Some dude advanced me the hypothesis that one may reach a use-by date to rock & roll. Say what? Unless I’ve missed something in this bubble of remoteness I’m in, rock—of any kind, mind you—hard, heavy, metal, romantic, punk, prog, post or whatever label you wish to stick on it, has kept the neighbours awake since a jack was made to fit into an amp. What more, people have been rocking to dance, denounce, dribble, defy, decay, declare, deconstruct and dawdle; all within some combination of seven notes and the bare basics of techie know-how. But let me start from the beginning.
Some big billboards appeared around town saying that God Bless was going to rock it out at the weekend. I didn’t know a thing about the band, and despite all of the good stuff that Banda Aceh has got going for it (since it lacks a brewery), the opportunity to be at a rare public gig that for once could get louder than the ubiquitous call to prayer from the many mosques, sounded like a fair deal.
I mentioned the idea to mate, who affectionately calls me pop (age related not genre), and he said that God Bless were ‘old school rock’. Old school? What does it mean? If there is one thing I hold against my mother is not having me a few years earlier so that I could have witnessed physically the origins of that school, not just get it second-hand from the older crew. But I can’t complain really, despite my slight tardiness I still managed Yes, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, Santana, Springsteen, BB King, Kiss, U2, one quarter of Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Paul Simon, before they became ‘old school’, and a constellation (pardon the pun), of rock giants that may not yet make the list of legends but loiter comfortably at the fringes.
So, there! At least I was there, unlike my tadpole mate, who has to make do with re-masters, covers or downright copies of what has been immortalised already, but can’t be surpassed because the best rock tunes have all been written.
Anyway, God Bless happens to be an Indonesian rock outfit that reached legendary status for having brought rock to this shores in the early seventies. Slightly Van Halish in style, the pops of Indonesian rock seemed to know all the tricks in the book, especially in keeping the multitude bopping up and down and screaming in adulation. Now in their mid-fifties the quintet blasted their stuff to adoring fans from the age of 10 to last century ID card-holders, not needing to be segregated by age or sex; most sang along being more than familiar with the lyrics and beats.
The appetizer of the night was an Acehnese group of louts called Inferno, not too infernal but clever enough to punk up traditional, popular songs about catching tigers, and to produce elegant renditions of more traditional rock anthems such as Sweet child of mine and Slang classics. I’m not sure if the line up of Inferno followed by God Bless was a clever ideo-marketing ploy or a circumstantial turn of events, but the good versus evil contest didn’t work, as the large crowd enjoyed both exponents of ‘decadence’.
God Bless hit the stage with the energy of boys half their age. Singer Ahmad Albar, now sporting a more subdued hairstyle, replacing the afro of years gone by, spoke with a silky and sensual voice, but pumped out vocals from a good range of octaves, expertly and effortlessly. His stage presence and demeanour gave no doubt that he must have been a heart-throb in his heydays, and was still able to tickle the fans in all the right places.
The drummer, who I believe joined the band after the original time-keeper died (not of old age, I’m sure), held the band in good stead and rhythm, peppering the in-betweens with flurries of rolls and tom-cymbal-tom beatings to give tempo to the loudness of the gig.
The keyboard was somewhat hidden from view, the sound limpid and melodic, more suited to the romantic numbers of the decent list of hits God Bless enjoyed, and appealing to the sakit hati in the crowd. I’m not sure if the keys player was an original of the band or a more recent hired gun. In any case, he wasn’t out of place because he didn’t have a real place.
Guitarist Ian Anton worked hard to pump out the body and soul of God Bless tunes. He picked, stripped and licked, with blistering pace, all the usual fifth chords known to rock tragics, and a few exotic melodies from more traditional Indonesian harmonies – Javanese in flavour perhaps, but I’m not 100% certain. The leather pants clad lad is more than qualified to be on the fringes of the not-yet-legend-but-I could-cut-it-among-the-best. I kid you not.
For me the real stand out of the night, though, was bass player Donny Fattah (?), who jalan-jalan-ed on the five stringed hunk of wood of with impressive capacity, gusto, range and humour, while performing aerobics and an interesting Russian step dance to keep the punters laughing.
The gig had all the cliques you can think of in a stadium rock context—the waving of the hands, banners, adulation, sing along and everything in between. Since most of the people I was with weren’t born when God Bless began to make headlines, but they were singing along, accustomed to the music, I figured that the ‘old school’ argument buried itself without needing any argumentative aid, except for a short-lived conversation with chemical kindred of mine, who at the ‘advanced’ age of thirty gave up playing in a metal band for the more subdued, and apparently respectful role of university lecturer, but wiggled and jumped, playing air guitar, throughout the gig.
I reminded him of that classic line from an old schooler (sorry Ian) of Jethro Tull fame: “You’re never too old to rock & roll if you’re too young to die”. As for my tadpole mate, if he wasn’t there he missed out on a great mind-numbing gig.
Fotos: Blang Padang; last night