My most memorable live music gigs in 2019
This year has been a phenomenal one for me, musically. Though I must admit I didn’t listen to too much new music, I’ve seen some magnificent acts live both in India (where I stay) and in Europe (where I went to on holiday).
It wasn’t just seeing the big acts in big places. The sheer variety of what I saw (even within my preferred genre of rock & metal) made 2019 special.
From legends, to local Indian unknowns.
From massive stadiums, to intimate club gigs.
From long-time favourites, to new ones.
From pop to progressive death metal.
I’ve seen so many good acts (listed here for showing-off purposes), I naturally wanted to rank them. But how do you rank gigs from that spectrum? It would be unfair to place a gig by veterans like Metallica to one by a new band playing their second ever gig. So maybe one way to look at it was gigs that exceeded expectations. When you go to a Metallica, you except 8 and likely get 8. But when you go to a show expecting 6 and get a 9, woah.
But when I was drawing up my list, I realised that all my top moments meant something for me. And perhaps (forgive my philosophical detour here) that’s what live music is all about — those small things that make the gig, apart from the music itself. The banter on stage, the acoustics, the atmosphere, the people you’re with, the friends you make… Even the moments that screw up add to the memory of a live performance, differentiating it from stuff you play back from Spotify (or Winamp, if you’re me). So yeah, let’s go with that: My most memorable gigs. Makes it kinda personal too, what I felt was a 9 could be someone else’s 6. So let’s get right into it, then?
#10: Karnivool @ NH7 Weekender, Meghalaya (Nov 01)
The Perth lads mean a lot to me, made all the more special by being one of the bands my best friend & my then-girlfriend-now-wife all bonded over together back in 2010 when we discovered them. I missed their maiden India gig (Mood Indigo, 2011) thanks to a surgery, but caught them twice the next year — at Weekender Pune and an acoustic gig in Mumbai. The long gap and scanty music releases did nothing to temper my love of the band, and it was otherwordly seeing them in the North East, with a crowd of thousands singing along to each word. I indeed was a simple boy, high above the world.
#9: The Great Harry Hillman @ Levi’s Lounge, Mumbai (Nov 26)
I wouldn’t have thought that a random “post-jazz” gig by a Swiss band I’ve never heard of would make my top 10 in a year where I’ve seen so many great acts, but that’s the beauty of live music, innit? While all the band members were technically gifted, the drummer, Dominik Mahnig, was on another plane altogether — putting little metal beads on his toms, using the physical space above him, and just generally being manic. It was clear on the faces of all those who had been brave enough to turn up: It would be one of the gigs of the year. It was. Oh, and there was free beer. Levi’s Lounge FTW.
#8: KISS @ Graspop, Belgium (Jun 22)
I’m not gonna lie, when the lineup for Graspop was announced, a lot of us sneered at why a bunch of clowns were not just headlining, but closing the festival. By midnight of Jun 22, nobody was sneering. Instead, they were all singing along to a band who knew that they had 30,000 metal snobs eating out of their collective hands. What all those snobs also realised is that beneath the cartoonish exterior are four very skilled songwriters and performers. Perhaps nobody knew this better than the band themselves — Paul Stanley said “We can be people tomorrow, let’s have a party tonight”. We did. As a friend I was with observed, “Nobody realises how many KISS songs they actually know”. We were laughing, singing, jumping and laughing some more. KISS are not just musicians, they are entertainers. A+ show.
#7: One Night Stand — Pink Floyd / Dire Straits tribute @ Hard Rock Cafe, Mumbai (Aug 29)
Once in a while you need to give yourself a guilty pleasure. Even the snootiest foodie finds solace in a McAloo Tikki once in a while. ONS is a band filled with accomplished sessions musicians, some of whom have performed live with touring Bollywood acts. I’ve seen these gentlemen a decade ago, when they did a stellar Deep Purple tribute night. And on this night,they did the supremely gutsy thing of dedicating an hour each to Floyd and Straits. With all due respect to the other musicians, the highlight was Sarosh Izedyar — it takes special talent to do the vocal and guitar parts of both David Gilmour and Mark Knopfler. And for note-perfect renditions of some anthems, this turned out to be one of the most memorable musical evenings I had this year. Sheer guilty pleasure.
