Mahindra Blues Festival
8th & 9th February
Mehboob Studios, Bandra, Mumbai
Buddy Guy, Keb’ Mo’, Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band, Larkin Poe, The Homegrown Blues Collective, Quiet Storm
Music: * * * *
Ambience: * * *
Sound: * *
Like every year, there were three types of audiences at the Mahindra Blues Festival over the weekend. One stood for hours in the main arena, or watched with total concentration on the big screens outside. The second sipped Glenlivet, posed for selfies or chatted loudly, oblivious and unconcerned about what was being played. And the third swung constantly between the first two categories.
The main action took place at the three stages spread across the sprawling Mehboob Studio complex in Bandra, Mumbai. The Soul Strat Saloon Stage, named after the Indian blues bands Soulmate and Blackstratblues, boasted of marvellous performances by The Homegrown Blues Collective on the opening day and sister duo Larkin Poe on Sunday.
The Polka Dot Parlour Stage, named after regular visitor Buddy Guy’s guitar and shirt designs, had shows by Grammy-winning Keb’ Mo’, the guitar sensation Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and by the legendary Guy himself. Out on the Garden Stage, oodles of talent flowed in the form of Meghalaya band Quiet Storm, winner of the Mahindra Blues talent hunt contest.
It was the festival’s 10th anniversary, and naturally people talked of earlier performances by John Mayall, Jimmie Vaughan, Taj Mahal, Charlie Musselwhite, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Billy Gibbons, Beth Hart, Johnny Lang, Matt Schofield, Ana Popovic, Shemekia Copeland and a host of others. This time too, the festive spirit was infectious. But there was one deterrent – the sound was inconsistent at the main Polka Dot Parlour arena. Also, all the four international artistes were American, making one wish for some other regions receive equal representation too.
Over to the music
The festival began at 6 pm sharp on Saturday, February 8, with The Homegrown Blues Collective, a specially created line-up comprising some of India’s best-known blues artistes. Conducted by Soulmate guitarist Rudy Wallang, it began with his band member Tipriti Kharbangar singing ‘The Way We Are’ and ‘Set Me Free’ in her distinct style. Since guitarist Warren Mendonsa of Blackstratblues had an outstation commitment, a video of his ‘Blues For Gary’ was played.
Vocalists kept changing with Rohit Lalwani, Arinjoy Sarkar and Kanchan Daniel taking turns. Kharbangar returned, to be joined by Ehsaan Noorani on guitar and Loy Mendonsa on keyboards. Wallang impressed with some crisp solos and held the group together. Overall, it was the perfect showcase for the blues in India.
The action then moved to singer-guitarist Keb’ Mo’, who recently bagged the Grammy for Best Americana Album for ‘Oklahoma’. For 90 minutes, he played a soulful set that included his older gems ‘Government Cheese’, ‘Henry’ and ‘Just Like You’, besides ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘I Remember You’ from his latest album. Mo’s voice is 24-karat gold, with the right mix of ruggedness and tenderness. And he was outstanding on the resonator guitar, whose unique tone adorned a few numbers.
Saturday’s line-up concluded with the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band. One of the most talented blue-rock guitarists on the contemporary scene, Shepherd dazzled with his sheer Stratocaster virtuosity and flamboyant pyrotechnics. With Noah Hunt on lead vocals, his set included the new songs ‘Woman Like You’ and ‘Long Time Running’, the beautiful ‘Heat Of The Sun’, the famous ‘Blue On Black’, and versions of the Elmore James classic ‘Talk To You Baby’, Joe Walsh’s ‘Turned To Stone’ and Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Mr Soul’, whose theme riff was a take-off on the Stones hit ‘Satisfaction’. Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chil’ proved to be the perfect finale, with Shepherd even putting his guitar behind his neck on a solo.
Sadly enough, awful sound steamrolled Shepherd’s gig. The horns and the guitar sounded too loud, and one could barely hear the bass or drums. Somewhere, one felt his music would have sounded far better in an open-air venue. The fans didn’t crib as they got their kicks.
Cut to-day two, and Rebecca and Megan Lovell of Larkin Poe began with a delightful performance, impressing thoroughly with their southern-flavoured songs, blending the blues, country, rock and roots music. On ‘Trouble In Mind’, ‘Bleach Blonde Bottle Blues’, ‘Cast Em Out’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Wanted Woman’, ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’, ‘Mississippi’ and the Son House favourite ‘Preachin Blues’, they journeyed through a highway of musical styles, with Rebecca’s tight vocals and Megan’s awesome slide guitar in top gear.
On his sixth appearance in Mumbai and fourth at the Mahindra Blues Festival, a jam-packed audience welcomed Buddy Guy. At 83, he displayed the energy of someone half his age, with both his voice and guitar showing no signs of fatigue. The problem is that he’s been playing similar sets since he first came in 2005, beginning with ‘Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues’ and following it with Willie Dixon’s seminal ‘Hoochie Coochie Man,’ leading on to other Muddy Waters-popularised songs like ’19 Years Old’ and ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’, with the well-known ‘Fever’ coming along the way.
Though he tweaked his set by adding the original ‘Feels Like Rain’, the popular ‘Skin Deep’, Cream’s ‘Strange Brew’ and also a short portion of John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom,’ his stage act has changed little, right from walking across one side to doing his trademark jig. Despite those factors, Guy pulled off one of his best shows in India, boosted by his dynamic stage charm and a brilliant band.
Here too, the sound played truant. Inside the Polka Dot Parlour was overcrowded, and many opted to watch him on the big screens near the food court outside. What one heard was total confusion. The volume of vocals kept fluctuating and for some time, one heard some kind of weird quadrophonic effect, with guitars coming from one side, drums from the other and the voice from different corners.
To add to that, there there was loud chatter from some spirited folks, and one group matching some Buddy Guy riff with their own rendition of the Robert Johnson-popularised ‘Sweet Home Chicago.’ Well, at least these folks knew this song. We’re not sure if half the audience was aware it existed, but damn right, they are the ones who’ll claim to have got the blues.