Mahindra Blues Festival 2017 Diary

Supersonic Blues Machine with Billy Gibbons.

Supersonic Blues Machine with Billy Gibbons.

For some reason, the second weekend of February 2017 became particularly attractive for concert promoters in the country. It’s always been the weekend of the Mahindra Blues Festival but this time, there were three other major music festivals taking place over the same two days: Vh1 Supersonic whose organisers had to unexpectedly move to Pune; the milestone tenth edition of the Control Alt Delete series of crowd-funded Indian indie shows; and the rock-focused Into The Void in Gujarat. Given that they each catered to specific audiences, perhaps their organisers presumed that there wouldn’t be much overlap in potential attendees. It was somewhat ironic then that genre became the subject of discussion at the seventh edition of Mahindra Blues Festival.

Walking out of the venue, Bandra’s Mehboob Studios on Sunday night, we got the impression that this year’s instalment had people wondering just how much blues there was at Mahindra Blues. For instance, there was nobody quite like the Heritage Blues Orchestra who, despite melding multiple genres, retain the essence of the blues. Then again, these are times when the blues have taken on such hybrid forms that even the Grammy Award for Best Blues Album is divided into traditional and contemporary sub-categories.

The quality of the artists was just as consistent as in previous instalments. Despite the inclusion of names you might have had to Google if you’re not a hardcore blues fan, there was not a single dud act. Part of the reason could have been that the organisers played it relatively safe, repeating three names from editions past, Blackstratblues aka guitarist-composer Warren Mendonsa and American acts, vocalist-guitarist Quinn Sullivan and singer Shemekia Copeland.

Soulmate performed last time around so naturally, it was Blackstratblues aka guitarist-composer Warren Mendonsa’s turn to open the festival as the Indian representative. Blackstratblues rarely has a bad day and from what we caught of the tail end of his set, Mendonsa and his band were as impressive as always if a tad predictable (you know there’s going to be some Led Zepp).

Half this year’s line-up comprised female singers, the highest proportion for any edition so far. First up was veteran American vocalist Janiva Magness whose country-flecked set was picked by a few to be the standout of the first day over headliner Sullivan, the child prodigy who wowed us all back in 2015 when he was brought here by his mentor, festival favourite Buddy Guy. Sullivan, who’s now 17 years old, surprised the room when he began his set by playing snatches on the sitar. While his solo material leans a little towards pop, he made sure to fill each song with extended solos that reminded us why he’s been compared to greats like Hendrix. Accompanying him once again was producer-drummer Tom Hambridge and Guy’s keyboardist Marty Sammon, whose own fingerwork drew applause.

On her two albums, Irish singer-songwriter Grainne Duffy’s tunes sound like radio-friendly pop-rock. When she kicked off the proceedings on day two, she matched her raspy Bonnie Raitt-like singing with proficient guitar playing and friendly stage banter and won over the crowd. Duffy was followed by Shemekia Copeland, who was on the bill of the inaugural edition of the fest back in 2011 and was crowned the Queen of Blues seven months after that appearance.

Copeland came back to let us know that she can still sing the phonebook and make it sound good. With a selection of over a dozen songs spanning her 19-year recording career, she presented an anecdote-filled performance that included a bit in which she sang a part of ‘Ghetto Child’ sans amplification. Like Magness, Duffy and Copeland each gave their able guitarists time to shine setting the night up nicely for the headliners, which promised an assembly of accomplished axemen.

Surprisingly, American blues-rock supergroup Supersonic Blues Machine, made up of drummer Kenny Aronoff, bassist Fabrizio Grossi and guitarist-singer Lance Lopez, turned out to be the most polarising act of the night. During their ode to chicken wings ‘Bone Bucket Blues’, the band, playing tracks from their debut album West of Flushing, South of Frisco, got so loud that at one point it felt like we were at a metal gig. As a result, they lost some of their audience.

Many were there to see the Supersonic Blues Machine’s guests, Eric Gales and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. We got a relatively fair share of Gales, whose Adidas tracksuit was a contrast to the cowboy hat and leather jacket-clad men on stage, and who riffed like a man possessed. In contrast, Gibbons got on more than an hour into their 90-minute set. When he played the unofficial “Texas national anthem”, ZZ Top classic ‘La Grange’, the room, like the guitars, roared. Those hoping to hear more of Gibbons’ hits only got ‘Sharp Dressed Man’, but his presence was a reminder that blues-rock can be heavy without being loud.

Gibbons stayed on for the obligatory concluding all-star jam of course but it didn’t quite have the same exuberance as we’ve seen before. And maybe because we felt we had seen so little of him, the 15-minute jam felt abbreviated. The highlight for us was seeing Mendonsa hold his own among a bunch of established international musicians, and left us in the hope that someday, Soulmate and he will be shifted to a mid-evening slot and another Indian act will be granted festival opening duties. We heard good things about Delhi-based Blu, this year’s winners of the annual Mahindra Blues Band Hunt, the annual competition held to spotlight upcoming talent. But scheduling them after the second artist, the time most people use to run to the loo, grab their last drink or get a quick bite, is a bit like giving them half a prize.

With inputs from Hrushabh Talapadatur.

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