At the peak above the town of Mussoorie, which you get to through a six kilometer long winding hairpin road snaking alongside the hill, lie the remains of what used to be the house of George Everest. On a plain piece of land right beside the house sat the grand stage of the Celeste Music Festival 2013, just a few feet away from the edge overlooking a steep cliff.
To give you an idea of the altitude: if you were to stand at the edge, you would be staring down at clouds. The place looked like something that was pulled right out of a gallery of picturesque locations; the icy wind would blow the clouds right against the wall of the cliff and make them creep in from right behind the stage, creating a natural smoke machine of sorts. To be able to have set such a beautiful stage and all-round setup after lugging tons of equipment through such harsh conditions is more than just praiseworthy. I remember some of the organizers recounting a few horrid experiences they had while hauling the equipment up to the peak. But hey, they pulled it off pretty well.
The peak was continuously being beaten with bone-chilling winds, which brings me to the first lesson I learnt out of my experience at the festival: When you’ve been told that it’s going to be cold, rely on more than a sweater to keep alive. Of course, there were moments where I only faintly cheated death at the hands of hypothermia, but forget about me; kudos to each of the artists to have pulled off a great show considering the fact their limbs were near frozen. I watched most of the first day’s evening from inside the shelter of the sound-booth, witnessing my fair share of good, bad, and exceptional bands.
The setup of the stage and the festival was well thought-out and executed with only as many glitches as any debut edition finds natural to have. The effort spent by the organizers on the production of the festival clearly deserves its fair share of credit. The sound systems, the lighting, the stage, the ambience, the food stalls, the campsites, the transportation were all set up with tedious care. Having said that the technical aspects of the festival were well calculated, the promotion for the event seemed to be lacking. By the end of the first night I might have seen all of maybe 70 or 80 people, give or take a few. This was an obvious flaw that we hope the festival will take care of in their next edition but, weirdly enough, I personally enjoyed the absence of a huge crowd. It felt like a small and intimate event, and put in a location like the one it was, it seemed like the perfect getaway.
There were a few very talented musicians the first night, including three-piece acts like contemporary jazz bands Drift – The Trio and Syncopation. Both the bands have some exceptionally talented instrumentalists and musicians; they created an amazing ‘chilled-out-groove’ vibe in the air drawing the people together into a trance (without having to repeat the same two notes for three hundred bars out of a laptop). Indian classical fusion band Raagleela performed towards the end of the night, achieving a considerable amount of appreciation from the audience. They had a small battalion of musicians take up the stage, creating wholesome music that projected all across. They sounded great; as a matter of fact, let’s take this moment to appreciate the efforts of the sound engineer for having put up a great show. There were a few not-so-great bands that I had to sit through too; not only was it difficult to sit through bad music, but it also felt as if the weather got colder when bands like Fruzu took the stage. Members of Fruzu definitely seemed like they had a lot of fun on the stage but I couldn’t say the same for myself or those around me. It was fruity, pop-ish, ballad-y kind of music that I really wanted to avoid, so I went out on a stroll towards the food stalls. I was about to get myself some shawarma when I noticed the bar, which only meant one thing in this weather – rum! Hallelujah! There was nothing else that would’ve gotten me warmer, but no amount of rum could get me drunk enough to sit through Fruzu’s act. The first day’s share of musicians had finished playing a little before mid-night.
The second day seemed like a beautiful one; small groups of young festival goers sat across the grass field, soaking up the sun while cool breezes kissed our faces. It seemed like the perfect morning up until the skin for the bass drum tore during soundcheck. This happened right about noon, the time officially set for the first act of the day – Soul’d Out, I believe – to take the stage. The skin for the bass drum had to be brought in from Dehradun, which meant that this was going to take longer than a while. An inactive stage obviously was not part of the plan; now what to do, bro? So the organizers decided to shuffle the lineup of artists for the day as a measure of damage control; ushering onstage a series of skilled button-pressing electronic ‘musicians’ onstage who had no need for any of the instruments. Forgive my insolence, but I am not much for loops and mindlessly repetitive music. Monolith, Vaeya and Psyshastra were some of the buzz killers that morning to whom I am not going to give any more writing space than this.
The sun had already set by the time the skin finally arrived to mark the beginning of the better part of that day. A majority of the bands had to run up without having had time for soundcheck; but rare as it is, there were a minimum amount of glitches in the sound system. The sound was brilliant and crisp, and having spent most of my time inside the console I noticed a multitude of people, including band members, operating the lighting system and doing a pretty good job. The second evening had a slew of great bands that I had been personally looking forward to, including Soul’d Out, The Uncertainty Principle, The Circus and FuzzCulture. Soul’d Out were just splendid – vocalist Chetan Awasthi reminded me of a young Michael Jackson with the shades, the moves and the leather jacket. Also, to be honest, I have a soft spot for the saxophone and Abhay Sharma did an amazing job playing it. Soul’d out had a pretty great act that night. The Circus were as loud and energetic as ever and, together with FuzzCulture, probably provided the people with some of their best memories of the festival. The crowd seemed to be packed together right in front of the stage in a delirious dance; I was happy knowing that they were happy. Even the Mayor of Mussoorie graced the evening with his presence, and he seemed in a particularly festive mood, it being his birthday and all. I don’t think there is any Mayor of any town that has partied on their birthday with such swagger; drink in hand and dancing on stage while FuzzCulture played at the back. It was a fun sight.
As part of the Uttarakhand revival, Celeste has definitely made its mark on the eager crowd of music lovers. This was probably one of the few festivals that did not piggy-back on the name of famous headlining bands to carry water for them and focused all its energy into creating a line-up of independent musicians. Having started off as a small idea by a bunch of kids, it seems like the festival really does have the potential to stick.
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