On Tour, Sid Sriram Gets Closer to God

Paul Cantor
9 min readMar 19, 2024

It was 7:30 in the evening on Saturday, March 9th, and I was in the car, staring at the world as it flew by outside, blurred by the streetlights reflected in the rain on the windshield.

On the radio, warnings about coastal floods, flash floods and river floods. In other words, there were gonna be some floods.

Finally, after 90 minutes in a torrential downpour, I’d made it from New Jersey, through Manhattan, into Brooklyn. I was standing in a long line outside the Music Hall of Williamsburg, umbrella over my head, and still getting rained on.

Inside, a packed house waited patiently for a singer named Sid Sriram.

Normally it would be here that a writer would indicate Sid Sriram, as if you couldn’t tell by his name, is of a specific ethnic origin. And if you were on line, as I was, you’d have seen that he appeals to people of that ethnic origin, many of whom seem to be diehard supporters.

You see, around the world, Sid Sriram is famous. He is well-known as a singer of Carnatic music (South Indian classical), and for his work in the Indian film industry, where he sings in multiple South Asian languages — Telegu, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, Malayalam, and of course, Hindi.

Literally, billions of people have heard his music. And yet, the songs he sings in English are somewhat less known. Perhaps this was the reason I was but one of the few non-South Asian people at this show, though I was not a complete outsider, being married to an Indian-American woman.

And yet, at this show, I was alone. I was alone with my thoughts and my feelings, and I was responding, as I have always responded — to not only Sid’s music, but all music — as a fan of great art, a fan of people expressing themselves in whatever way they see fit.

Which is to say, it was not that I felt seen by Sid’s music that I appeared in the audience at this show, for being “seen” is not enough, for me, to show up to anything. By that logic, being a white dude of a certain age, I should probably be front and center at like, a Dave Matthews concert; when, in fact, I’ve probably never heard a Dave Matthews song in my life (not to take anything away from Dave Matthews, I’m just saying).

I mention this notion of being seen because it’s so often used to as a means of explaining, in lieu of some greater exploration, why someone connects with something. And while I have no doubt that certain groups of people who have had their stories untold for so long, do feel seen by certain performers — I believe it is truly something deeper which binds the audience to the performer.

In truth, any creative person tapping into any real, human emotion, is going to produce a feeling of being seen, because in all art — well, all great art — there is both a melding of the universal and the specific. No matter what is expressed, the audience projects onto that expression that which is, within them, what they feel.

You are not seen. You are seeing. And it is through seeing that your deeper feelings, the ones you don’t know how to express, are realized.

This is the power of truly great performance. And I thought about this as I swayed in the crowd, surrounded by people — some young, some old — all of whom seemed to be having a very different experience with Sid’s show.

Newer fans may have become aware of Sid Sriram, last year, after he appeared on NPR’s popular series, Tiny Desk, ostensibly to promote his first major label album Sidharth (released August 18th, on DEF JAM).

Despite their popularity, and the goodwill they’ve engendered from music fans, I’ve always been curiously amused by Tiny Desk performances.

In theory, these are shows that should not work. Because what is an office, really, but small a container into which we are almost taught, from birth, to comport our lives into. Twenty years of school just so we can end up in one of these…. rooms.

An ideal concert is not that, but this: it is dark, the performer is shrouded in lights, sometimes backed by graphics, the music is loud and most of the people around you, the audience, are strangers. You are tipsy or maybe sober — no judgment either way — and in that hour you watch the performance you are temporarily free.

You go to the concert to forget the office.

And yet, Tiny Desk performances work — like all great art does — through some strange alchemy, a mixture of things that don’t go together, a mash-up of life and music that defies all logic. As only the best internet creations do, it takes something you hate and turns it into something you love. I can’t even begin to tell how many of these things I’ve watched.

But seeing Sid in this space, on this night, felt — in a way — like a weird, crowning achievement. As if you knew about a great restaurant ten years before anyone had been there, and suddenly it had become the hottest thing in town. You got the sense you were seeing someone on precipice of greatness, right before they made it to the next level.

How times had changed. Twelve years ago, a friend sent me Sid’s cover of “We All Try,” by Frank Ocean. With her email was an EP that Sid had just recorded. A quick glance at my correspondence from the time reveals I was I was a fan of his voice; I was much less concerned with all the other things people get hung up on when they’re talking about an artist.

But back then, Sid was just one of many artists who were trying to get my attention. I suppose, like those artists, he thought if I were to write about him, something amazing might happen. And maybe it would have, or maybe it wouldn’t, but what I know is true today, as much as it was true then, is that one can write about anyone. If an artist does not put in the work, that is, if an artist doesn’t do everything in their power to make themselves known, then no amount of writing can do justice to what that artist really has to offer. Nobody shows up at the Williamsburg Musical Hall to hear a music review.

Over time, Sid and I became personally acquainted. And in those early years, he occasionally consulted me on different projects. He’d ask my opinion on songs, videos, even appearances. He was seeking direction.

I remember giving some advice. I have to assume he listened to some of it and rightfully disregarded the rest. Mostly because in the years that followed, he seemed to move on a path somewhat at a remove from wherever I believed he could be.

