ShiRock festival turns the spotlight on Manipur's lively culture, with performances by Nazareth, Extreme

  • The state of Manipur has been in the national headlines for insurgency for decades now, but a conscious image makeover has been in the works.

  • Aiding this is the state-sponsored Shirui Lily Festival, which also began hosting a rock and metal festival named ShiRock two years ago.

  • This year, ShiRock hosted Scottish heavy metal/hard rock band Nazareth, and a closing headline set featuring American glam metal/rock veterans, Extreme.

To visit a music festival for the first time in a previously unexplored state is, among other things, an attempt to understand the culture of its people, perhaps the youth in particular. Out in the town of Ukhrul in Manipur – which is at a distance of 80 kilometre from Imphal – there’s some talk of Nagalim and a visible adherence to their Tangkhul tribal heritage amongst the Meitei majority.

The state of Manipur has been in the national headlines for insurgency for decades now, but a conscious image makeover has been in the works. Aiding this is the state-sponsored Shirui Lily Festival, which also began hosting a rock and metal festival named ShiRock two years ago. In its third edition, ShiRock has finally managed to find its place in the national and North East Indian music festival calendar, despite  a few niggles that need addressing along the way.

This year, ShiRock hosted Scottish heavy metal/hard rock band Nazareth on 16 October, followed by two days of their band and voice competition (which saw 22 bands from the North East, and 13 singers from Manipur participate). Their closing headline set featured the India debut of American glam metal/rock veterans, Extreme.

 ShiRock festival turns the spotlight on Manipurs lively culture, with performances by Nazareth, Extreme

Guru Rewben Mashengva at ShiRock 2019.

While Nazareth is no stranger to playing in India, – the band had performed in Shillong and Aizawl in 2017 – the big draw remained Extreme’s maiden act in the country, especially for axeman Nuno Bettencourt, and his much celebrated guitar wizardry.

Despite heavy downpour and the resulting chaos merely hours before the festival was scheduled to kick off, the show didn't stop. The crowd showed up in large numbers on the opening day, which featured a set from Manipuri country/folk artiste Guru Rewben Mashengva, who kept spirits high with a short but boisterous performance. The voice competition took over with a few moving, daring and some play-it-safe, predictable voices coming through for a song each. Surprisingly, some of them performed their own songs, while others delivered covers.

It was already 8.30 pm when Nazareth came on stage, so the voice competition had to be put on hold, and was only resumed after their set. However, unfortunately last year’s band competition winners – metallers Reverse Tragedy – were asked to play right at the end, when they originally intended to open for Nazareth.

Nazareth performing at ShiRock 2019.

Nazareth performing at ShiRock 2019.

These scheduling gaffes could barely dampen the enthusiasm for the headlining act, as all was forgotten on witnessing the band — one that’s been around since the late 1960s — perform with infectious energy. A contemporary of Led Zeppelin and Def Leppard, Nazareth's performance of songs like 'My White Bicycle', 'Heart’s Grown Cold', 'Beggars Day' and 'Hair of the Dog', was fist-tight and soaring. When vocalist Carl Sentance joked that he’s only got coke and water on stage when he’d rather prefer beer, the crowd broke into a cheer.

As Nazareth exited the stage, the voice competition resumed, following which the final act by Reverse Tragedy was served with some sublime progressive metal. The audience, however, wanted more. Young, middle-aged, and a few senior citizens — the Manipuri presence in the crowd was perhaps just a handful. But it was the attendance of MLAs, MPs and other local legislators from the state that explained the heavy presence of the armed forces at the festival.

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Day two and three’s band competition displayed some interesting trends from the North East’s rock and metal scene. There’s still an affinity for covers, and the vocalists mostly seemed to prefer a high-pitched, screechy voice, reminiscent of Dream Theater’s James LaBrie, AC/DC’s Brian Johnson (High Volt, a Manipuri tribute band to the Aussie hard rock group, actually grabbed third place in the competition) and Judas Priest's Rob Halford.

Nightmares, from Gangtok, winner of ShiRock 2019 band competition.

Nightmares, a band from Gangtok, is the winner of ShiRock 2019 band competition.

Although a Gangtok metal band, Nightmares, took home the top prize of Rs 10 lakh, followed by a second place tie between Nagaland indie/grunge band Papersky, and Mizoram metallers Sword Tune, there were plenty other notable names in the running. These included refreshing funk and neo-soul bands like Larger Than 90 (from Meghalaya), Origami (Mizoram), as well as experimental sounds from Nephele (Assam), Pariahs of Paradise (Manipur) and Arsenic (Assam).

On day four, the performances were mostly staged as per schedule, perhaps in a bid to get everything right for Extreme’s India debut. After announcing the winners for the band and voice contests, Sikkimese band Nightmares launched into a victory lap, with singer Asherie Haokip following suit as winner.

The closing act by Extreme spelled 'larger than life', a quality signature to only a veteran band. Nuno Bettencourt, Gary Cherone, Pat Badger and Kevin Figueiredo were welcomed on stage to a loud cheer, as they started off with 'It (‘s A Monster)' from their hit album Pornograffitti. Through the course of 90 minutes, that album dictated the prominent mood of the night – a little bit debauched in glam rock and metal, striking guitar solos, and more.

Extreme performing at ShiRock 2019.

Extreme performing at ShiRock 2019. Image courtesy: Radhakanta Sharma, ShiRock 2019.

Arguably, Cherone is no more the powerhouse voice he once used to be, but we’ll let it pass for the overall band intensity in songs like 'Get the Funk Out', 'Tragic Comic', 'Cupid’s Dead', and Decadence Dance'.

Barring an acoustic changeover that brought Figueiredo’s scaled down drum-kit to front stage, the atmosphere was just right for 'More Than Words', as Bettencourt even jokingly led with 'Stairway to Heaven' for a bit. They closed with Queen’s 'We Are the Champions', perhaps making the tens of thousands present there forget about the mundane, and bask in the glory of a newly established music festival — even if it’s one that's fuelled by nostalgia.

Updated Date: Nov 02, 2019 18:00:45 IST