Sonu Nigam, sorry, Sonu Niigam, is a consummate showman. His musical riffs, his banter with the audience, his creative mash-ups of old and new Bollywood numbers are part of a shtick he has perfected. Yesterday, at Explosion 2009 in Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA, that showmanship was our in full force, even if his voice sounded a little tired and stressed out.
Unfortunately, for people who had faithfully arrived at the listed opening time of 7:30 p.m., the wait was a looong 2 hours before the performer appeared.
When I had picked up the tickets from the local grocery store a few weeks ago, I was puzzled by a competing poster announcing a Global Bhangra competition on the same day, same time, same venue. Well, that mystery got solved when we arrived at the Arena and saw the competition announced on the screen. Whispers went around the audience as we asked our neighbors if we were at the right place; sure enough, everyone was here for Explosion 2009.
Nevertheless, the announcers began with the bhangra contest. At first the audience was quiet (which desi can pass up a freebie?) but after 45 minutes of the competition, the poor bhangra teams began to get booed. The announcer repeatedly assured us that the main act was just on its way, and then there would be yet another performance of bhangra. The crowd, by now, had started exhibiting some signs of turning into a mob, not a good omen for the headliners.
Finally the bhangra competition ended and the prizewinners exited the stage. The emcee for the bhangra competition had been irritating us with his spiel, but the emcee for Explosion was truly awful. After a few platitudes about the upcoming performances, the opening act came on, a truly awful singer named Ayub ( a payoff for some favors?). The crowd just listened in disbelief (at this point I was grateful the chairs were nailed to the ground).
Mercifully, after a couple of songs, the tone-deaf Ayub left and Sunidhi Chauhan took the stage. Her powerful vocals and peppy song selection calmed the restive crowd and eventually brought the house down with a fabulous rendering of “Desi Girl.” I could have listened to her for much longer, but the crowd clearly wanted Sonu and Sunidhi ceded the stage to him at around 9:45 p.m.
Sonu performed some of his own compositions before launching into a spirited version of a medley from Salaame Ishq, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi and Om Shanti Om. Spirited competition in the Bollywood music industry has prevented domination by any one singer, unlike the days of Mohammad Rafi and Kishore Kumar, and the trend towards pop and rock numbers has sidelined soulful singers like Sonu in the last few years, but he still has sung the occassional chartbuster.
Sonu kept the tempo up for about half-an-hour, even with a audibly tired voice. We left when Hard Kaur came on, ears deafened by the decibel level, and wondering, as we always do after concerts in the Oracle Arena, if we wouldn’t have been better off listening to our CDs at home.
A few years ago we had attended a much more intimate performance by Sonu in a San Jose City Hall venue. There were only about 500-800 people in the audience and the acoustics were perfect. Sonu’s performance then was mind-blowing, and we often jumped up out of our folding chairs to applaud and sing and dance along. (It is ironic that he performed at a much smaller venue when his star was on the ascendant in Bollywood and at the much, much, larger Oracle Arena when his popularity is on the wane.)
I guess we expected the same experience as that memorable night from a few years ago, and we were disappointed. Though the sound guys were talented enough to provide echoes and tremolos and crescendos to enhance the singer’s voice, it seems to me that these guys always make the mistake of thinking the crowd wants it loud, and never get the balance between the treble and bass right. I would have been happy if Sonu and Sunidhi had just stood there and sung a capella. Unfortunately, what we mostly got was an assault of cacophony and I won’t be repeating the experience.