Bangalore's experimental/post-rock four-piece Space Behind The Yellow Room overshot the time limit a bit during their set on day two of the first ever edition of the Vans New Wave Musicfest in Goa, so their sound was abruptly cut. Pissed off, their vocalist/drummer hoisted a couple of middle fingers in the general direction of the sound console, before sending a volley of F-word rockets their way, throwing his mic and walking off stage. Electronic duo Oh, Rocket's vocalist followed up their set with a string of F-bombs dedicated to, among other things, one of the bands there. A long, heated argument broke out between two vocalists over whether one of them was the "saviour of the world", concluding in an almost-showdown in the mosh pit during Japanese headliner Shonen Knife's explosive set. During the same set, the frontman of Shillong's Street Stories jumped on stage, took off his cap (which said "Dope", by the way), and put it on Naoko Yamano's head, the legendary lead vocalist/guitarist of Shonen Knife — their stage manager got angry for just a second, before cracking up, removing the cap and patrolling the guy off stage. One guitar-player who'd performed there apparently broke his leg trying his hand at skateboarding, while another fell flat on his face attempting to maintain his balance after one too many Kaltenberg beers (provided to artists for free).
These aren't necessarily good things on the face of it — how a pitch invader/streaker at a football or cricket match is Not Good but we secretly love it — but they're symbolic of something far greater: That just about anything could have happened at the festival; a sense of total chaos was always looming. This was not your regular, sanitised, good-vibes "celebration of music" with brand-name artists pandering to lovely, adoring audiences. Instead, the Vans New Wave festival stood for freedom, self-expression and rebellion, an alternative to the alternative where the music itself towered over all else.
Way up on an actual, real-life hill in Goa (who knew?), at a go-karting track, the festival had three stages — the Pepsi MTV Indies stage (featuring electronica acts), the Stupiditties stage and the Vans Main Stage — spread across the track area, with a stunning view of mountains and south Goa all around. The stages were all fairly close to each other, and with over 60 bands and artists (mostly rock, punk, indie and electronic in sound and aesthetic) playing across two hyper-packed days, often there would be three acts playing simultaneously. This resulted in sound "bleed", the sound from one stage spilling over to the other. While a bit of a pain for the artists, the proximity did lead to a kind of intimacy at the festival as you kept passing the same faces on each two-minute walk from one stage to the next, to the food area, to the skateboarding ramp that Vans had installed. At one point, the ramp was even set on fire while a handful of either drunk or very brave young men skated across it.
It was an excellent experience at an alternative festival catering dedicatedly to a certain sound, a certain way of being — the punk spirit and subsidiaries. Which begs the question: Is independent music in India, in its current state and form, ready for a festival dedicated not to the extravagance but the identity of the music it curates? (To be fair, metal festivals already do this and get huge crowds, but we're talking of a slightly more accessible sound.) The crowd at New Wave would maybe suggest not; there were around 500 people on each day of the weekend festival, but a large chunk of that was artists performing there and supporting each other. It did lead to a great atmosphere of encouragement and camaraderie, though.
The frills at the place were limited at best; there was no flea market, a staple at music festivals these days — food was limited mostly to Maggi, corn, tikkas of some sort, delectably oily Chinese food, some toasted sandwiches — with one entire wall painted with bright graffiti and, further away, a tattoo parlour, a spot for merchandise and a Gibson guitar stall. The stage design, the vibe on the track, the decoration, none of it was especially elaborate or screaming "fancy", but it had all been done tastefully.
Of course, it's not like this was a perfect festival or anything — far from it. The audience, beyond the musicians, was incredibly keyed in to the music, but the numbers weren't exceptional. More people need to listen to the stuff on display, and appreciate the effort that goes into crafting a largely-independent festival of this sort. The performances started at noon, so bands had to bear the crippling Goa heat and sun for the first five or six hours of the day and play to sparse audiences, while the occasional sound glitches — a generator conked off, and a bunch of laptops crashed because of the heat — did halt proceedings. Unseasonal rain on the day before the festival affected schedules, leading to curtailed sets for a few bands and a couple of postponements to the next day. But really, name a festival without such glitches in its first edition and I'll name 10 evil corporate sponsors backing the thing.
The Vans New Wave festival stood for freedom, self-expression and rebellion, an alternative to the alternative where the music itself towered over all else.
Moving on to the music, it's important to point out that this writer is part of one the bands that played (the quite phenomenal Hoirong, since you ask), but that doesn't affect his perception of the thing, at least not consciously. (And really, we live in a time when the fourth estate has been exclusively infiltrated by big, often sketchy business houses with clear agendas, so I, as a small fry culture writer, should have the right to write about and play music as long as there's some integrity there.) Delhi's hardcore act Grammy Winning Effort, possibly the heaviest band on the bill, played a deafening set on the first day. Experimental electronica artist Frame/Frame, with the splendidly-monikered Inspector Maal on live drums, had an outstanding set too — possibly the highlight on that particular stage — while Space Behind The Yellow Room continued their upward trajectory with yet another in a string of volatile, thundering gigs, and Malaysia's Kyoto Protocol played an engaging high-energy set.
The all-girl three-piece pop-punk cult hero(in)es Shonen Knife stole the show with one of the most endearing and enjoyable sets in recent times, and it was but impossible to not have a goofy smile while watching them. They seesawed in tempo, dynamics and content — banana chips to green tea ice-cream to '70s hard rock — but never for a second in intensity. It's a shame Indian audiences largely bypassed Shonen Knife when they were in their prime in the '90s, touring with Nirvana and other defining bands from the era and gaining critical and cult success. But every single one of the few hundred people in attendance would have gone home with happy memories. And the power with which the deceptively-diminutive drummer was smacking her drum kit was a sight to behold. Sure, there were no dazed hippies trembling in a drug haze to psy-trance — well, maybe a couple — but the integrity, the honesty with which the entire affair was conducted suggests an identity to a festival that goes beyond scale or bands or even the venue — it could be a half-day long thing featuring three unknown bands held in my backyard, and it'd still be packed and probably have the same vibe. That stands for something.