Now, on stage, Sid is an animated performer with an angelic voice that, when he belts it out, gives off the appearance that he is convening with the most high. On this tour, which just wrapped its North American leg (shows in Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Washington, D.C., Boston and other major cities before hitting Europe at the end of March) he has a tight set list, heavier on his English-language music, though not without incorporating some of the Indian classical music and Bollywood playback tunes he’s known for.

No matter what he is performing though, as he sings, he often gyrates wildly, slinking his shoulders back and forth, lifting his knees, as if he were a preacher in the midst of a sermon in which he has caught the Holy Ghost. In these moments, he grips the microphone tightly, and his eyes travel upwards, above the crowd; in the hierarchy of life, the stratification between performer and audience, this person from that person — as it sometimes is in certain parts of the world — there appears to be the suggestion that you are here, and I am here, but this thing above us, around us, and within us, is what we should be mindful of.

In an interview last year, Sid told journalist Isha Sharma that this is exactly what he’s doing. He described himself as an “empty vessel,” at once in tune with a greater power, “the divine.”

“When I’m on stage — and in the state of flow — the only thing that matters to me is being hyper-present to the point of mentally checking out,” he said.
“… And when I hit those points of channeling, there are these intense waves of emotion or energy… the eyes roll back and the body moves in convulsions. I feel like I’m elsewhere hovering above the ground. You’re not thinking about what people think about you. You’re not thinking about anything. You’re there to allow the spirit of the energy to move through you.”

To hear this spoken of is one thing, to see it in practice is another, especially in a day and age where, with social media, one always feels as if everyone is engaged in some odd brand of performance art, the God they serve little more than the self (or worse yet, the tech titans in the sky).

At one moment in the show, Sid was performing a song which, to my knowledge, is unreleased (except on his Instagram page). He was backed by little more than a pad, bathed in blue light.

“One day the gods will make their way down and look down on what we’ve done,” he sang. “How could you let this happen?”

In that moment, I thought of the past few months, all the death and destruction that has occurred in parts of the world that, by now, everyone is familiar with. Mid-performance, Sid paused and singled out someone in the crowd, someone who had become disruptive.

A voice shouted back — “We love you, Sid!”

He smiled and let out a chuckle. “I love you too. But please, just listen to the music.”

He went back into the performance, back into his zone, and before long, the song descended into a state of harmonic chaos, all clashing tones and discordant sounds — brazen noise, a primal scream of disorganized confusion.

“I’m searching for goodness in humanity every day,” he said, in a moment of on-stage introspection. “One of the things I’m reminded of over the past few months is to hold the people you love tightly.”

On stage, backed by a stellar band (Evan Slack on guitar; Aaron Baum on keys/bass synth, Chris Egan on drums, Alex Nutter on modular synth and Jonathan Kreinik controlling the lights), a word he said came to mind during these performances — two sold out nights in Brooklyn — was gratitude. Gratitude for the position he was in, knowing that, perhaps years ago, faces like his were not so common on these stages.

He closed the show with a classical song, just his voice, which he said his mother used to sing. “It makes me feel like home,” he said, once again closing his eyes, raising his hand to the sky, turning it palm upwards as he made his ascent. Then he was gone.

Afterwards, backstage, upstairs, near his dressing room, I found Sid in good spirits, being simultaneously greeted by his cousin (also in from New Jersey), and Oscar-winning movie producer and a notable Indian-American television personality.

Over it all, his manager — his father — surveyed the landscape, keeping watch. I told his father I had seen Sid perform once, years earlier, for something like twelve people. Then again, I had also seen him, just a few months earlier, perform Carnatic music for three hours backed by little more than a Tabla and a Sarangi (at least I think it was a Sarangi) in Hyderabad, India, with multiple members of my extended family in attendance.

He asked me if I’d ever seen him perform in a stadium for thirty thousand people, to which I had to confess, with a laugh, I had not.

Then, once again, I found myself in close quarters with Sid. After everyone was to leave, he implored: “Stay, stay, I want to hear your opinion, you’ve seen this thing from the beginning.”

I told him that he was fusing many different influences on stage, hitting many different quadrants. He could have been doing Frank Ocean covers for the rest of his life; instead, he had done many other things, and now he was doing this. Most importantly, he had found the way forward, which in life, is the only true direction. I can hear the Soul, I said, but I can also hear the Carnatic. I can see the Spirit in you, but then I can see the Spirit you are communicating with.

Strangely — or, maybe that not strangely, if you know me — the moment took on an unexpected sense of depth. Suddenly, I found myself a bit choked up. I wasn’t exactly sure why, though I acknowledged, to him, that I could see that, within his music, he was searching for a connection that was so much deeper than all that we are presented with.

His search was the search that many of us are on, trying to find something in which we can be rooted, in an otherwise rootless world. It was only in those moments, on stage, or in that crowd, when one was channeling something so deep that it cannot be explained, cannot be drawn or illustrated, cannot be captured by any artist, that one was truly closest to God.

And it was only in that moment, I felt, where true freedom could be found.

get in touch paulcantor@gmail.com



Paul Cantor

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.