Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Engelbert concert

Went for the Engelbert Humperdinck concert at Siri Fort auditorium on Sunday evening. The chief attraction was taking my mom, who wrote fan letters to him and Pat Boone and other golden boys back in the 1960s, but I was interested anyway. The first time I heard Engelbert’s voice was on his version of "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" on a 16 Super Oldies cassette. It was one of my favourite songs at the time, still is to an extent – soulful and stately, unlike the original version (which I heard much later) by B J Thomas. The original is faster, more playful and goes very well with the slapsticky bicycle scene featuring Paul Newman and Katharine Ross in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the film for which it was written. But Engelbert’s version was deeper and more melodic and sent a thrill down my 11-year-old spine when he sang the words "So I just did me some talkin’ to the sun/And I said I didn’t like the way he got things done/Sleeping on the job/Wo-o-o...".

Later I heard some of his other songs, or covers of songs – in particular "A Man and a Woman" (evocative of the ethereal French film of the same title), "From Here to Eternity" and "Quando Quando Quando". It didn’t matter much what others said about him – that he was just a pretty voice without much depth or range, part of a generation of assembly-line crooners who didn’t write their own songs, that what he did wasn’t Art. Yarbles, I said, great bolshy yarblockos to the snobbery of the rock-n-roll brigade, I loved the songs and I loved the way he sang them.

What I don’t love is sitting in the Siri Fort auditorium for over an hour and a half, waiting for a concert to begin - first because of an injunction to be seated an hour in advance, and then because important attendees are stuck in Delhi traffic. I’m not a big fan of Siri Fort, a place where you can buy tickets for Rs 1500 and find yourself enjoying the same view as those who paid half as much. This auditorium incidentally is also where I’ve heard some of the stupidest words ever to issue from human lips, during speeches made at numerous film festival inaugurations. So we were all very glad that when the concert did finally get underway it just began, minus long preludes. Engelbert’s 13-member band started tuning up slowly, and then the man himself just sauntered on stage and began singing. The waiting and grumbling was quickly forgotten.

He started with one of his biggest hits, "A Man Without Love", pausing so the audience could complete the refrain for him; but there was hardly a hint of participation at this point. I sank low into my seat, convinced the concert would fall flat - my mom and I were discussing the likelihood that not many Delhiites of her generation would have been into Engelbert compared to say Bombay or Bangalore (where the concert tickets are being sold at much higher prices). But we needn’t have worried; it took some time for the audience to warm up but by the fifth or sixth song everyone was in the right mood, and the balding man seated in front of us commenced a series of "woo! woo!"s that somehow managed to be endearing rather than annoying.

As concerts by international artistes go this was relatively modest in scale, but then that’s what we were expecting. Most of the audience was aged between 40 and 55, there were no spectacular light-and-sound displays, just a 69-year-old man singing one love song after another with a lot of panache. You don’t pore over the lyrics of the kinds of songs Engelbert sings, which meant that apart from the older tracks (because we were all familiar with those anyway) there was a certain sameness to the numbers; one song segued into the next, the music was hummable but unexceptional and what really held it all together was the golden voice and the occasional showing off by individual band members. But the concert was at its best when the instruments weren’t allowed to drown out the singing.

There were some nice stand-up comedy interludes too: Engelbert (who by the way has a wonderfully resonant speaking voice too, which isn’t a given when you’re a good singer) did some mimickry, took part in a cheerfully risqué act with a thong that was brought onstage for him to autograph; made digs at Tom Jones, did an imitation of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk, even an Elvis-style bump-and-grind routine. He’s sprightly for his age but I suppose you can expect that once you know he does up to 140 concerts per year(!!). There were signs of tiring late in the proceedings; he started pausing more between sentences while he was talking, sang a couple of numbers sitting down ("because I’m almost 33, you know," he joked), took water breaks. Fortunately he found the energy to end the show in style, with a medley of songs including "Quando Quando Quando" and the classic "Release Me", and finally a rousing version of "My Way" (for many, that would engender unfavourable comparisons with Ol’ Blues Eyes Sinatra, but I love every conceivable version of that track, even Sid Vicious’s snarling, petulant one).

My one regret: Engelbert didn’t sing "A Man and a Woman". (I didn’t expect, or want, him to perform the intimate "Raindrops..." in this setting, with back-up musicians.) But that apart, it was a great night. As we left, my mother and her childhood friend, who had also come along, joked about the goofy expressions on the faces of the elderly ladies exiting the auditorium. "Now they’ll all have to go back home to their cranky husbands," they giggled. And boast that a nearly 70-year-old singer with black-dyed sideburns had released them from reality for an evening.


