Photo by Caisii Mao
Gospel rock enjoys tremendous popularity in the Northeast and the fan following of gospel bands in States like Nagaland and Mizoram needs to be seen to be believed. Even in the last couple of decades of the previous century, the fan following of groups like Petra remained constant as they managed to overcome the censure of the church as well as the stringent social norms, which otherwise fumed at the then evolving denim-clad rock culture.
Moving around to 2012, the situation is not much different. Though a sea-change has come about in the global music industry today, with the evolution of new sounds, new production trends and new distribution processes, the people of the region still seem to swear by their old Christian rock heroes. I happened to be in Nagaland last week and was simply amazed with the tremendous response that former Petra superstar John Schliit manage to evoke through his performances in the twin cities of Kohima and Dimapur.
For those who might have surprisingly missed Petra or Schlitt till now, a brief recount is necessary I guess. Multi Grammy-award winner John Schlitt is known as the Voice of Christian rock group Petra. A born-again Christian, he had to grapple with a long stint of drug and alcohol addiction during his initial years in the music industry. He later joined Petra, which marked a long eventful career for him as well as the band.
During his career with Petra, the band released two RIAA certified Gold album and earned four Grammy and numerous Dove Awards. His travels and performances with the group reached all 50 states of America as well as over 35 countries. Schlitt’s performance in the Northeast was part of his ongoing India tour. He has earlier performed in Bangalore and Delhi. He was brought to the Northeast by the Metro team which facilitated his performances in Kohima, Dimapur and Shillong.
For the people of Dimapur who had assembled at the DDSC stadium last Wednesday, it was a roller-coaster ride for them as Schlitt backed by Divine Connection replayed some of the biggest hits of the 1970’s and 1980’s and which, incidentally, still enjoy tremendous popularity among the youth today.
As is customary with performances of all visiting artistes, the concert opened with performances of a few local acts. Naga Idol Renbeni Odyou kickstarted the proceedings with a poignant rendition of Eva Cadssidy’s People Get Ready. Renbeni, who had won the prestigious talent hunt show last year, was backed by Alobo Naga and the band and she also performed one of her own originals. Another Dimapur-based Christian musician Alo Wanth also performed with his band.
But it was the blong-haired American icon that the people of Dimapur were really waiting for. Dressed in a Kyong Naga jacket, the voice of Petra immediately launched onto his newer tracks Save Me and God is too big. He was accompanied by Nashville-based musician Michael Hill and Divine Connection – the band which had caught the imagination of the entire nation by winning MTV Desi Beats last year.
Initially, the people were a bit stupefied as the opening tracks were from his 1996 album, Unfit for Swine, and not something which they grew up with. But once Schlitt touched his 1995-Grammy winning album No Doubt, there was no stopping the crowd which literally went into frenzy as he launched on to More than a thousand words.
While rock versions of praise choruses continued to receive shouts of encore, a highlight of the concert was a ‘worship’ set with popular Christian praise classics such as Darrel Evan’s Trading my sorrow from Yes Lord and Petra’s own I am on the rock. From St. Augustine’s Pears to the highly popular There is someone, the Petra voice recreated it all, to finally end with the epic rock anthem, Beyond Belief, which took the crowd fever to an all-new pitch.
For the crowd, comprising both the old and young, which walked out of the stadium that day, the 60-year old Grammy-winning American legend had registered his legacy in their hearts and minds. And comprehensively at that.