Chennai’s independent musicians are back on stage with fresh music crafted during the closings. And audiences look forward to virtual concerts to the energy of live performances
When the Covid-related lockdowns began in March 2020, Chennai musicians retreated to their homes and studios to bide their time. Many have kept in touch with fans online. Most of them have stayed in touch with their creative inner selves, quietly releasing song after song, in a constant wave of “lockdown releases” that continues to this day.
In recent weeks, it seems the unintentional hiatus is finally over.
Independent music performances are once again becoming a regular feature of the city’s nightlife, and songs hitherto reserved for lives and streams are finally being released to real audiences. But while revelers and performers are equally happy, some usual challenges remain.
At the Barracuda Brew in Nungambakkam last Saturday, it’s up to singer-songwriter Sarah Black to kick off the evening. Her voice is powerful, but her songs were sweet, and it took two solid numbers before the chatty customers settled in enough to really listen to her. Sarah’s opening act – a mix of covers, originals and never-before-seen singles – set the stage for the rest of the Michael Timothy and Friends lineup, and the night ended on a more synergistic high.
Sarah had foreseen it: “It’s a pub after all; people are there to have fun. Keeping a crowd quiet while playing acoustically is difficult; but the audience got more energetic towards the end.
Her set included numbers she had never performed before, such as the sweet and melancholy “Someday” written a month ago, and earlier lockdown versions like “Loud” and “Summer Love”.
She adds: “Michael Timothy asked me to open one of his concerts a long time ago, which didn’t happen then. I was delighted to finally open for him, because he’s an amazing musician and the training was really good.
Amogh Balaji was part of the same lineup, who for the past few weeks has been on stage both as a solo artist and as part of ensembles, including one with fellow musician and collaborator Michael Timothy.
Amogh’s first night on stage, he recalls, was at Black Orchid, RA Puram in November. The concept was similar to that of Barracuda Brew: the event was titled Michael Timothy and Friends. Said Amogh, “The turnout was great; it was one of the first major independent concerts to take place since the second lockdown. There were me, Nadisha Thomas, Paul Livi, Chris Jason and several other musicians. The crowd was a mix of people who had come just for us and people who just wanted to have fun on the weekends.
Like her comeback gig, the night at Black Orchid was special. Amogh says, “Among the songs we performed, two were songs that I had never performed before. I had recorded ‘Lowkey’ and ‘Who Cares’ in my forties, and I was nervous because I had never imagined playing them live. They were meant to be studio songs. His fears were unfounded; the public, he says, received both issues as well as any.
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Recent concerts give Amogh another reason to be happy: “Last weekend a couple of people came to me at the show, saying they were there because they recognized me on Instagram. It’s good to see that social media is working for us and showing results in real life.
New audiences aren’t the only returns musicians get from their year online. In some cases, this also allowed them to create a platform. House of T, which hosted Instagram and Zoom shows for most of the pandemic – sometimes ignoring the drop in viewership – has found promising new talent because of her.
According to Thomas Davis, Founder of House of T, “A lot of interesting musicians were part of our Zoom shows, including Kavin who does reggae music in Tamil, Sadhanaa B who plays violin as well as guitar, and some young talent. who had to put their music on hold because of board reviews, and are now eager to come back.
When the time is right
All these musicians were welcomed by House of T in its usual place: Republik, Adyar. Their broadcasts have temporarily become more frequent since August: “We tried every other Saturday in August, then we have done it every Saturday night since October. In November, we switched to Sunday evenings, as Chennai’s bar crowds prefer dance music to live music on Saturdays. The Sunday crowd is softer and wants to listen to original music.
Thomas adds that, surprisingly, the number of hearings is now higher than before the lockdowns. “What was previously a maximum of 30 people per show, is now a minimum of 30 and a maximum of 60.”
Even the biggest platforms – like Social – are optimistic about their independent music plans. Ranveer Sabhani, Business Manager – South, Impresario Handmade Restaurants, said of Mount Road Social: “We would love to welcome them. [independent musicians] as frequently as possible. We are waiting to find a talent pool with which we can start a property in the middle of the week. Currently we have five to six concerts per month. “
“Culture still needs to be built more,” acknowledges Thomas, “but people are now more willing to go out for artists they don’t know personally. “