May 2012 will be remembered as the month when Bangalore had a much needed overdose of the Blues. The ten-day Ode to the Blues Festival with film screenings, busking and concerts conducted all around the city was followed by the (unimaginatively titled) Puravankara Indigo & Blues International Jazz and Blues Festival a week later. The line-up looked quite delicious, with the likes of Van Wilks, Bobby Whitlock and Blackstratblues promising to dish out a surfeit of sweet blues music that is music to the soul.
Day One of the festival featured The Chronic Blues Circus, Groove #3, Overdrive Trio and The Van Wilks Band. The arrangements at the venue were replete with blue Nilkamal chairs, tables with spotless white tablecloths, uniformed stewards and ofcourse, the stage! The stage was nothing spectacular, so to speak, and the lighting arrangements were leaning towards Spartan (for an event of this magnitude). I was lurking around in the hour before twilight, looking for artists doing their last minute sound checks, but could find none. What came as a pleasant surprise was that the proceedings started a few minutes after 6 p.m., just as promised! This was a novel experience, but the downside of it was that the crowd had not yet poured in as expected. Perhaps they assumed that the show would start at least an hour late, as is usually the case at music festivals.
Chronic Blues Circus was the first band to take to the stage. The band is headed by, as described by a friend, the “Amitabh Bachchan of the Indian Blues Scene”, Mr.Peter Isaac on the harp, guitar and vocals. They opened the proceedings with an upbeat instrumental version of John Mayall’s ‘So Hard to Share’. The 7-note bass cycle served its purpose of hooking the (still sparse) audience into a lull. This was followed by their own ‘Indian Blues’ with Miriam on the vocals and then Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Killing Floor’ which was opened by a rasping rally call of ‘Let’s Go’ by Peter. Ananth Menon and Venkatesh Subramaniyam (Venky) took turns to show us what they could do with their six strings, through the protracted complementing licks.
Venky then went on to introduce the next song, called ‘Woman’, written by Peter way back in ’93. The song was appropriately wistful and cynical in places and this was confirmed somehow with the two part vocal harmony. Another original, ‘Sweet Nicotine’ followed, which seemed to fit better with a theme of love-making and heartbreak rather than having anything to do with tobacco. I say this with due respect and a hat tip each to Ananth and Venky for their wailing, perfectly tremolo-ed leads. Owen Bosen, the otherwise self-restrained bassist took over the vocals for the next song, and just when I was thinking whether anyone else in the band could also sing, first Venky and then Ananth polished off one verse each.
Despite being wowed by the band members’ singing prowess, one could not help but notice the fluctuating vocal levels. This was the only distraction, the sore tooth in an otherwise perfect little set. True, managing sound for a band which has five lead vocalists is a challenge, but for an event of this magnitude, it should be easily doable. Palace Grounds is an open green area and is bound to have a swarm of mosquitoes in the evenings, something that could have been avoided by probably sanitizing the area before the show.
Owen was back on the vocals for ‘Money Talks’, with his Knopfler-esque nonchalance, that beguiles the talent and experience that stand behind it. Ananth Menon’s pearl-blue guitar told many stories that evening, and really stood out as something that would be remembered for a long time to come. The songs that followed were ‘Win n’ Lose Blues’ and ‘Ulsoor Lake Blues’, both originals. The latter is, obviously about Ulsoor Lake and what it stands for in Bangalore’s past and present.
The refrain call of ‘Stop giving me waste’ was sort of half-wasted, considering the audience was only half-full. This was my favourite from the set, both for the message that it carried and for the classy execution. Mukut Chakravarthy was quite the demon on the keys, wincing and jumping off his seat in time to the magically achieved coda. Despite the overly booming bass levels and the fluctuating vocal levels, The Chronic Blues Circus, for their part, managed beautifully to present one melodious blues sound.
Groove #3 was the next, and I was impressed all over again with the promptness hardly five minutes after the previous band had vacated the stage, the next set was kicked off in style! May 18th incidentally marked the Chennai-based band’s first anniversary, and hopes were high for something special that evening. After the opening instrumental, frontman Benny Dayal appeared on stage in his curious wool cap and introduced the band to us. The first song was an original called ‘Baby You Got Me’. The sheer capacity and range of the vocals hit me almost immediately. It is very rare one comes across a vocalist who has got so many things right, even down to the showmanship. Napier Naveen Kumar’s slap bass for this ditty rightly justified the “Groove” in Groove #3.
