Monday, 23 April 2012

Raghu Dixit and Bellowhead at Alchemy 2012: Left wishing for more…

The UKAsian was fortunate enough to be a part of the Raghu Dixit Project’s first tour of the UK in 2012 as we followed the band around England on a week-long sojourn that was as frantic as it was fraught.
The figurehead – Raghu – arrived at Heathrow, mid-afternoon on Saturday 14th April.  He was already battling a sore throat after traveling the entire length of India for several gigs in a matter of 4 days.  On arrival in London, he and the band were whisked off to Wiltshire for an appearance at OneFest.  He was soon into his signature stage costume – better suited for balmy Goa than freezing Marlborough – and getting the crowd moving.
Even as his vocal chords faltered, Raghu fought hard to retain the earthy emotion that is so distinct to his voice and his charismatic stage presence; earning rapturous applause from the audience, most of who had never heard of the band.
He and the band then returned to London the same night, and Raghu appeared on the Andrew Marr show early the next morning before going through four days of grueling rehearsals with English folk band Bellowhead for the performances on 18th and 19th April at Alchemy.
That kind of schedule is sure to take a toll on anyone and despite stuffing himself silly with honey, yogurt, turmeric, more honey and myriad varieties of Lemsip, Raghu remained less than 100% as the two groups took to the stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
They had found the perfect subject matter for this, their newest collaboration: a story based on Thomas Mann’s ‘The Transposed Heads’ – which in turn was based on the myth of Hayavadhana.
It’s a tale of friendship and a terrific triangle of love, further dramatized by an infusion of Eastern and Western music.

The two bands had had all of 9 days – 5 in Delhi late last year and 4 days in the lead up to their performance at Alchemy – to put together the hour-long show.  I watched and filmed those final four days of rehearsals and it was fascinating to watch the process of refining and fine-tuning.  In fact, on the days of the actual performances, the two bands were still making last minute tweaks.
A narrator sat at the front of the stage, telling the story of Kush, Deva and the exquisite beauty they are both in love with: Lavanya.  The narration is interspersed with a dozen or more songs whilst a set of dancers – led by the Southbank’s resident artist Gauri Tripati Sharma – played out some of the scenes.
Raghu and his Project have long been known for their clever fusions and that musical originality was on full display: marrying Indian folk, retro Bollywood, Parth Chandiramani’s exquisite flute and even some operatic guitar riffs courtesy of Bryden Lewis with Bellowhead’s immense brass section, Celtic fiddles and Pete Flood’s amazing percussion.  The Hindi and English vocals were shared between Raghu and Bellowhead’s Paul Sartin and Rachael McShane.
The ingredients were certainly there and in isolation they were all excellent but despite it being pregnant with promise, the production as a whole lacked cohesion, feeling very much like a work in progress.  Gauri Sharma and her dancers had three days to come up with a routine but failed to find one which embodied the story’s drama.  Even the lighting effects failed to capture any of the shifts in the story.
On the first night, Raghu attempted to provide fans with something more familiar by returning for a set of the Project’s own songs to much raucous cheer but had to give up after two songs as his voice caved in and he had to implore bassist Gaurav Vaz to take up singing duties.
On the second night he didn’t even attempt a second set and you could tell that he was well below par; those segments where he did sing were still very emotional – particularly the soulful Yaare Bina – but the usual aura that his voice exudes was absent.
A vast majority of fans The UKAsian spoke to, enjoyed the collaboration between the two bands but left wishing they experienced more of Raghu Dixit and the Project in all their glory.
It’s going to be a busy few months for the band and they will be making several trips back to England in 2012; Raghu will in fact, be performing solo at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee concert in June before the band perform at several music festivals in the UK and Western Europe.
Here’s hoping that those insufferable vocal chords are mended by then.
- Vijitha Alles

Raghu Dixit and Bellowhead at Alchemy 2012: Left wishing for more…

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