#6: Devin Townsend — Acoustic @ Levi’s Lounge, Mumbai (Mar 08)
Confession — I am not a big Devin fan. Not that I dislike his music, I haven’t heard enough. But the esteem most metal / prog fans (whose opinion I value) hold him in, plus being suitably impressed by a hurried perusal of his discography, PLUS the fact that this was a unique acoustic setting made this a must-attend. And boy, I didn’t regret it. It was the most intimate gig of the year. Not only was the audience limited to 30, but Devin shared stories, often prefacing songs with them. It became very personal, and it was quite clear the setlist was being made up on the spot. It was a manifestation of watching a genius mind at work. This gig was memorable for me for another reason: A good friend (a pretty big fan of Devin) didn’t manage to grab front-row tix, while I did. I told him to swap seats since he’d benefit from front-rowness more than me. He refused for the longest time, and agreed only at the last minute. The decision came to fruition when Devin sat on the empty chair next to him during my friend’s favourite song (Deadhead) and sang with a hand around his shoulder. I believe a tear was shed, but I never asked.
#5: Opeth @ NH7 Weekender, Pune (Nov 03)
I’m breaking my self-imposed rule of “no legendary big bands” on this list only because it’s a band I have grown to love so much over the last few years. Truly, to me, nobody represents progressive music better: The dynamics, the songwriting, the seamless shifts from dark to light — amazing. I’ve not anticipated a gig in India like this since Karnivool at the same stage in 2011. It was a show that did not disappoint at all. I had great company (hi, VU!) and we were in a good part of a crowd — enough people singing along, but also enough people amused by how much we were losing it. What made it all the more special was that they deviated from their setlist and included a lighter song I was dearly hoping they would play (but one that made me weep as it always reminds me of something). But when they pumped into Deliverance — arguably their finest track of all time, there were only tears of joy. And a hoarse throat. While frontman Akerfeldt gets plaudits for his voice and songwriting, each of the band is fantastic in their own right — Axenrot’s insane drumming, Joakim’s lush layers, Mendez’ hypnotic bassplaying, and of course, that guitar-playing by Akesson. What a gig that was to cap off a particularly br00tal day at NH7! I was so looking forward to a lighter singer-songwriter lineup on Day 3 — but I guess that’s a perfect reflection of Opeth themselves — brutal one minute, leaving you gasping for air the next, all while bearing a huge grin.
#4: Ne Obliviscaris @ Graspop, Belgium (Jun 21)
A friend (KK) told me to check out this oddly-named band from Australia, describing it as “early Opeth with violin”. The description was an accurate one — these guys have the dark-and-light dynamics of said Swedish titans, along with the technical ability of Dream Theater, the apathy-to-song-lengths of Tool… AND they have a violin. And now, it feels like all of metal should have a violin during their down times. This band was my ‘discovery of the year’ in 2018, and I was so thrilled too see them announced as part of an already glittering Graspop lineup — they were the #1 act I wanted to see. VU also became a huge fan and we made sure we were there well in time to catch a good spot, and we were rewarded with one of the sets of our lives. If you are a metal fan and can tolerate growls — do check them out, you will not regret it. I cannot thank KK enough for introducing me to them — perhaps swapping seats so he could have Devin Townsend sing Deadhead next to him was enough payback :)
#3: Coshish @ Levi’s Lounge, Mumbai (Apr 13)
This was the first time I had ever heard Coshish, let alone seeing them live (disgraceful, I know). Perhaps it was the tempered expectations that helped propel this gig so up the list. But all the boxes were ticked — great venue and acoustics, good crowd, great band banter (between members and with the crowd), complementary visuals… And of course, the songs and playing were top-notch. Hamza in particular blew me away with his drumming. I think more than anything else, I’ve never seen “Hindi progressive rock” done so well and so confidently. Cannot wait to see these guys again. What a gig this was.