Bob Marley’s ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ was up next, but it took a while for the audience to identify the song. This was thanks to the long lead and bass intro, and it wasn’t until Benny started with the lyrics that anyone could’ve guessed the song. Old jazz standard ‘Summertime’ followed, but this time in the funk/jazz style. This rendition by Groove #3 has become rather a phenomenon on YouTube but I have my reservations about tampering with the jazz standards. Yes, I am a purist, guilty as accused. If I were to imagine this to be some other song, then I would say I was rather impressed with the meaty groove and the arpeggio-ridden bass line. If I were to put the feeling in words, well, on one side, this version sounds rather “happy” for ‘Summertime’. On the other side, I was impressed by the walking bass line, the staggering guitar licks, the slippery keys and the brutal snare-belting. I was sold when Benny pulled a kazoo out of his pocket and let it rip for a few bars.
The next song was an original called ‘Nowhere to Run’, purportedly about “getting trapped in love”. The staccato one-note introspective soliloquy, that forms most of the verse, did not impress, nor did the unimaginative chorus. The song really was saved by the breaks – the chunky chord work on the keys and the guitar lead caused the song to finally admit to the remorseful, regret-filled lyrical content. Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ was up next, which, curiously, had Leon James playing the slap bass on the keyboard and Napier just playing the semi-muted root notes on the bass guitar. The meat of the song was rather like a quick march, and the break-aways were the 80s style organ sweeps and Benny wailing in full belt, causing the happy marriage of “soul” and “groove”.
Another original called ‘Don’t Let Go’ was up next. The perfectly timed rests were enriched with music, and the song urged the audience to “stay funky, keep it right”. From the whole set, this song really stood out as the essence of Groove #3’s funk/jazz sound. This would’ve been the last song on the set, but the crowd clearly wanted more. After confirming with organizers, the band agreed to give us one more song. Just as I was beginning to jump with joy, I realized they were going to repeat the only lackluster track from their set, ‘Nowhere to Run’. This unfortunate choice for the encore was my cue to scuttle off to indulge in the sumptuous free snacks that were on offer. I must pause here to give two thumbs up to the organizers and my compliments to the chef.
Mumbai-based Overdrive Trio took the stage next, with Adrian D’Souza on the drums, Vibhas Patil on the bass and Sunny D’Souza on the guitar and vocals. This time, however, there was a slight delay allowing for Adrian to set up his own drum kit. I tried to get a peek at it, but it was mysteriously hidden behind a mountain of stage amps. The band opened with an original, ‘You’ve Got Me Tripping’. With its minimal lyrics and maximum overdrive, the song sent the audience tripping. The sound guy was still struggling to get the bass levels right, but I suppose we had just decided to give it up for a lost cause. Another original, ‘Long Distance Blues’ followed. Sunny’s guitar patch for this one sounded so fuzzy that it had an almost organ-like tone. Adrian D’Souza has been one of my favourite drummers and he surely didn’t disappoint. The 2-minute drum solo with the rumbling toms was as impressive as any other and one could spy members in the audience intelligently trying to keep time with the abstract clashes and thumps.
A quick change of tuning, and the band played another original titled ‘The Mid Life Blues’. Sunny’s vocals and guitar lead spewed desperation and anger as did Adrian’s drum rolls. Vibhas’ bass line walked all over the choppity-chop-chop guitar riffs to present an excellent and gratifying listening experience. At one point, Adrian jumped clear off the drum thrown HALFWAY through the roll, which itself then went the other way to emphasize the angst and the helplessness that was intended for the song. Richie Kotzen’s exquisitely crafted ballad ‘Remember’ was lined up next. This version was slowed down even more than the original, with longer wails emanating from Sunny’s guitar, giving the song an almost Gary Moore-like sound, creating an active, engaging conversation between the vocalist and the guitar.
Next in the set was Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’. I have never heard a version like this one before. The original song was all about swagger, but Overdrive Trio’s rendition had so much more tear-jerking soul in it. I will carry that coda in my heart for a long, long time to come. Just as Sunny announced that this was the last song from them, and was saying his thanks, the crowd went wild with cries for more. Even I had forgotten that Van Wilks was playing next, and would have had Overdrive Trio play forever. A quick nod from the organizers, and then they did oblige the crowd with a rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady’. My first witnessing of the Overdrive Trio had left me in an admiring daze, and I was already making promises to never miss another show by them. What is it with Mumbai and blues trios? Overdrive Trio’s positively incandescent performance would be complemented the next day by another blues trio from Mumbai, the Blackstratblues. But more on that in the Day 2 review.
Santosh Gnanakan, popularly known as RJ Saggy took the stage next to introduce the headlining Van Wilks Band, and also to do some justified promotion for Radio Indigo. Saggy also helpfully pointed out some members of the Bobby Whitlock Band and Coco Carmel, who were rubbing shoulders with the audience and drinking in the blues stupefaction. Also in the crowd were the boys from Blackstratblues.
