Later … With Jools Holland
In any normal situation, I would have turned down the offer to travel half way around the world just to play a single song, a song that was not of my first choice, with only half of my band line up and sound that was not of my choice either!
But this was not any ordinary offer, it was an offer to perform that ‘one song of under 4 minutes’ on the biggest, massive TV show on BBC 2, ‘Later…with Jools Holland’. To add to that, I was to share TV time and the stage with legends like ‘Robert Plant (of Led Zeppelin fame) and his Band of Joy’, Mavis Staples and contemporary fire packed sensations like Arcade Fire, Adele and Mona. Quick research showed that previous episodes of this show had legends like Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and Kings of Leon, the show is watched by more than 3 million viewers over 100 countries on TV and online. The show is always packed with talents both legendary and upcoming – the atmosphere electric, spiced with good old British humour by the host Jools Holland, who himself is an accomplished and revered musician.
There was no way to say no!
The format of the show is fairly simple. The setting is a 360 degree stage with 6 acts lined up in a circle. Each band gets to play one or more songs, and each band band is briefly introduced by the host. Legend has it that once you are on Jools Holland show, you know you have arrived or at least you will very soon! It is a true validation of your band and your music.
My management, based in the UK, had been working on getting me and my band on this show for many months now. I remember that Mark Cooper, who is the producer for the show, was invited to see one of my showcases at the Bush Hall in London in June. It was an acoustic show and Mark had us in mind ever since but never could slot us on the show. It boiled down to the last episode of the series and Mark sent us that ever elusive email inviting us to be part of the show. But the problem was we had only 5 days to get to London and on that show. It was a miracle and some high profile string pulling that got our visas in less than 3 days when it normally takes up to 2 weeks!
The deal given to us was this:
1) Raghu performs an acoustic set with two acoustic guitars , a violin and a tabla.
2) Raghu to perform the song ‘Khidki’.
3) Duration under 4 minutes.
I was not happy about the choice of song and the fact that I had to use tabla. My management and I thought ‘No Man Will Ever Love You, Like I Do’ was a better choice of song and is best when performed acoustic and we could somehow squeeze in the sound of the tabla on it. With just a few hours before we left India, we convinced Mark Cooper that ‘No Man’ would be a better song for the show and he also said we could perform ‘Khidki’ as a casual sound check which could be shot for the show’s website. I was so relieved.
We decided to use a tabla player from London and Paul Knowles, my manager, asked Manjeet Singh aka Minta Singh, who eventually played on the show with us. We recorded an acoustic version of both Khidki and No Man with a local tabla player and sent it out to Manjeet to listen to so that he could be ready with the song by the time we arrived at the BBC Studios.
Day 1: 15-11-2010.
After finishing two back to back energy-sapping shows at NITTE, Mangalore and Strawberry Fields, Bangalore, in India, we directly headed to the airport to catch our mid night flight to London. We reached London by 1 pm in a delirium of fatigue and complete boredom. I was still wondering what the fuss was all about this damn show.
We walked into the BBC Studios and the sheer massiveness of it was intimidating. We got our visitor passes and promptly were guided to Studio 8 where a melee of busy activity was going on setting up the stage for the show. I was staring at the whole thing in awe – massive lights, cameras, trolleys, people with walkie-talkies running around as if the world is gonna come to an end. We were received with much warmth by Antonia, and shown to our green room which was given to us to rehearse for a bit with the new tabla player.
We waited for the camera rehearsals on the fringe of the setting and thats when it hit me how big this was gonna be. The sound of the first band hit bang on my heart and I was so mesmerised by the sheer beauty, clarity and soulfulness of that sound. It was Robert Plant and the Band of Joy going through their sound check and camera rehearsals. Oh, I could have cried a river listening to that sound and at the presence of such greatness just a few feet away from me. Here was the man who sang the best song ever ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Here is the man who has inspired generations of musicians. Here is the man who was part of one of the greatest rock bands ‘Led Zeppelin’. Here was the man whom I used to try and imitate but never could reach his range. Kashmir, Gallow’s Pole etc rang through my head. Buddy Miller, the producer of Robert Plants latest album was on the guitars. That sound check was a massive education for me. I knew something has changed me forever listening to that band.
Then it was our turn for the sound check. It took exactly 15 minutes for the sound engineer ‘Chris’ to get us sounding like a million bucks. I was thrilled at the clarity and beauty of my own ‘new sound’. The tabla had never sounded better. The guitars were crisp and the violin soulful. We managed to get away with our half preparedness and rehearsed for the cameras. Soon after that, Me, Vijay and Karthick shot for the casual version of Khidki which would go on the website. I was not happy that we performed in our T shirts and jeans – but the show insisted us that we looked casual. It went up on the website the next day and I cringed at our dress code missing but we did sound fab. Janet, the show director, was generous with her praise for my song and singing.
