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Plenty of Hues at Day 1 of The Mahindra Blues

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Skeptics became admirers, admirers became lovers and lovers became fanatics. All that in only a couple of days at the 2014 edition of the annual Mahindra Blues Festival at the fabled Mehboob Studios in Mumbai. After raising the bar for music festivals held in India, three times with three highly successful Blues festivals starting 2011, the Mahindra group had set its sight on doing just that for its 4th edition.

Plenty of Hues at Day 1 of The Mahindra Blues

The build-up was immense, accentuated heavily by the line-up for this year – Grammy awardees Tedeschi Trucks Band and Jimmie Vaughan, Blues stalwarts Zac Harmon and Li’l Ed and the Blues Imperials and India’s crème de la crème Soulmate and BlackStratBlues. Even the heavens had opened up to lull a city that was dreading the impending summer heat, with a pleasant chill. It was still ninety minutes to go before the start of the event, yet the crowd that had gathered at the venue could feel it in the air that they are in for a very special night indeed.

Plenty of Hues at Day 1 of The Mahindra Blues

Less is More

Stage 1 was where the event had started, right on schedule. BlackStratBlues, the solo project of acclaimed Indian guitarist and producer Warren Mendonsa took the stage along with versatile drummer Jai Row Kavi and precocious talents like Adi Mistry and Beven Fonseca on the bass and the keys respectively. The set predominantly featured songs like ‘Anandamide’, ‘Renaissance Mission’, ‘The Universe has a strange sense of humour’ and ‘Folkish Three’ from his eagerly anticipated third album while also sating the crowd’s requests for classics like ‘Blues for Gary’ and ‘Ode to a Sunny Day’ from his first two albums.

Plenty of Hues at Day 1 of The Mahindra Blues

Armed with a fat, monstrous tone that he derives from an arsenal of Fender Stratocasters, Warren’s incredible ability to base simple yet poignant melodies on rhythms derived from his surroundings – like the beat of a duff-dhol at a typical Indian procession or the muffled thud of a techno-beat – cements his position as one of India’s most unique composers. His phrasing and explorations of his head phrases were thorough making him a terrific live act. Although, the music wasn’t your conventional Blues music, the raw feeling that characterizes the Blues is still retained by phrases filtered through a lot of apparent contemplation. The sole focus of the artiste was to emote and the crowd made no secret of their appreciation by the end of his set.

Plenty of Hues at Day 1 of The Mahindra Blues

Jai Row Kavi throughout the set was a perfect foil to Warren’s guitar playing, highlighting phrases wherever perfect and never once overplaying. Adi Mistry tactfully employed a range of sounds from the bass, especially the powerful thumps in ‘Renaissance Mission’. Beven Fonseca neatly filled in the pockets that are often created by Warren’s unselfish playing. The standout track was ‘Ode to a Sunny Day’ where Warren, joined on stage by Kolkata-based multi-instrumentalist Tajdar Junaid on the acoustic guitar, absolutely caressed the composition to a dreamy ambience, bringing his set to a close.

Plenty of Hues at Day 1 of The Mahindra Blues

The Zac Attack

While Warren’s outlet to the Blues was in the form of simple expressions in an urbane, contemporary sound, Zac Harmon’s response to the Blues, on the other hand was simply this – if you’re feeling the Blues, come to me and I’ll show you a good time. The second act of the evening exploded into a funky blues start on Stage 1 and the towering frontman from Jackson, Mississippi was an absolute livewire throughout, so much that his energy on stage should have been illegal for someone half his age. Zac on the vocals and the guitar was supported by the adventurous Corey Lacy on the keyboard, the stylish Buthel Burns on the bass and the groovy-as-hell drummer Cedric Goodman all of whom were incredible backing vocalists too, giving the band its unique, expansive sound.

Plenty of Hues at Day 1 of The Mahindra Blues

Segueing seamlessly from a funky 4-4 beat to a 6-8 conventional blues beat where the band played the BB King’s classic ‘Rock Me Baby’, back again to a straight 4-4 groove to their next number where a sweet Blues interlude by Zac bridged over to another song in an altogether different key. In all these transitions, the band never lost its continuity, but thankfully just when the noise and the energy were threatening to take the roof apart, Zac seized the opportunity to slow it down with a gospel-like Blues number where he played a heartfelt solo with enough breathing space to let the crowd taste every note in the air.

