Sid Sriram has had a busy year. Apart from recording multiple Telugu and Tamil film songs in India and touring across the U.S, the 33-year old Indian-American artist also released his second English language album SIDHARTH earlier this year. If the incredible success of viral earworms like Srivalli cemented his stature as one of the most bankable playback singers in the Tamil and Telugu film industries, the diverse genres and musical styles on display on SIDHARTH are a testament to his phenomenal range.
So on September 24, when he rocked up to the Oakland Arena – less than an hour away from his hometown Fremont – I was unsure of what version of Sid Sriram would turn up. The seasoned performer wielding his impressive repertoire of Tamil and Telugu chartbusters, or the sometimes experimental but always soulful indie artist with a penchant for viral sets like NPR’s Tiny Desk concert.
Sriram kicked off the show with a rendition of Vaktratunda Mahakaaya, a nod to the recently concluded Ganesha festival. As he finished his salutations to the elephant god, the rest of the band joined in: bassist Harshit Misra, guitarist Sanjeev Thomas, drummer Ramkumar Kanakarajan, and Kenneth Gerald on the keyboards. The bluesy guitar and the keys were enmeshed with the steady rhythm of the drums when Sriram sang Adiye to raucous applause. This A.R. Rahman-composed song was Sriram’s big break in the Tamil film industry and he had recorded it while he was still at the Berklee College of Music. Over a fairly standard instrumental arrangement, Sriram brandished his powerful vocals, setting the stage for the rest of the show.
After performing Yen Ennai Pirindhaai, he told the audience about his Bay Area roots and that the concert felt like a homecoming of sorts. Sriram was born in India but moved to Fremont when he was a year old. He started training in Indian Carnatic music under his mother Lata Sriram, when he was just three years old. But the pivotal moment came when he discovered jazz, soul and RnB as a child, laying the foundation for a distinct genre-melding musical sensibility that has since become his calling card.
A tribute to the greats
As the lights dimmed and the musicians took their places again, the keyboardist launched into an extended introduction to the next song. The build-up felt appropriate once it became clear that the song was Pudhu Vellai Mazhai, from Mani Ratnam’s Roja. The song is recognized as one of Rahman’s finest, and expectedly gets the audience singing along – I also heard a few voices singing Ye Haseen Vaadiyan, the Hindi version of the Tamil song.
Over the course of the show, Sriram also sang other songs like Kannalanae (Kehna Hi Kya), Uyire (Tu Hi Re), and Kannathil Muthamittal, all of which are now considered classics of Tamil film music. He maintained the essence of these compositions but added his own touch to each – whether through a stripped down musical arrangement for Uyire or improvised vocal interludes in Kannalanae.
Sriram recounted growing up listening to A.R. Rahman’s compositions, brought to life by iconic singers like S.P Balasubramanyam, Hariharan and K.S. Chithra, and lists the composer as one of his biggest inspirations. Having paid homage to the greats that came before him, he asked the crowd, “Are you looking for a night of music?” The almost capacity crowd screamed in response and Sriram was happy to oblige.
The second act
Midway through the concert, Sriram and his band switched to a more acoustic arrangement featuring his vocals, an acoustic guitar and the bass. Guitarist Evan Slack who played on SIDHARTH joined them on stage, a hint of what was to come.
Sriram performed two songs from his album: Do The Dance, a song about the quest to find home, physically and metaphorically, and Dear Shahana, a love song. Ryan Olson, of Bon Iver fame has produced the album, artfully layering each song with backing vocals and effects like echoes and reverbs to evoke a distinct atmosphere. Here, Sriram eschewed the sharp, electronic drums and the silken vocal harmonies and instead, Misra laid out a minimalistic bassline that Slack punctuated with percussive stabs and melodic lead lines. Against this frugal arrangement, Sriram let his singing rise to the top, crooning with the soul of Bill Withers or Nina Simone one moment, and teasing out trills and alapanas from the Carnatic tradition the next.
Sriram dedicated Dear Shahana to South Asian women, noting that it’s one of the few English language songs that mentions a female South Asian name in its title. Like me, I am sure the audience of mostly first and second-generation immigrants noticed that Sriram’s sweatshirt had the word IMMIGRANT printed across the front. “Identity crisis is very real when you leave your roots behind and try to form new ones,” he said. “And I’m privileged that I had Carnatic music to keep me rooted to my identity in this country.”
In acknowledging the immigrant experience, Sriram expressed his disappointment about the events related to Jaahnavi Kandula’s tragic death in January and in her honor, performed Maguva Maguva, a Telugu paean to the strength and resilience of women.
_ _ _
Between such poignant moments, Sriram also performed his biggest hits from the Tamil and Telugu film industries like Adiga Adiga, Inkem Inkem, Kalaavathi, Kadallale, and Aradhya. Predictably, the loudest cheers of the night were reserved for Srivalli, the Telugu song that took India by storm in 2022. After two hours and more than a dozen songs, Sriram ended his set with a rousing rendition of Nuvvunte Naa Jathagaa, having treated his audience to a full display of his considerable talent.
Sriram switched from high-octane Tamil and Telugu chartbusters to RnB-heavy compositions from his solo album, while retaining the disciplined precision that underpins Carnatic music, with remarkable ease. It is this ability that makes him a bonafide musical force that straddles the realm of unapologetically more-is-more brand of music championed by the South Indian film industries, and the atmospheric indie sensibilities of popular American music.