  1. Great post: thanks.

    But you left out the one thing non-attendees want to know. Were women's undergarments flung at the man?

  2. Unfortunately not, Curious - though it's probably just as well, I'm not sure his aging heart could have coped with the excitement. Also, Delhiites are still tethered to certain standards of conservatism - they like to keep their undergarments close to their skin.

    But there was the thong-signing incident - he joked about how he'd be able to "get the Engelbert on it but not the Humperdinck"!

  3. my lasting memory of siri fort vis a vis musicals ( i also happened to see a JCS performance that I was meant to be a part of but that's another story altogether) was one by Pete Seger. I happened to go along for the concer despite not having heard any of his songs, nor indeed of Pete Seger himself.

    But it was an absolutely enthralling performance by a man old enough to be my grandfather (er, I thought so). We were sitting in the aisles, he made us sing along, and I loved every minute of it.

  4. i have a question. did you get free tickets, or did you pay?
    Actually, I have another question. As far as I remember, you didnt see Sting or Mark Kn. Why choose Night of the Living Dead, then?

  5. i have more questions, but this time its not about you. do you think Eng-Hump gets a lot of thongs to sign? also. how old was the person getting the thong signed? Why would anyone wear a thong to his concert? Or was it a man in a thong? That would explain everything.

  6. Samit baba: I paid, I paid. And in the best tradition of Indian men I did it for my mommie.

    The thong-signing, alas, was part of his comedy act. As I said before, Delhiites prefer to keep their inners close to their innards.

    P.S. A man in a thong never explains everything.

  7. Coolies: His only Indian connection is that he was born in Chennai.

    Jabberwock: What impressed me was his powerful voice...that he held the mike at an arms' length distance. In fact he pointed this out at the interview as well, comparing himself with the younger generations.

    But don't you think it was rather empty? After all it was an Engelbert show.

  8. AB: Isn't there an Anglo-Indian lineage in there somewhere too? I thought there was.
    Haven’t seen your interview yet though, was it in the paper or in Graphiti?
    I suppose the auditorium was rather empty (I was sitting way back btw, unlike you lucky presswallahs!). Thing is, I have this perception about Delhi being uninterested in such things so I didn’t expect a packed house anyway.
    In Mumbai the top-end tickets are Rs 8,000 I believe!

  9. i won't comment on the show, per se. what, however, really impressed me jai, that u actually took some time off for ur mommy...yes in the best indian tradition:)

    why, because i cannot think of many friends who get to spend time with their parents, leave alone taking taking them to a concert!. which is sad, i wd say.

    for, u get lost in the rat race and there's this rude awakening (when they r gone) that maybe u were not able to do what u wd have liked to do for them, whatever the constraints.

    so, ur mommy can really be proud of jai beta:)

    and when u r 50 and done with those this-worldly responsibilities, u can perhaps look back with some satisafction that u were after all a worthy son!

  10. Ooh purty pink bullets on blog template.. ooh.
    Jai, you continue to surprise me :)

  11. hi there guys,

    read your article on enge.
    yes he is a super singer, but didnt he start the concert with the Gershwin song (its wonderful, its marvelous""?

    about the anglo indian connection, people do say he has got indian blood, although he has never confirmed or denied it which makes some indians upset that he should be ashamed of being indian if it were true.

    what is important is that he is a great singer and in fantastic shape (vocally and physically) to last for nearly 4 decades. for someone to endure that long would require talent and class. i am glad that the concert was cheered and enjoyed by those who attended, maybe this means that at last delhi-ites are getting more cultured as the years progress? hopefully so!

  12. err..slightly late in commenting but nevertheles.. I liked the "taking out mom coz she was a fan" bit! :)

  13. great to read all your comments...
    and a big hi from new zealand, i'm going to an engelbert concert in june... sandra

  14. That was a really nice one, J. When I was a kid in the 70s, Mr. E was da man. Along with Pat Boone, whom you also mentioned. Tom Jones was the man who allegedly had undies thrown at him by hysterical female fans. Vague, I went for that Pete Seeger concert at Siri Fort too. I was/am a big fan, & it was a thrilling experience. His grandson was there too. Many years ago he had played at the Park Circus maidan (he was quite the commie & so Calcuttans got lucky) in Calcutta & my parents had gone to see him. Then I recall the Martha Graham dance company also performing there, thanks to the USIS. That was another great experience. The troupe danced wonderfully to the calypso 'Drinking rum & coca cola, working for the yankee dollar' which is what I am doing nowadays...