Plenty of Hues at Day 1 of The Mahindra Blues

The band was an excellent mix of tasteful Mississippi Blues and a very strong rapport with the crowd. Behind the sheer rawness of the music, the sections were very well-structured and every sound emanating from the stage was calculated for effect; not a single note was wasted. Zac’s vocals were powerful and endured in the air long after songs. A frantic set that had compositions like ‘Blue Pill Thrill’ from the band’s new album Music is Medicine along with the band’s own versions of classics like Bob Dylan’s ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’, Muddy Waters’ ‘Got my Mojo Workin’  got the crowd screaming for an encore and they complied by rounding it off with a neat cover of Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman, No Cry’.

Plenty of Hues at Day 1 of The Mahindra Blues

Run over by Tedeschi Trucks

Despite their reputation, the Tedeschi Trucks Band found themselves in an unenviable position of taking the stage after two blockbuster sets by the preceding acts. The challenge was made tougher as the final acts of both days were scheduled in the more roomy Stage 3. The Tedeschi Trucks Band however, would go on to blow that challenge out of the water.

A huge cheer greeted the band as the 11-member big band blues ensemble from Jacksonville, Florida took the stage and wasted little time to get going; their first number ‘Don’t Let Me Slide’ from their Grammy-award winning album Revelator, breathing ample freshness into the expansive indoor arena. The band went on to render the funky title track and the waltzy ‘Do I Look Worried?’ from their recently released second studio album Made Up Mind, a resounding cheer greeting the air tight ending that had culminated an explosive slide guitar solo from virtuoso Derek Trucks.

Plenty of Hues at Day 1 of The Mahindra Blues

After the contemplative slow-pop number ‘It’s So Heavy’, wherein Susan Tedeschi’s effortless adaptability to soul came to the fore, vocalist Mike Mattison took centre stage to croon their next piece ‘I Know’ which featured a spirited trumpet solo by Maurice Brown. Special guest Doyle Bramhall II walked in, like a boss, for the band’s own version of the Blues classic ‘St. James Infirmary’ and his deep voice evoked plenty a gasp from the euphoric crowd. Despite there being three guitarists on the stage, it did not take long to point out, even with your eyes closed, who’s playing what, such was the sheer uniqueness of their guitar playing – Doyle’s inverted bends and tremolo-picking on his right handed guitar played left-handed, Derek’s thick slide guitar voice, played with fingers and Susan’s conventional, voice-driven style. A carnival-like mid-section with Doyle and Susan exchanging solos and Derek’s glib licks made the classic one of the stand-out pieces of the night. A folky flute intro by Kofi Burbridge opened up ‘All That I Need’ and the song’s rhythmic hook provided the backdrop for a phenomenal Derek Trucks solo incorporating myriad styles, some Indian influences very apparent.

Plenty of Hues at Day 1 of The Mahindra Blues

The band went on to play ‘Part Of Me’ and this featured a neat duet Susan’s powerful and trombonist Saunders Sermons’ quirky high-pitched voice that gave the song its character. A Freddie King classic ‘Palace of the King’ was followed by a swamp raga intro by Derek Trucks supported by Mike Mattison on an acoustic guitar. The intro built enough tension in the air as the crowd awaited the next bit of magic from Trucks who by then was certified unpredictable and he seamlessly transitioned to the riff of ‘Midnight in Harlem’. This was again one of those many songs in the set where the backing vocalists Mike Mattison and Mark Rivers shone and the song took a romantic touch as Derek’s sweet slide solo appeared to serenade Susan, who beamed appreciatively.

Plenty of Hues at Day 1 of The Mahindra Blues

The band’s decision to allocate the longer solos to most of the Revelator songs like ‘Bound For Glory’ worked strongly in their favour and by the middle of the show, they already had enough momentum to let anything ruin an already fabulous gig. In the middle of a Derek Trucks solo set to a tribal rhythm, a guitar string snapped and Kofi grabbed the opportunity to mesmerise the audience with a surreal flute solo while Derek sat on stage to change his strings, like a boss. And then once he was done, Derek casually continued the brilliant solo without breaking stride. Just as Master Oogway said -There are no accidents.

Plenty of Hues at Day 1 of The Mahindra Blues

The band exited the stage only to come back on and oblige the deafening requests for an encore. When the band started the the groovy ‘Love has something to say’ after yours truly at the front of the crowd screamed his lungs out for it, Susan pointed at me with her guitar. SUSAN TEDESCHI POINTED AT ME!

