19 Mar 2018

REVIEW: Anoushka Shankar live at Auckland Arts Festival

From RNZ Music, 9:58 am on 19 March 2018

Anoushka Shankar took the audience on a powerful three-part journey through her latest album Land Of Gold during her show at Auckland Arts Festival last night, and earned a standing ovation for her efforts.

Anoushka Shankar

Anoushka Shankar Photo: supplied

The setting couldn’t have been better for Anoushka Shankar’s Sunday evening performance at Silo Park. The day had turned to dusk and a relaxed crowd filled the Festival Playground, armed with blankets and folding chairs to sit back and enjoy the sitar virtuoso’s Auckland show.

When she took the stage, looking fresh-faced despite being at Womad the day before, Anoushka was joined by three men all dressed in traditional kurta. They took their places behind their respective instruments; Tom Farmer behind a Korg synthesizer, Manu Delago among a menagerie of percussive instruments, and shehnai player Sanjay Shankar sits cross-legged on the right hand side of the stage. Right smack in the middle of the spacious setting is the stunning Anoushka.  

Long, slow synthesizer drones waft over the crowd, and Anoushka eventually joins with delicate sitar notes. It’s not the most impactful way to start a show, and the chatty audience takes a little while to settle, however this allows some time to absorb the scene. The British musician is dwarfed by her sitar, a striking instrument made of dark wood and edged in silver metal, that looks both intriguing and formidable.

Held by Anoushka, the sitar just appears as another limb. An extension of her body, which is unsurprising considering the 36-year-old musician has been playing since the age of six and had famous father Ravi Shankar has her guru.

The opening song ‘Remain The Sea’ begins the first portion of the three-part show based on her latest album Land Of Gold, a record which illustrates the plight of refugees. The notes of the shehnai, a traditional Indian reed instrument, slither into the song and it is a much welcome addition. The instrument’s almost-nasal qualities provide an expressive voice that says so much without any real words.

The segment builds slowly, and by design is peppered with uncertainty. The upright bass (also played by Farmer) adds depth to the music and there are moments reminiscent of Portishead Unplugged. The first part culminates with the hectic ‘Last Chance’, a track that sees the quartet almost explode with chaotic energy, augmented by bright lights that rip across the stage like lightning, capturing the distress and disorder of being torn from your homeland and thrown into turmoil.

Following the electronica-infused chaos, Anoushka addresses the crowd. Her light, warm voice feels jarring after the frenzied track, but it is welcomed nonetheless. She explains that her album Land Of Gold tells the story of being displaced and that is the story we will hear tonight.

After taking a moment to tune in silence, the second part of the show begins with ‘Crossing the Rubicon’, a dark piece that conveys the feeling of falling. Appropriately, the sun is starting to sink behind the horizon and the sky is blue with bright orange streaks. The sound cuts across the Festival Playground, each instrument given ample space to sit within the mix. It is a real treat to see Shankar in her element. She rips through complex sitar riffs effortlessly, and she seems immersed in the instrument as she tells her tale.

Anoushka’s spotlight is borrowed briefly by Manu Delago, who during ‘Secret Heart’, displays his masterful skill on the hang drum. The Austrian native strikes the unusual looking drums with deft speed, riffing with Anoushka perfectly and gaining the pair rapturous applause.

Arriving with the darkness of the night, the third chapter begins with a beautiful instrumental version of the album’s titular track, which I prefer over the album version that features Alev Lenz’s vocals. Moving piano lines performed by Tom Farmer take the place of Lenz’s lyrics, and a stunning light show adds to the mood.

The band are obviously enjoying themselves as they slide into ‘Dissolving Boundaries’, Anoushka brandishing a wide smile across her face. The quartet smoothly transition to ‘Reunion’, although they only use the framework of the song and improv around it, each member taking a moment to shine. The music is joyous and uplifting, a feeling that is palpable among the crowd.

After music finishes, the audience stands to give the quartet a well-deserved standing ovation. No encore is expected, the story has been told and it has a happy ending. But the foursome return to play us a lullaby, a song Anoushka says she played to soothe her own crying baby. The crowd, still on their feet, gather close to the stage in a moment that is intimate and special, and the perfect ending to this story.