Van Wilks strutted on to the stage with two friends in tow: Dave Ray on the bass and Nico Leophonte on the drums. Van Wilks is a world-renowned blues guitarist from Austin, Texas. He carries the Texan swagger and an easy humour with him. Seeing this easy-going natural stage baby, one could hardly guess that he is a cancer survivor, an inductee into the ‘Texas Music Hall of Fame’ and has a state wide official ‘Van Wilks Day’ celebrated every November 6 in Texas. It was clear that sparks were going to fly that evening in Palace Grounds, despite the problems with the sound and the mosquitoes, both of which were hurriedly brushed under the mental carpet in order to drink in the experience fully.
The opening song was ‘Secret’ which won the crowd over from the very start with its cheeky lyrics. Van’s fretwork for this song set the expectations quite high for the rest of the set. Another thing that stood out was the amount of fun the three boys were having on stage. Sadly, this failed to transfer completely to the audience, who were too comfortable in their Nilkamal chairs and too busy munching hors d’oeuvres. Sure, there was this small number of revelers who were dancing unabashedly right in front of the stage. The next song was ‘Stone Cold Day’ which incorporated hammer-on overdrive tones with a groovy bass line to create an exciting blues song.
‘Mama Talk’ followed with its heavy, almost hard rock intro. The faithful crowd in the front went berserk for this one. The experience would have been perfect with some nice stagelights, but sadly this was not to be. The lead section had Van Wilks affectionately patting the guitar with his strumming hand which produced an unholy beautiful sound while Dave’s bass licks kept the song on its burning track. The next song was ‘Temporary Love Affair’ with Van Wilks introducing the song as: “I may not be a lawyer but I can damn sure get you off with this one.” The song is an honest and not-too-humble confession of the singer’s love for beautiful women.
‘Dialtone Blues’ was a high reverb dreamy song with a spaced out lead and cleverly disguised bass and drums that created an aura of a lucid dream with eerie sounds. The shocking, crashing coda with the fast strumming bass (something I had never seen before) snapped us out of the reverie and ready for the next song. ‘I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)’ was a regulation Texas blues song with a 4/4 time and a catchy meaty riff. The lead had lightning fast licks and squeals that reached high up to the Heaven. ‘Goin’ to See My Baby’ had the “on-the-road-so-long” theme which is one of the favourites among blues song writers. This song, however, also incorporated the Texan swagger and thus created a nice stylish little ditty.
The next song was ‘Without a Word’, a blues ballad. This is my favourite kind of blues music, and I was rather looking forward to the trip. I wasn’t let down. That could have been BB King playing on stage. Only, it was the smiling Texan, Van Wilks playing the guitar lead and transforming it again into a Blackmore-esque squall. This song sent me tripping! There was a big green praying mantis on a chair next to mine, and it seemed to be swaying with the music. The two of us probably made a circuit of Saturn and Jupiter while Dave took over on the bass lead which was played in the higher frets. The sound was exactly like the guitar lead, except in lower octaves. This could go on forever, everything else forgotten, just the sweet sweet music washing down all around us. Sadly, the end was inevitable, a song has to be time-bound, and therefore, come to a halt.
The next song was a complete paradigm shift into a pumping fast British Blues style number called ‘Stiletto Blues’. All hands were in the air in answer to the booming bass drum, and finally, the audience forgot about the chairs and the snacks and were on their feet, dancing. At the end of the song, Van said that he had “beaten the guitar out of tune”, so had to change it. The band then wrapped up with ‘Bleedin’ for You’ and ‘Boystown’. The latter offered a Texas-Mexico mish-mash sound that somehow gelled very well together. If you’ve heard anything by the band Tito and Tarantula you will get my drift. However, these two songs were somehow not half as impressive as the previous ones. Or perhaps I was still tripping from ‘Without a Word’, so failed to notice anything going on. The band looked justifiably exhausted after their adrenaline splashing set, and so, the music had to stop.
Van Wilks and his band had exceeded all expectations. One can only hope for more tours to India, with more of that healing, uplifting Texas Blues. I got a chance to meet Mr.Wilks backstage and I asked him about the experience of playing in front of an Indian crowd, to which he said, “It is not very different from playing back home. Music is the same language in Texas as in Bangalore.” Hats off to the man for having tackled my childish question with an unassailable truth!
And so, Day One of the Puravankara Indigo and Blues International Jazz and Blues Festival had come to a close. All around, one could see people walking around in a daze that can only be caused by an overdose of the Blues. I reminded myself that there would be more awesomeness to follow the next day with Adil and Vasundhara, The Saturday Night Blues Band, The Blackstrat Blues and Bobby Whitlock and CoCo Carmel. This indeed proved to be the “unadulterated blues rock experience” as promised by the organizers.