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If TNL Onstage is still the standard-setter it was at its inception, then one thing is for sure: Sri Lanka can’t sing for toffee. But this we know is not true; the night of Saturday the 30th July heard some laudable voice production at the Derana Dream Star Finals and TNL Onstage did display some super capabilities on the Friday just before. The sad fact though is, that of nearly thirty vocalists at the Finals held at the Vihara Maha Devi Amphitheatre, not more than three or four were able to even maintain their pitch levels. Let’s track back from the beginning though.
Advertisements and posters for the programme said 6:30pm but this is one show that has been around long enough for people to know better than to arrive on time. So when the organizers decided to be punctual, the opening guest act, the Rebels, was found making music to an audience amounting to hardly an eighth of the amphitheatre capacity.
The first two hours or so of TNL Onstage 2011, themed ‘Party in the Park’, seriously redefined the word “party”. CC, vocalist for the second guest act Salvage, is undeniably a good looking singer (although he might have bitten off a tad more vocal range than he could chew), and the band was probably the most confident and relaxed. The stage being set up to accommodate two bands to make things efficient sadly meant that most of the groups and soloists stayed humbly cramped in their allocated corner and duly intimidated by the other (the cameraman in-between, slyly hogging centre-stage!). Salvage was the only act able to claim the stage for themselves. Despite all this, of the audience of already negligible size, roughly three were up and cheering for the boys, the rest being more interested in their little conversations and the leaves, flowers and bits of paper strewn across the amphitheatre floor.
The next band up was nevertheless definitely more interesting than the surrounding environment. The grotesque, farcical movements (seemingly inspired by the traditional Kandyan Peacock Dance) of the “dance” crew that accompanied their performance of The Lazy Song were entertaining to say the least (no seriously, they even took their pants off as part of the sequence!). Extra excitement was delivered via the fire-dancing which (although slightly disjointed from the band’s performance) was of course exciting and possibly even gained the band some mileage by distracting the crowd from their performance.
The competitors on the other hand were actually very closely matched, and it seems safe to bet that having a relatively large panel of four judges (Shehan Karunatillake, Isaac Smith, Mirshad Buckman and Rukshan Perera) from rather different musical backgrounds was absolutely essential to eliminating close ties.
It’s not an easy thing to be an opening performer, let alone a solo opening act, but Harshana – voice fluid and gentle – got the competition off to a surprisingly good start. He can lay claim to a full voice, clean upper registers and a nice, subtle vibrato but not the emotional sensibility of a performer.
By the time he was done with his two numbers though, our dear audience seemed bored, and this is probably why Ethereal front-man Hemal demanded, when they came on stage soon after, that the audience “make some noise!” He didn’t seem to know what to do with it though, and as the crowd roared somewhat half-heartedly, declared “right”. The finalists were better aware than at the semi-finals of the importance of getting the audience engaged in the performance. So what Hemal did was good, but also symptomatic of the CIRBS (Cheap Imitation Rock Band Syndrome) that plagues Onstage. The rhotic accent was an ineffective cover for bad pitching and nervousness, but Ethereal, winners of the Voice Your Choice Award, managed to pick up some of that brilliance they showcased at the semi-finals in a generally well-balanced and well-coordinated act. The Ethereal moment of glory though, was the acoustic round where vocals were clear and sensitive, seconds gentler and stage presence much better felt.
Stage-savvy Shehara walked on confident as usual, but the audience being now a little more accustomed to her tomboy-like carelessness was a little less interested. Her performance levels at the preliminary rounds were impressive to say the least, but by the finals, her vocal production had dropped to irritating pendulum swings from a slightly nasal yet raw to a rounded mature. The gentleness, sensitivity and emotional intensity prerequisite for a good performance of Seal’s ‘Kiss From a Rose’ (a challenging and risky choice for any vocalist) was also wanting. Shehara was nevertheless one of the rare ones in control of pitch levels, and the ease of her delivery was testimony to her superior musical abilities.
Chase-D, one of the emcees that night kept asking for the “essence” of Onstage in a single photograph, probably never realizing that him doing a wolf-howl in a formal suit was just that! But yes, CryWolf got an interesting introduction but failed to live up to it, their act lacking energy. Their original acoustic number ‘The Wake’ had a rare quiet opening (which was colored by the sound manager’s contributions in the form of a popping mic) and some smooth rhythmic transitions which made way for variety without disrupting the flow of the song. The original worked much better for this band-full of performers than the covers, testifying that they seem to have found their sound and that they truly deserved the award for Runners Up in the Band category. They also bagged the Dialog Jingle Competition prize.
There was disappointingly more repetition than variety from the preliminary and semi-final rounds that it’s surprising how fans maintained enthusiasm. I was personally tired of having heard the same repertoire every two weeks or so, and wonder the performers were not thoroughly sick of the songs, unless of course they didn’t practice much more often than once in two weeks! More disappointing were the back-to-back performances of Shuaib and Cord of Major. The pretty-boy writhed his way through my agony of having to listen to him and the band seemed to have forgotten what key they were going to start the Bon Jovi number in! It wasn’t a surprise then that the crowd was desperate enough to get hyped about the Dialog i100 advert which played soon after, and start dancing to it.
Dancing of course brings us to Andre who took the audience away at the semis with his twisted-twist move. That’s as far as it brings us, because as far as he and Zilch are concerned, “mediocre” is about the most accurate word to describe the performance.
Dilini on the other hand was a complete knockout. It was evident from the preliminaries that she was in for something big and her performance just got better and better. Sadly, she was either hoarse or had completely lost control of her glottis in her first number. ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ though, was just mind-blowing; her well-controlled voice complemented the key she’d chosen, allowing her to show off not only range but also skill. The audio experience was simply amazing, but the visual was a little disturbing. Apart from changing their rules about repertoire at the different rounds, TNL would also benefit from providing fashion consultation at least for the finalists. But with all due awe, Dilini’s sensitive and simply classy delivery must have made for a unanimous vote from the judges on her victory in the Solo category.
While Dilini was undeniably the vocalist of the night, Heshan, drummer for White Living Grave took away the award for Best Musician. He was, throughout the competition, the most hyped and uninhibited performer. Shevon was close competition for Heshan in the attention-grabbing department, in his leather jacket doing the sing-dance-and-leap act. Possibly a little less sensitive and more forced than at the semi-finals, he nevertheless was completely absorbed in what he sang, meaning every word and doing the final “yes I’m wrong” on his knees! He was good to listen to and great to watch, and walked away with the Runners Up award in the Solo category for a good time shared.
The big winners for the night were of course Roadkill, the Best Band, whose vocalist made waves from the preliminary rounds, hitting crazy neat falsettos and doing jaw-dropping things with his voice in general. The band as a whole produced a unified sound that seriously rocked. Their original acoustic number ‘And Then There Was None’ (which won the Best Original award) was quiet (even at the semi-finals Roadkill seemed to be the only band unafraid of some gentleness) and the vocalist was fluid as ever. But whether on purpose or not, the quality of his vocal tone kept shifting, a little more control definitely being in the calling. The boys evidently enjoyed themselves and the crowd was ecstatic at their performance, delivering more than “loud” (Ishara, the other emcee’s favourite or newest-acquired adjective it seemed!) applause.
Through quite a number of hiccups including messed up sounds and random blackouts as well as rain at the outdoor finals, ardent fans kept up their support not only for the competing musicians but also the whole TNL Onstage franchise. Kudos to the TNL team on a job done (nearly literally) swimmingly!