Sudhish Kamath joins the congregation of headbangers and bands at the June Rock Out

Remember how old-timers often feebly begin the sentence with “Back in 19-some-year, when we were your age…” Well, yeah… Finding out that June Rock Out (JRO), Chennai’s only rock festival, organised by Unwind Centre was in its 10th year, instantly made me one of those old fogeys.

Here I was at the Kumara Rani Meena Muthiah College Hall, Gandhi Nagar, for the finale of this year’s edition and gripped by an intense bout of nostalgia. Inside, an entirely brand new generation of rockers had congregated for hardcore head-banging and some old- fashioned air-guitaring. Most of them, in their teens, were set to get into Woodstock-mode with their axes, daring to perform originals only. Whoa! So, yeah…

Back in 19-some-year, when we were going to rock concerts, bands had to sneak in their own compositions between cover versions of Floyd and Maiden. Fans used to be violently restless and impatient and any furniture at concerts was gravely endangered.

How did all this change, I ask Saroop Oomen, one of the Unwind Centre Six, responsible for the revival of rock in Chennai. “We just kept it going,” he says. “Today, we have 55 active bands in Chennai, all ready to perform. We have another 25 from Hyderabad. We had to ask bands to register online and send us demos of their own compositions. We have a panel of judges who then picked the best.”

The day for organisers and the dedicated bunch of around 25 volunteers (most of them from the Unwind School of Music) began early in the morning with setting up the banners all around the venue. The equipment had to be put in place before the bands arrived for their sound check. When you have seven bands performing in a span of six hours, bands tend to get a little insecure about their sound. Hence, the sound-check sessions are scheduled hours before the actual show.

Half-past-four, Saroop realises that any further delay waiting for a crowd may push the event beyond ten, after which the crowd would start leaving. So, Dubai-based Punk/Ska band Gandhi’s Cookbook takes the stage after a video-presentation that recapped key moments of the JRO over the years.

Responsible rock

There’s only so much air-conditioning one can deal with and when you pack scores of crazy head-bangers into an indoor venue, you have no choice but to, as the tagline for the festival goes, ‘feel the heat.’ The first thing I do is to park myself on the floor right below the air-conditioner. I was too old to stand in the front anyway. A young man falls right next to me as others rush to get him water and carry him outside. Either he’s overdosed on the music. Or allied substance. The organisers, trying hard to promote ‘Responsible Rock,’ always frisk rock fans before letting them enter precisely for reasons like this — to discourage drugs and alcohol.

Chennai’s own Grey Shack made an impact with their own compositions and even got classic rock fans to sing along the chorus of “Hey Jude” at the end of their medley.

Listening to Bangalore-based Pipers and Chennai’s super-young Null-Friction, I lost my sense of time and space, completely intrigued by the confident new sound of rock and comfortably numb on the hard floor.

John Christian, another of the Unwind Centre Six, tells me I need a break. I hadn’t moved from the spot and it was the fourth band onstage. Over a cup of homemade cold coffee, John tells me how these lads from Null Friction had been playing since their school days at Unwind. Today, the guys were making a special appearance. After school, the boys left to study abroad and here they were for a reunion, getting the crowd to sing along with their originals. Even when they played Floyd, they made sure they weren’t just ‘Another Brick in the Wall.’ They tweaked it a little, gave it their own touch and rocked hard. Progressive indeed! When you have one of them sporting a T-shirt that says I *heart* Chennai (in Tamil), you can see how proud they are of their identity.

Pune-based Silver ruled Chennai next with its brand of experimental hard rock before Anita Ratnam was called upon to give away the Leon Ireland Outstanding Vocalist Award (Lionel Mascarenhas collected it on behalf of Suraj Jagan of Dream Out Loud, Mumbai). David Pascal was honoured for his contribution to music, and on public demand, bullied into singing without a band. When he hauntingly transported the young to a different century with his Nat King Cole tribute “Mona Lisa”, the crowd broke the pin-drop silence with applause. I picked up a chair. I couldn’t sit on the floor anymore and there were two more bands coming up.

Annual haunt

Slain (from Bangalore) was as hardcore as rock gets, pounding your eardrums with the rhythm of heavy metal and Lionel Mascarenhas (from Mumbai) was contrastingly soothing, blended in Coldplay in between originals to entertain the largely predominant girl-crowd. In between all this, I see a lot of familiar faces… rock musicians from the past who have made JRO their annual haunt. In this city, vintage music dies hard. As David Pascal reminded me: “People still remember Nat ‘King’ Cole.” All is well!