*recovers*

The final piece featured an out-of-control solo by the tenor saxophonist Kebbi Williams before normal service was resumed and the entire band with Doyle Bramhall II upped the energy to set up a grandstand finish.

Plenty of Hues at Day 1 of The Mahindra Blues

Summing it up, as a front-woman, Susan Tedeschi with her magical, unerring voice and her charisma had the entire crowd adoring her, worshipping her even (I know I was). Derek Trucks took on the silent and often under-appreciated role of orchestrating the large band with nods to move sections, while also enthralling the crowd with his unparalleled musicianship. Doyle Bramhall II added a unique dimension each time, with his voice, his finesse on the guitar and his radiance. Despite the size of the band, they were always a tight unit responding accurately to every signal that Derek gave.

Plenty of Hues at Day 1 of The Mahindra Blues

Special mention goes to the organisation of the festival; the acoustics of both stages were of an extremely high standard and the lighting, camera work and F&B was superbly handled. Moreover, all the acts started on time and the artistes even had the freedom to walk among the fans to pose for photographs. All eyes on Day 2!

Ganesh Viswanathan

Ganesh Viswanathan is a musician, a designer and sometimes both at the same time. Caffeine is known to derive its energising properties from him. Nobody knows the exact moment when he dismantles an idle mobile phone or steals food from another plate.

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Stratisfaction

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In the day and age of death metal, we often find ourselves staring at tattooed guitarists wielding Super-strats loaded with a combination of Emg pickups and the Floyd Rose Bridge, but what in heaven’s name has happened to the good old Strat? If you walk into a guitar store you will notice people toying with a plethora of guitars: The Ibanez’s, The Schechter’s, The Esps seem to be favored by guitarists these days. If you talk about a good old Strat, people frown. Have we forgotten the value of a Stratocaster? From Guitar-God Hendrix to Clapton to Gilmour, everyone has used the Strat. In Clapton’s case he switched from a Les Paul to a Strat!

The Fender Stratocaster has been the single most copied guitar in history. All the Japanese manufacturers came to the spotlight in the 70s because of their ability to make high quality knock-offs while the CBS owned Fender itself was struggling with quality issues. Why do we call a guitar with a double cut away and a dual humbucker combination a ‘Superstrat’? The answer is: its design was stolen from the Strat. These guitars combined the comfort of the Stratocaster with the power of the dual humbucker combination. At that time, people were looking for more power but the single coils were either too weak or too noisy so they pumped it up with humbuckers.

Some of the notable inventions of Leo Fenders magnum opus were the tremolo system, which according to me is still way better than the Floyd Rose locking trems. In my honest opinion, the Floyd Rose is only good at sucking the sweet tone from your guitar! All our modern guitar heroes like Slash, Tom Morello, Kirk Hammett come from a generation of guitar heroes wielding a Strat. The reason people don’t buy Strats these days is probably because they feel it is “not cool”. They don’t have a logical, sonic justification for not using one. Heck, the guys from Iron Maiden use Strats! With modern pickup technology, one can have the power in a single coil package along with the pureness of a clear single coil tone. Doubters must check out the Eric Clapton signature model. With the in build mid- boost circuitry it pumps out a level of gain which eclipses the EMGs of this world by a mile! People think if they own a Jackson RR3 its cool.

For me, the Fender Stratocaster isn’t the single most important instrument in rock history, it is also the coolest one. From the violin-like tone of Eric Johnson’s Strat to the Dreamy echo of Gilmour’s Strat to the Fuzz laden mayhem of Hendrix’s Strat , no other guitar has influenced the destiny of Rock music. From insanely vintage Strats of the 50s to the modern Shred machines such as Yniwe Malmseem’s, the Stratocaster rules the field; not even the great Les Paul manages to match the legend of the Stratocaster.

One often overlooks the curvaceous craftsmanship of a 50s Strat which is still continued in the modern American models. There is no cooler guitar than a completely worn out Strat; remember the little guy from Ireland whom Jimi Hendrix rated as the greatest guitar player on the planet? I’m talking about Rory Gallagher. Coming to modern players, the sight of John Mayer playing his worn out Strat is just iconic and people say wielding a Flying V is cool.

Sahil Mohan Gupta

Sahil, the byline may read, but they call him ‘Bones’ because of his undying love for Star Trek. Sahil is a crazy tech journalist at BGR.in, who also happens to be a blues guitarist and a sound engineer based out of Delhi. Oh, and he also has 14 dogs!

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