John Schlitt Petrafies Bangalore

Prem Paul Ninan

John Schlitt knew he was famous and that fans around the world loved him. But being the unassuming guy that he is, he probably never took it much to mind. These things are bound to happen when you are the lead singer of such a pioneering band as Petra.

That is why he was probably blown away at the fans who literally swept him off his feet backstage after his show in Bangalore on May 18. It’s true. He’s getting older and finding it a little harder, naturally, to keep the strain off his vocal chords. So when it came to the last song, and his voice cracked just a bit, he had to signal to his band that they would wrap up after that number. Not even all the raucous encores he got could bring him back.

But the fans weren’t to give up so easily. He probably didn’t know it when in Petra, but India has always loved him. In a country starved of good Christian rock – most of it is only now slowly trickling into music stores (and forget about heavy metal; that is yet a long way off) – any good Christian band finding its way onto these shores has been devoured. And Petra is one of the best – and will always be. It has been around in India for almost as long as it has existed. Somehow, especially at the time when the whole debate about Christian rock was going around thick in the church, the band found its way into the market and stayed there. The debate has now more or less died down, but Petra has stayed on... as has John Schlitt.

His characteristically beautiful, tremulous vocals, with that perfect strain needed for rock music, has burnt his voice deep into the industry. He himself has admitted on a video that his voice was just made for rock, and he couldn’t be more right. People like him and Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses should not sing anything else – it would be a crime. Though his voice sounds perfect with ballads too – rock or any other (Love from off the ‘Beyond Belief’ album comes to mind).

But back to the concert. The gates promised to open at 4 p.m. for the concert, which was to start at 7. But the hint of dark clouds brought a certain grim foreboding to some of the more eager fans, who would have been terribly disappointed if rain had played spoilsport. At the gates, some were even heard commenting that it was the Christian concerts that usually got interrupted by rain (the Ron Kennoly concerts were brought up as an example – that seemed to be the only example though; but it seemed good enough at the time).

Streaks of lightning across the sky struck the doubts only deeper into the hearts of the Doubting Thomases (the writer included). Then the gates opened and the crowds poured in. The sooner in, they thought, the better to beat the rains. But when nothing arrived, all these people felt foolish and whispered penitent silent prayers towards the night sky. Even John Schlitt himself commented that the weather had never been more perfect during his ongoing India tour.

After a delay of a few minutes more, as the audience got settled in their seats, the MC of the evening – an energetic young chap aspiring to be India’s next big hip hop artist – announced John Schlitt’s arrival on stage with his band. That got everyone up on their feet again and up to the stage, while the man himself took the stage. And then the show began.

And what a show it was too! He started off with songs from some of his original albums, mixing them up with some numbers from his soon-to-be-released new album. Most of these latter were beautifully mellow ballads. But he didn’t disappoint his rock-crazy fans. A few Petra classics followed, beginning with ‘No Doubt’, which Schlitt himself admitted had probably not received the attention it deserved during its life, and including the always popular ‘He came, He saw, He conquered’ and ‘Beyond Belief’. In fact, requests for the latter came up from the audience right at the beginning itself. But he had to politely remind his fans that everything, like the work of every professional artist, had its own special order.

What was surprising though was the reception he got when he sang numbers from off his own albums. He himself looked surprised when the audience sang along with him, and he just let them do most of it. These numbers showcased his partiality for rock... he belted out classics like ‘Wake the dead’ from his first album, and ‘God is too big’ and ‘Can’t get away from your love’ from his second. The obvious difference in theme from his new album was immediately apparent.

Once or twice right at the beginning, the strain showed up in his voice, but he covered it up beautifully. In fact, he didn’t shy from the high notes even late into the show, striking them easily as if it was just one of your normal voice ranges. And he handled them with just the perfect pitch-levels that only a sound professional could do. The awe-struck audience was left hungering for more.

Between all the Petra numbers and originals, he led the audience in pure worship. Not that it seemed any different from the rest of the show, seeing as the crowds were singing along on most of his numbers. Who was more surprised by this – the audience or him – was hard to tell.

The cries of disappointment from the fans as he left the stage after the show, not to return, were as loud as they were adulatory. Bur John Schlitt did not show up again on stage. Many fans were seen standing in their places for a long time, not believing that he would not return. Their cries for encores usually worked on other artists. But John, like the good professional that he is, knew that he had done enough justice to his fans already.

But they weren’t ready to leave him just yet. Your average Bangalore fan isn’t that easy. Well past the close of his concert, he found himself smiling endlessly before dozens of clicking cameras and swamped by fans. But he was at his obliging best. Not a single fan did he turn away. Not only that, he also listened patiently to every single word that every fan had to say to him (and some of them just couldn’t stop – frankly), drinking it all in, humbly, of course. If anyone had not been touched before, which seems impossible, they were now.

And now Bangalore just can’t wait for John to return. By then, they will be singing along with his new albums too.