master/mistress of ceremonies. She was both condescending and clueless, like she'd spent her young life speaking into a hairbrush in front of a mirror (if only that mirror could talk, and had spoken the truth). She'd clearly never MC'ed in front of living beings. She walked and talked like an automaton that lacked a sense of hearing and was programmed to speak like a constipated Aussie aristocrat. Only a child of wealth could be that lacking in self-awareness, so I surmised she was the daughter of a sponsor or some other connected, cocooned clan. A screen over the stage that had superimposed retro, '60s-era, acid-flashback visual effects over The Fifths was now summoned to flash a Power Point presentation of print ads. In total silence, until someone flipped a switch and a recorded voice read out the names of sponsors like a heavily medicated Big Brother. Then a dance troupe was brought on stage to play out classic movie dialogues while more ads flashed overhead. What as an audience had we done wrong to deserve such disrespectful treatment?

Affection was mutual.
It got worse. Garish Automaton returned to the stage and introduced a duo who'd done something to garner "2 milllll - eee - onnnn hits" on You Tube. They must have performed with an outrageously adorable cat or rocketed over a canyon in a ship painted to look like Justin Bieber because they were laughably, painfully wretched, singing to recorded beats like a pair of escapees from a '90s subcontinent boy band. Their appearance set off the same rage witnessed during the Kronos Quartet/Asha Bhosle fiasco: Grown men chanted 'WE WANT UDIT', people abandoned their seats like a fire had broken out onstage and a wave of disgust washed across the high-ceilinged space that was as palpable as a truncheon to the back of the head. The duo weren't booed off the stage -- they were chased into hiding.

How did Garish Automaton react? By walking back onstage and asking the apoplectic crowd, "Weren't they great?" Tone deaf doesn't describe it. She was an arsonist, only she didn't know it. Did she hear the crowd roar "NOOOO!" in response? She must have, because she made reference to the riotous mob's "over-enthusiasm" (sic). Oh, it was over-something. After promising that "Shri Udit" would be taking the stage in "twoooo minutes" a tiny waif was brought out to sing a lovely song that was tolerated like a vaccination shot. Finally, Garish Automaton read out a lengthy description of the performer the crowd had been demanding -- a master arsonist knows a fire must be refueled for maximum burn -- until Udit Narayan finally took the stage in an ice-pop-blue velvet jacket and perfectly coiffed shock of black hair. What could go wrong now?

4) Perform majestically orchestrated songs your audience has known for years and held dear to their hearts using a sparse and dreary backup band or, worse, pre-recorded music. Mr Narayan's professionalism was good and he worked the crowd like a spotlit surgeon. The show had a pleasing Las Vegas-like looseness and the singer's clearly amplified voice was strong. Whatever heights Mr Narayan strove to reach with his vocals, however, were undercut by weak musical accompaniment. Impotent keyboards replaced orchestral arrangements and the spectrum of Indian instruments that infuse every song with dense, intoxicating sounds; a female percussionist who'd earlier impressed with The Fifths competed with a rock drummer and a mystery man behind a drum machine circa 1983 to offer a limp replication of Eastern rhythm; one song was sung with prerecorded music, forcing an already neutered clutch of musicians to fake their performance; and, most egregious of all, not a single backup singer was used for accompaniment.

There's something missing from the stage ...
The bulk of Mr Narayan's most famous songs were sung with beloved playback singer Alka Yagnik. The lack of a female vocal presence on stage meant Mr Narayan was limited to singing the songs he sang solo -- which is probably less than a quarter of the man's songbook. Was this a financial decision? Ego? Oversight? It was a monumental error in judgment, as you had an audience raring to sing and dance along with songs they'd grown up loving but a performer who unforgivably eliminated the possibility of them hearing a majority of those songs.

A lovely Nepalese girl came out to duet with the Nepalese Mr Narayan on a Nepalese song and Nepalese audience members went nuts. Wonderful for the Nepalese in attendance. (Did I mention Nepalese?) Why wouldn't the man do the same for a Hindi song or two? Maybe a female singer joined him for the latter portion of his show, but Aradhna and I weren't around for that because we couldn't handle a performer who would ...

5) Disappear from stage an hour into a poorly backed performance that started 2.5 hours later than advertised. It was almost a perfect circle of ineptitude. With the show's earlier ugliness finally beginning to be fade with Mr Narayan's undeniably appealing voice and cheesy showmanship, he ended a rousing number by singing its final lyrics offstage as the stage went dark. Without warning, Garish Automaton re-appeared and announced Mr Narayan would return in 15 minutes. It was like a boarding call for an outrageously delayed flight departure. People bolted from their seats and headed for the doors, Aradhna and me included. We'd gotten a good half-dozen songs out of the excursion but the rest was a debacle that should be a warning to those sponsoring, organising and executing big-name concerts aimed at ANYONE, Indian or otherwise:

Don't. Cheat. Your. Audience.

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