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.
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 Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials and Indias 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.
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 crowds requests for classics like Blues for Gary and Ode to a Sunny Day from his first two albums.
Armed with a fat, monstrous tone that he derives from an arsenal of Fender Stratocasters, Warrens 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 Indias most unique composers. His phrasing and explorations of his head phrases were thorough making him a terrific live act. Although, the music wasnt 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.
Jai Row Kavi throughout the set was a perfect foil to Warrens 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 Warrens 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.
The Zac Attack
While Warrens outlet to the Blues was in the form of simple expressions in an urbane, contemporary sound, Zac Harmons response to the Blues, on the other hand was simply this if youre feeling the Blues, come to me and Ill 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.
Segueing seamlessly from a funky 4-4 beat to a 6-8 conventional blues beat where the band played the BB Kings 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.
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. Zacs vocals were powerful and endured in the air long after songs. A frantic set that had compositions like Blue Pill Thrill from the bands new album Music is Medicine along with the bands own versions of classics like Bob Dylans Knocking on Heavens 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 Marleys No Woman, No Cry.
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 Dont 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.
After the contemplative slow-pop number Its So Heavy, wherein Susan Tedeschis 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 bands 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, whos playing what, such was the sheer uniqueness of their guitar playing Doyles inverted bends and tremolo-picking on his right handed guitar played left-handed, Dereks thick slide guitar voice, played with fingers and Susans conventional, voice-driven style. A carnival-like mid-section with Doyle and Susan exchanging solos and Dereks 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 songs rhythmic hook provided the backdrop for a phenomenal Derek Trucks solo incorporating myriad styles, some Indian influences very apparent.
The band went on to play Part Of Me and this featured a neat duet Susans 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 Dereks sweet slide solo appeared to serenade Susan, who beamed appreciatively.
The bands 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.
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!
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.
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.
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!