#2: The Ocean @ Above The Habitat, Mumbai (Jan 12)
I’m kicking myself for not having heard The Ocean more before going to the gig. When I hear of a prog-metal band (or any artist, for that matter) coming down, I make it a point to hear enough of their music before going and made the mistake of not doing that enough for these Germans. I went there mostly for being the first gig of the year and a nice warm-up to TesseracT who I was looking forward to a week later. Oh boy, oh boy.
The sheer vitality of the songs, the power with which they were delivered to an adoring audience, and the energy of vocalist Loïc Rossetti all came together to create one heck of a night. These were brilliant songs (they sing about things like the mesopelagic zone and the Cambrian explosion, if you must know) and Above The Habitat — fast becoming an unlikely home for suburban Mumbai’s metal scene — witnessed its heaviest night in 2019. At one point, Loïc jumped off the stage, and walked by the “bar tables” on the right of the room, right next to me. In Bangalore, he climbed up to the first floor and jumped OFF it onto the fans. Holy! There were many gigs where I was unable to see the act properly because of people recording with cellphones, this was one of those few gigs I couldn’t see the band because hands were constantly just up there. The pic I put up shows that — I’ve never seen a higher density of horns per square metalhead. I was absolutely stunned, and I knew then and there the gig would make this list at the end of the year.
#1: Trivium @ Graspop, Belgium (Jun 21)
This is a surprising topper, even for me — as much as I love the band, there were several, several other acts round the year (and even at Graspop itself) I was looking forward to more. Just goes to show what the right setting can do. Ah, live music.
Anyway — let’s back up. Just before Trivium played at the main stage, I was at another band I was looking forward to a lot — Norwegian metal band, Borknagar. I was enjoying a great set (by myself, friends had abandoned me for blacker pastures). My enjoyment must have been visible enough for a friendly chap behind me to hand me some, shall we say, vegetables and said it was all mine. An entire half doob later, I was thoroughly blazed and made my way to the front of Main Stage 2 where Trivium was setting up (Behemoth were playing at MS1 so most of the crowd was there). I took a detour for a lovely pepperoni pizza (it’s amazing what certain vegetables can do to your appetite). Trivium began and it was insane!
“Like Light To Flies” was the first metal song I’ve ever loved — having seen it on late night MTV when I was a wee Bon Jovi-consuming lad. But what I did not expect was Matt Heafy (who was 17 when said song came out, by the way) would egg the crowd on saying that the Download Festival crowd was the best they’ve played at till now. Up to the challenge, Dessel exploded and I swear, I’ve never seen a crowd and band feed off each other so much. Heafy had mics placed in 3 points on the stage, and what a thrill it was to see him sing the first chorus of LLTF right in front of me!
The rest of the set was peppered with favourites — but the stunning thing was the energy of the crowd — constant crowdsurfs, lots of moshing, you could feel the energy all the way back. I rewatched bootlegs of the show later and could still feel the thrill. I don’t know if I’ll ever be to another Trivium show and even if I do, if it will match up to that show — but the memory of that one hour, I will hold for ever. It was just a whole bunch of things coming together — from that kindly stranger to helping crowdsurfers — that made this more than just the music. I needed to sit for a while, and I did — as Slash & Myles Kennedy kicked butt at the other stage, and Godsmack came after that to play as I was in the front row. All put together, my musical moment of the year and I suspect, life.
Within India: Underside @ NH7 Weekender (Nov 30) — the Nepal boys absolutely kicked ass!
Outside India: Eluveitie @ Graspop (Jun 22) — The folk metal legends playing in an enclosed area, and they put on a fucking fabulous show.
Legendary acts who I haven’t mentioned in the list above:
TesseracT (Jan 12, Nov 01); Fleetwood Mac (Jun 10); Metallica (Jun 11); Dream Theater (Jun 17); Mark Knopfler (Jun 20).
Thank you for reading this far, if you did. If 2019 did one thing for me, it was reaffirming the power of live gigs. I’m going to end the year with what promises to be another spectacular gig, and a name I feel ashamed to have left out till now, but only because I go expecting 10 and it’s always a 10 — Blackstratblues.
Onto 2020, then, and much more live music \m/