Review: Indian cultural hero AR Rahman dazzles at marathon concert in Minneapolis

It was listed like any other concert on the schedule at Northrop at the University of Minnesota. But AR Rahman’s performance Sunday night was a cultural event, make that a MAJOR cultural event for the Twin Cities Indian community.

Although best known to the masses for his Oscar-winning music in 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” AR Rahman is, in India, kind of like Bono, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney rolled into one — the ultimate cultural hero, dubbed the Mozart of Madras .

Northrop was packed with people of South Asian heritage, women in their sparkly garb, fathers carrying young daughters in fancy outfits and elated people singing along and documenting every song with cellphone videos.

Rahman, the king of Bollywood soundtracks and a bona fide Indian pop star to boot, did not disappoint, delivering 27 rapturously received selections (not counting all 10 pieces in his raga medley) in a 2 ½-hour marathon.

If the crowd needed a reminder, the program started with a movie preview of “Le Musk,” Rahman’s forthcoming directorial debut in a virtual-reality film billed as a “cinematic sensory experience.” Plus, there were news clips pointing out that Rahman has collected two Oscars, two Grammys, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and enough Filmfare prizes to fill two trophy cases.

Rahman’s Minneapolis performance was exhausting and exhilarating, an intoxicating visual feast, with myriad dance-happy pieces, some vibrant vocals in multiple Indian languages ​​(with an occasional line in English), and a seamless blend of disparate styles including Indian classical, bhangra, rock , hip-hop, reggae, disco and electronica.

At 55, Rahman hardly seemed like a rock star, though he dressed like a casual one with black jeans, T-shirt and jacket decorated with gold rings and sneakers that were as shiny as newly polished chrome hubs. He sported dark glasses all night (as did all but two of the 11 performers) and mostly hid behind an arsenal of keyboards mounted as if they were a hip-hop DJ’s stand.

Rahman’s role is really more of a maestro than a rock star, though he stepped out occasionally without much animation and stepped up near the end, especially on “Chaiyya Chaiyya” with forceful, emphatic vocals. Most of the night his thin tenor was more professional than passionate. He assigned the majority of the lead vocals to others, with Jonita Gandhi, Rakshita Suresh and Haricharan doing the heavy lifting.

Ashwin Srinivasan’s flute playing — he had at least seven different ones — added a key traditional element and even buoyed some upbeat electronica numbers like “Humma Humma.” Guitarist Keba Jeremiah displayed versatility, too, playing flashy Joe Satriani rock runs, heavy metal chording, driving disco funk and exquisite acoustic melodies.

While the performers lacked physical flair, the show had a nonstop visual pizazz thanks to a variety of images broadcast on giant screens and on the façade of Rahman’s keyboards setup. Whether it was geographic patterns, space-age graphics or closeups of Rahman framed in funky baubles, the visuals seemed to be moving in at least two directions simultaneously, elevating the experience to delightfully dizzying.

After the night’s unnecessary movie preview, Rahman started with a bang — “Jai Ho,” his big worldwide hit, from “Slumdog Millionaire,” reworked into a full-blown electronica extravaganza complete with heroic electric guitar and extended percussion segment. Everybody dance now — as they did, in their seats. But, after two hours, the formalness of the evening evaporated, and the fans were on their feet bopping to the propulsive “Chaiyya Chaiyya,” the hip-hop infused “Urvasi Urvasi” (with some vocal scratching) and the sing-songy anthem “Vande Mataram.”

Before it was over, Rahman, a devoted cineaste, scrolled credits on the screen, listing all of the concert’s contributors, including the TelePrompTer operator and an investment firm.

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