We were told to be ready and be on the floors at 7.45 pm. The longer version of the show, to be aired on Friday, would be shot from 8 to 9 pm and then the shorter live version from 10 pm. I loved the fact that everything worked at clock work precision. Everyone was ready and so was everything. The cameras, the lights, the sound, the tele-prompters, the audience, the setting … I was numb. My whole management team was there in full support for us. I also had insisted our biggest fan and now a dear friend, Anjan Kumar, be seated with the band. This was the best way we could thank Anjan for the help he has been throughout this year whenever we have been to the UK.
Just before the whole circus started, I met Mavis Staples who was right next to where we were seated. She is 73, I was told, and is a woman with energy of a 16 year old and sings like her life depends on it. She has a childish charm about her and her smile can bring a war to an end. We spoke to each other as if we knew each other for a very long time. I also met the whole gang of ‘Arcade Fire’. I remember reading rave reviews for their album the last time I was traveling in London underground in one of those free newspapers but I had never heard them before. The bunch were rather soft speaking and sweet compared to the aggression and energy in their music! I recommend everyone buys their album. I bought one just before I caught my flight back. The cool dudes from USA, the band Mona had a fantastic sound and I loved the vocalist. Hard hitting alternative likeable rock. The appreciation was mutual between us. I was yet to get blown away by ‘Adele’.
Bang on time, the MC, who was rather funny and made everyone laugh, warmed up the crowd before the man himself, Mr. Jools Holland, entered and took over explaining how the show would be shot. Without much loss of time and before I could realise, the lights were on and the shoot had started with bang – Arcade Fire! I was loving this. I could not help but tell myself how blessed I was to be in the middle of it all, and that I was so glad that my management overruled my apprehensions of coming all the way for just one song spending the last bit of my savings. This is what every musician on earth should experience and be part of. This was the best day of my life as a musician!!
Everything was so quick and before I knew we were tuned and set up to perform right after a song from Mona and a quick enlightening chat between Robert Plant and Jools. “Ladies and Gentlemen, All the way from India, Ragoooo Dixeeeeeet” screamed Jools and I started with a fumble on my intro hook but gathered myself in time! We were off like a colourful kite. The moment was surreal. It was as if the whole world had stopped to listen to me. I had my eyes closed, my voice closest to my heart and I sang as if it was the last time I will ever sing. Vijay Joseph on guitars kept his cool and did what he had to do and Karthick on the violin, as always, was soulful. Manjeet had a constant smile and kept the groove and we all came together like never before. I knew we were sounding fabulous and could imagine a million viewers sitting in front of their TV and listening to us. Would they like us? Would they cheer or smile or clap or cry or turn off their TV sets? I would know only in a few days. But nothing mattered – this was indeed the best moment of my life. 4 minutes went off like 4 seconds and when we hit the last chord and I soared to the end note, the quietness was shattered by the loud applause and cheer from the crowd. I could see the smile of appreciation from Mavis Staples at the corner of my eye. We had won the crowd over. The loudest cheer, I knew, came from my management team and I knew I had done them proud!
The rest of the show went off like a dream. Mavis showed me what passion can do. At 73, it can make your knees strong, create energy out of nowhere, make your soul wanton like a child while the whole world follows it under a hypnotic spell. At 73, if I can do the same, this life will be worth lived. She was spontaneous, soulful, groovy, musical, witty and made the whole world around her happy! Don’t miss the moment where she walks up to me where I was seated and sings ‘I can see smiling faces around me’ and made me jig a bit!
But the moment that made me feel love was when ‘Adele’ sang. Just a piano backing her, she conquered the entire audience with her voice, soul, melody, control and extreme ease with which she sang.
The show had to come to an end and so it did. But the best was yet to come. Moments of mutual appreciation between the artists. Robert Plant was rather kind with his words for me and obliged for a picture with him. Mavis said ‘you have got soul my boy, and boy you can really sing. If you ever come to Chicago, look me up and we should do something together’! I was thrilled. Vicki, the backing singer for Mavis, said ‘I didn’t really understand much what you sang, but you made me cry’ and I could still see tears welling up in her eyes as she spoke to me. I met Adele on my way out and she just touched her heart and said how much she loved my song and I paid my tribute to her back! Mona was kind too and so was the bassist from Arcade Fire with their words for my music and voice. Robert Plants drummer Marco gave me a generous hug and couldn’t stop telling how moved he was. The Mandolin player too said the same and wished he could come back with me to India. Janet, the director of the show, yet again expressed how much she loved my song and I am sure we will be working together again soon! There were hugs exchanged, hands shaken, promises to meet again made, smiles thrown all around and slowly it all came to an end.
It was all a dream and it was too quick. I don’t know what doors this opportunity will open up for me in the future but all I can say is that I was glad I was there and wish every deserving musician gets to experience the magic of being on ‘Later…with Jools Holland’ show. I am disappointed that its not aired into India and will miss watching it myself but I am hoping someone will tape it and put it up on YouTube. I cant wait for the world to discover us. As I wait, I would like to get drowned in the echoes of a wholehearted applause that Robert Plant’s band and friends gave me as I walked out of my green room towards the exit of BBC studios.