Outside Wembley Arena on Saturday 8th there were children playing in the fountains. It was a lovely London summer evening, sunny with a cooling breeze. However, amongst the idle play there was a crowd forming and the buzz of excitement was growing – AR Rahman was about to celebrate 25 years with a knock-out concert.
Now I need to be up-front at this point, my knowledge of Indian dialects is poor, but my love of music (even when I don’t understand the words) is beyond denial; as my eclectic CD collection will testify to. I was into Korean pop way before Gangnam Style and I was certainly aware of the massive back-catalogue produced by the long, successful career of AR Rahman.
On the surface of it, you might be tempted to suggest that the Arena would be too small for someone so well-known but the choice of the SSE Arena was a wise one. I’ve been to music concerts in Wembley Stadium and there’s something lost in the grand scale of everything. On the other hand, the Arena has a more personal feel, despite a maximum capacity of 12,500. It also gave the opportunity for some great stage design.
The layout of the stage was defined by the key points of the two large sets of drums on either side and a raised rostra for AR Rahman and his piano in the centre. Given that there were frequently 16 performers on stage, there was plenty of space for them to perform and give it gusto. Behind them, however, were three big screens which showed inventive and often visually dazzling backdrops for the music.
An initial sequence, for example, saw us plummeting through space during the track only to end up finally coming down to Earth at Wembley Arena itself. Other times there were more abstract images, or floating lanterns, or moving through a jungle, or most satisfying were the ones that managed to incorporate the singers on stage – not a live feed, but like an accompanying music video. This was pleasant because I was towards the back of the hall and it gave a better look at the performers. It might have been nice to even build in some of the live performances onto those screens but the overall effect was still impressive. Each song became its own little visual universe.
It wasn’t just the big screens that made the show spectacular, the lighting was also very well thought out. There were a myriad of lights, most of which seemed controllable. This led to some amazing moments. At one point it felt as though the alien spaceship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind had landed on top of the stage, and another track had the spotlights quickly flipping light to right along with all the others being used as strobe lights which gave the effect of feeling like time in the Arena had been sped up – an unnerving, mesmerising effect.
If it sounds like I’ve almost forgotten AR Rahman himself then don’t worry, I’ve saved the best for last. He was as amazing as you would expect and he’d surrounded himself with great performers to bring his songs to life. If you’d like to know more about the musical content of the evening then please read our other article here. The singers were great, the band was wonderful – and the sound quality of the show was exemplary, loud but clear with a wonderful rumbling of the floor when the bass kicked in on a song.
AR Rahman was clearly in his element, loving being there as much as the audience was and I’m including the guy behind me that shouted out “I love you” at one point. There’s certainly no denying the strength of his fans. You could feel the love for him right through the stadium. The only performance I can liken it to is Prince (who I was lucky enough to see in the O2). Those occasions where just the first few notes of a song set the crowd off into cheers of recognition, or the lovely stripped-back moments where AR Rahman would drop it down to just himself on the piano, with the whole arena suddenly silent, enraptured. On the other end of the scale, the big dance songs brought people up out of their seats and at the back behind me an impromptu dance floor seemed to suddenly take shape. By the end of the show the audience had been whipped into a frenzy by a medley of 11 songs and you couldn’t stop them from joining in with singing “Humma Humma”.
The only disappointments of the night was the rather odd break, followed by a Sufi segment, along with an end credits video. It seemed as though the audience was a bit confused as to whether the show had ended or not and it drained all of the momentum out of the production. The saving grace for that odd bit of planning came in the shape of Raja Kumari who single-handedly came out on stage and showed amazing presence. She rapped and sang with great passion, getting the crowd going again, an amazing job.
It was also a bit disappointing that there seemed to be a lot of people turning up really late. The lovely host, Anushka Arora, came out at 7.30pm to say they were going to be starting, but the show didn’t begin until 7.55pm. This was nothing to do with AR Rahman. The organisers felt that they had to wait because there were still so many people arriving. In the end, four songs had to be cut from the running order so that they could finish by the Arena’s curfew. Just think of the show we could’ve had if those patrons had turned up on time.
Ultimately, despite those niggles, the show was great. AR Rahman and all the performers were wonderful, really giving it their all. The visuals and lighting raised it to the level of a spectacle and the audience loved it, truly loved it and, of course, truly loved AR Rahman himself.