From left, Chitra, Sadhana Sargam, Alma, Madhushree, Alka Yagnik, Kailash Kher, A.R. Rahman, Shankar Mahadevan, Hariharan and Blaaze.
Bindi and I dressed up Indian style for the A.R. Rahman show on Saturday. Bindi wore turquoise and saffron, and I was in a cobalt blue dress; we were done up from our ankle bracelets to our bindis.
The Sears Centre was right off the expressway and the parking was free. Crowds of people in colorful Indian dress were making their way across lot to the venue, which is like a newer, smaller, uglier Rosemont Horizon.
Our jaws dropped when we picked up the tickets; the lovely PR folks had given us $130 seats that included access to to the VIP lounge. We actually had a third ticket that I'd gotten for Manju, just in case. Sadly, it went unused.
Inside, we watched the salwaar parade of beautiful dresses while waiting in line for samosas (one suspects that hot dog sales were down that night). The only available condiment was ketchup, which wasn't bad at all. We sat on comfortable chairs in the lounge and wolfed them down. No line for the lounge bathroom, by the way.
They played a ton of commercials before the show began. It started late.
Then the lights went down and we saw A.R. Rahman, resplendent in a fashionable white suit (he is a musical genius, handsome man and natty dresser). He sang one of his songs (Del Se Re?). He's quite reserved when he performs, which only adds to his charm. He looked something like this, although this is an old video (his hair is shorter now and he's a bit older. But he does still sound a bit like Sting only with range and talent to spare):
Then he went behind his keyboards, and playback singer after playback singer came out and sang songs. Occasionally A.R. would emerge from behind his keyboards and join them.
The music was amazing; he had a great drummer and guitarist (who could do everything from classical Spanish to power pop with his eyes closed) as well as a small string section, backup signers, etc. But it was the flautist who blew me away. Wow. Who knew notes could be played that fast?
It was also fascinating to watch the playback singers. You grow so used to seeing famous actors mouth their words that it's a little disconcerting to see how normal-looking so many of them are. Most don't move around that much, which was also rather charming. I suppose that's why they had a troupe of dancers cavorting about, and scenes from the relevant movies showing on the video screen.
At one point A.R. told a story about playing Carnatic music when he was young and then falling in love with the keyboards. He was heartbroken when he learned he couldn't play his traditional music on them (because they had limited notes). Then he told us that a professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago had invented something called a Continuum -- a type of electronic keyboard that lets you play "the notes between the notes." Then he proceeded to play it. Afterwards he said that it would make it easier children to learn and play Carnatic music, which would help to keep it alive.
As the concert continued, more and more people -- especially the young men -- stood up and danced. And could they ever dance. Everyone sang along to the songs, especially to the big hits from films such as Rang de Basanti.
But the transfomrative moment came during the song "Chaiyya Chaiyya from Dil Se. Video from the incredible movie sequence played in the background:
The playback singers were on. The hypnotic song, which is in Urdu, went on and on - and everyone sang along. As it continued, the blocks in the mind began to clear.
More and more people got up and danced. They were one with the musicians. We were one with the musicians.
And there was that feeling that there is only this moment, and that anything is possible.
You just don't get that kind of thing at an REO Speedwagon concert.*
It turns out that REO was both my first concert (at Poplar Creek in Hoffman Estates, not far from the Sears Center) and Bindi's first concert (at the Chicago Amphitheater).
For those of you still reading, here's a recent interview with A.R.: