Tag Archives: The New Album

The Universe Has a Strange Sense of Humour by Blackstratblues


Instrumental music in today’s industry can be a tough sell– people naturally seem better able to connect with ideas expressed through words and lyrics rather than musical ones. Of course this makes things harder for the musician; how communicative can your music be when you’ve jettisoned the expressive capabilities of lyrics? But because the internet is flooded with singer-songwriters who deliver their heartfelt lyrics over tired, four chord guitar playing, any attempt to deliver up a piece of art that speaks solely through sound and melody rather than words is admirable. Warren Mendonsa, the primary guitarist and composer of Blackstratblues, attempts to do just this with his newest record The Universe Has a Strange Sense of Humour. In lieu of singing, Mendonsa uses his guitar to weave together layers of chords and melodies to produce a rock record that, while not perfect, still provides a fair amount of well-executed ideas to please fans of the style.

This is Mendonsa’s third album of guitar-focused rock music under the Blackstratblues moniker, although he has also played as a member of the influential band Zero and as a session musician since the 90’s and early 2000’s. During that time, he has refined his sound as a guitarist, and it shows on this album. Mendonsa describes his work as “good honest music”, and such a characterization is fitting. His playing is not overly technical– instead Mendonsa finds ways to play simply and cleanly with subtle embellishments. He has an impeccable sense of balance and melodic phrasing in his music; for every guitar solo on The Universe, there is also a modest yet catchy riff to provide variation.

Despite the fact that most of the tracks utilize a somewhat underwhelming pop rock structure, the album’s greatest strength is that Mendonsa builds varied, self-contained ideas for exploration within the song. The result is that each track contains elements that sound purely unique from the the rest of the album. The main riff on the opening track ‘Renaissance Mission’ for instance is warped and bent with oscillating textures that rise and fall to create an otherworldly, psychedelic effect. In keeping with the cosmic theme of the record, Mendonsa on the title track arpeggiates airy, spacious keys as the guitar slowly meanders through them as if it were drifting through space. Mendonsa’s dynamic sensibilities also help keep the songs interesting; one of the highlights, ‘E Major Blues’, shifts between extremely calm leads and loud edgier riffing with backing organ chords and hot guitar solos. During these quiet moments, Mendonsa’s guitar is warm and intimate, inviting you to lie down and rest. During the louder segments, the blues guitar soloing ratchets up the tension and excitement before descending back down, and the fact that Mendonsa is able to float between these two moods seamlessly is a testament to his ability. It is in these instances that The Universe achieves what instrumental music often strives for: to convey ideas and emotions in ways that would be impossible with words.

Though Mendonsa is definitely adept at engineering beautiful moments of sound, his guitar-centric approach can become a hindrance, and this is evident in both the mixing and composition. Throughout the album, it rarely feels like him and his band are jamming together as a unit; the drums and bass tend to just form a basic platform for Mendonsa to display his guitar work. The track ‘Anandamide’ suffers from this problem despite the fact that its melodies made it one of my personal favorites on the album. It features a repeated country western flavoured riff and dulcet solos that beautifully flow together, but the guitar never moves from the spotlight for the entire duration of the song. The drums and bass guitar parts sound boring and subdued by comparison, and the band members never seem to play off each other. Throughout the record, the other instruments can sound muted underneath the crisp guitar, and while this shouldn’t be completely unexpected, (it is a guitarist’s solo project after all), it at times feels like the songs were composed with the express purpose of pointing attention to the guitar playing. While there’s nothing wrong with that in itself, achieving that aim by relegating the other instrument parts to the side strips the songs of potential.

There are exceptions of course, such as the tracks ‘Folkish Three’ that utilizes a magnificently cacophonous dhol and drum kit combination to propel the song into an amped-up climax, and the second movement on ‘Two Sides of the Same Coin’, which couples classic surf rock riffs with groovy bass and fun drum fills with hand claps. These moments where the band really plays together turn out great, but they’re too irregular to prevent the record from suffering. Though it doesn’t completely ruin the album, it ends up being a noticeable flaw with The Universe Has a Strange Sense of Humour; while some bands might provide plain instrumental accompaniment to a talented singer, Mendonsa here has a tendency to keep the stale accompaniment while only switching out the singer for a guitar. There are other guitar-based instrumental rock bands, such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, and Jakob, that draw strength from their ability to balance each part and allow every instrument the space to contribute. Granted, the more classic guitar-centric rock sound is Mendonsa’s modus operandi, but he’s done better before in his back catalogue. Even on the previous release by Blackstratblues, The New Album, though it was a rougher recording, it sounded deeper and tighter as a band. It’s fortunate that on The Universe Mendonsa brings improved melody writing and a sharper sense of sonic colour compared to previous efforts, and he really does deserve all credit for keeping several of these songs engaging solely through his playing.

Unlike many instrumental bands from the early 2000’s to today who have been given the now somewhat derogatory label ‘post-rock’, Blackstratblues is focused on creating music that is much more straightforward. While straightforward music isn’t necessarily bad, (there’s a reason “pop” music is popular), the lack of truly bold ideas can cripple otherwise good songs. In the case of The Universe, its music holds very few secrets to dig through and uncover– by the end of the album, its goal of “good honest music” stunts the impact it could have had. These are pop rock songs with blues and classic rock influences, and they generally follow either a predictable verse/chorus/verse form or at least have a repeated riff or phrase that the music will return to. Any musical idea presented at the beginning of a song is carried to its end– they might get tonal or dynamic tweaks along the way, but the ideas remain foundationally unchanged. To be fair, sometimes the structure does work well, as is the case with ‘E Major Blues’ and ‘Come Anyway’, but other times it’s just tiresome, like with the forgettable ‘Little Rascal’ which features some aimlessly ambling melodies that never really go anywhere. I would have loved to hear more experimentation within these songs and for them to be taken in new directions I didn’t expect; there is no track on The Universe that delivers quite the same emotional impact for me like ‘Ode to a Sunny Day’, (from The New Album), as it slowly blossoms when acoustic guitar and piano give way to amplified jamming and drums. Mendonsa’s focus on exploring single self-contained musical ideas within popular song structures still sometimes works well, but it’s not quite enough to sustain the record throughout its run time. Even when it is successful, it never feels like something completely new or groundbreaking– just a refinement of styles we’ve probably heard before.

While I certainly would have liked for Blackstratblues to push the boundaries a little bit more with The Universe Has a Strange Sense of Humour, ultimately it’s Mendonsa’s guitar skills that prove to be both its blessing and curse. The album as a whole feels too straightforward for me to say it’s great, but it would also be grossly unfair to say it’s bad. Though the album is weighed down with overly familiar song structures and at times bland playing, Mendonsa really does know how to write impressive guitar parts and offers a number of memorable moments. If you’ve been a fan of Blackstratblues and its style of instrumental pop rock in the past, then you will easily love this album. If you’re not, then this record could wear down on you by the end, but it’s still absolutely worth a listen for the points where it shines. While The Universe Has a Strange Sense of Humour doesn’t amaze, it does have me excited to see what Warren Mendonsa will do next. If he is willing and able to take his guitar proficiency and push it outside the bounds of his comfortable, established influences, then Blackstratblues could have the potential to make a lasting impression on the world of instrumental music.

Stephen Perez

Stephen Perez is a busy university student that spends an excessive amount of time listening to music and attending music-related activities. He is passionate about art and culture and anxiously awaits the day that he can travel the world. Stephen also enjoys theology, veg food, and reverb.


Day 2 of Indigo & Blues – International Jazz and Blues Festival at Palace Grounds, Bangalore


It really is a shame that a combination of traffic, miscommunication and uncharacteristic tardiness on my part had me walk into the venue just as Adil and Vasundhara were wrapping up their set. I would’ve loved to watch them live but had to instead rely on rapturous one-line reviews from people around. But I wasn’t too perturbed as there were some more world class acts to follow – The Saturday Night Blues Band from Kolkata, Blackstratblues from Mumbai and, of course, the headliners Bobby Whitlock and Coco Carmel all the way from the US of A. The stage was well set up, the sound was perfect, and the weather couldn’t have been more pleasant if it tried, and I took my seat to drown myself in the blues.

Day 2 of Indigo & Blues - International Jazz and Blues Festival at Palace Grounds, Bangalore

The Saturday Night Blues Band started off loud and very proud with ‘Blues is my Business’, and apparently (as the lyrics go), “Business is good!” and it sure sounded like it! Singer Arunima Dasgupta’s voice was powerful, intense and in control. The band had a very tight old school blues sound. The Saturday Night Blues Band consists of Jayanta Dasgupta on Guitars/Vocals, Arunima Dasgupta on Vocals, Stuart Munrao on bass, Rohan Ganguli on the guitar and Avinash Chordia on Drums.

They played a mix of slow blues and danceable numbers like ‘6345789′ by Wilson Pickett and the great SRV’s ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’. Their rendition of ‘Look Don’t Touch’ by Hubert Sumlin had an amazing Boogie Woogie rhythm and this was a song where they showed great stage presence and connected with the audience. Jayanta Dasgupta’s solos were quite incredible on every song. Ganguli, though somewhat silent at the start and playing only the rhythm parts, blazed his fret board every time he graced us with a solo. They ended their set with ‘What Good Can Drinking Do’ and ironically the audience raised their glasses to bid them goodbye!

Day 2 of Indigo & Blues - International Jazz and Blues Festival at Palace Grounds, Bangalore

As I looked around the venue, I had one major problem with the way it was organized – the strange seat segregation. There were three passes- Silver, Gold and Platinum. The Platinum – the costliest one (with free booze) – was right in the front and was only some 20 feet from the stage. It was the only section that stretched across the breadth of the lawn venue. The rest of the sections (Silver and Gold) had a chunk cut out from the left side to accommodate the monstrous sound console section. Moreover I felt that dividing the venue into three sections when the strength of the audience wasn’t more than 500 was an unnecessary waste of space.

India’s favourite trio Blackstratblues took to the stage next. The band has been revolutionary in the way they have popularized their brand of blues-based instrumental music to college audiences in the country. Originally the brainchild of guitarist/composer Warren Mendonsa, he was joined on stage by his live band consisting of Sidd Coutto on drums and Johann Pais on bass.

Day 2 of Indigo & Blues - International Jazz and Blues Festival at Palace Grounds, Bangalore

Blackstratblues are a thrill to watch live, always pushing their music to the limit, playing entire sets without losing the vigorous intensity that makes their performances so special. After a fierce blues-rock intro, they started their proper set with ‘The Happy Billi Song’ from The New Album. This was followed by a couple of new songs, ‘The Universe Has a Strange Sense of Humour’ and an untitled song. All the new songs they performed, named and unnamed, had a distinctly darker sound than the usual Blackstratblues material. The songs involved more layers of rhythm than just plain guitar solos. Here we also saw Warren playing around and jamming with his delay and wah guitar pedals almost as if the pedal board was the fourth musician on stage!

Blues for Gary’ from the band’s debut album Nights in Shining Karma put Warren’s guitar playing in the spotlight, clearly showing his unique mix of playing styles, which involves a typical blues style of soloing but with that pinch of India thrown in and always served with some extra Bombay for good measure. The same goes for ‘Ode to a Sunny Day’ that was the last song of the set, though this song is a lot more folksy. Written by Warren when he was going through a tough time in his life, this is a song that always inspires. It sounds like the narrator is running towards the light at the end of the tunnel, and maybe someday reaching it too. And who is the narrator? It’s the black strat, of course, that conveys all of this without ever speaking a word!

Day 2 of Indigo & Blues - International Jazz and Blues Festival at Palace Grounds, Bangalore

Finally, we had Bobby Whitlock, Coco Carmel and their band get on stage. Their band consists of Jeff Plankenhorn on guitar and Austin Robbie Venturini on bass. They started their performance with ‘Anyday’, the first of the many songs from The Derek and Dominoes album that they played. All of the songs from that album have stood the test of time for almost half a century. Whitlock and Carmel’s rendition that night was proof enough that music so powerful and ever-relevant won’t fade away too easily. The song also featured Jeff Plankenhorn’s unconventional style of electric guitar slide playing where he keeps his fretting hand over the fingerboard and plays it like a lap steel guitar. The sound he got out of it was incredible, a Duane Allman-esque sound that is quite new to most Bangalore ears.

This was followed by ‘Keep on Growing’, again from the Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs album, and ‘Got to Get Better in a Little While’, which wasn’t in the original album but was later released as a bonus track. Most of these songs have unique southern rock harmonies, not powerful in terms of loudness or range, but in intensity and emotion.

Day 2 of Indigo & Blues - International Jazz and Blues Festival at Palace Grounds, Bangalore

Coco Carmel, after having played rhythm guitar accompanying her vocals until then, took up the saxophone for the rest of the gig. The volume was slightly low at the start, and after a few of the audience members complained (and the band and the sound guys finally realized that it wasn’t just drunken shouting), it was soon rectified.

Towards the end of the gig or perhaps the reason for the gig to prematurely end was a visibly uneasy Whitlock. They ended the gig with ‘John the Revelator’ and ‘Layla’. Their rendition of both the songs was quite slowed down. It was a very different take on Layla. It alternated between a slowed down verse and an upbeat chorus with, of course, the iconic main riff. At this point, Whitlock looked quite ill and had to get up from his keyboard numerous times. Immediately after Layla, the gig took an unfortunate twist as Whitlock ran backstage and passed out. He had to be carried to a car and rushed to the hospital. It turned out to be a severe allergic reaction caused by a mix up in medication that was given to him.

Day 2 of Indigo & Blues - International Jazz and Blues Festival at Palace Grounds, Bangalore

The fact that even after getting so ill halfway through the concert, he still gathered all his energy to give an amazing performance shows the immense passion for music that Bobby Whitlock has. Even though the gig was cut short slightly, it was immensely entertaining. On the whole, though I had some issues with the way it was organized, music-wise, Day 2 of the Indigo Blues and Jazz was quite enjoyable. This was just one of the many blues festivals and gigs that have been happening in the city lately. As a blues and jazz fan, I would hope to see this trend continue.

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Abhishek Prakash

Abhishek Prakash is a Bangalore based guitarist and is a third of local act Groove Chutney. He loves jazz, street food, Woody Allen movies and often pretends to be a writer.


Blackstratblues at UB City – Bangalore Habba 2012


We all have our favourite Zero song and mine was ‘Her’. I remember listening to the simple chord work and smooth vocal harmonies and falling in love with the sound back when I was in college and I remember thinking to myself, “Indian bands sound awesome!” Zero has been the benchmark for a band in my mind and to be able to see some of the original masterminds perform live was a treat I could not afford to pass up.

Bangalore Habba probably hit its zenith over the weekend when it featured one of the country’s ace guitarists Warren Mendonsa’s instrumental project Blackstratblues. Warren, alongside childhood buddies Sidd Coutto on Drums and Johan Pais on Bass, performed tracks from his two albumsNights in Shining Karma and The New Album.

The band was visibly pleased with the great looking venue; UB City’s amphitheater was adorned with two rows of LED parcans on trussrods, washing the stage with vivid colours. There was also a backline row of moving headlights that added to the crisp evening ambience. ‘Steppin Out’ was the first track for the evening, a blues rock standard that BSB usually opens a gig with. ‘The Happy Billi Song’ was up next – a feel-good track that Warren really opened up his playing with. It would seem another album is to be expected soon. The by-now grooving audience were treated to a slew of songs that will probably be featured in the next collection. ‘Untitled(1)’ aka ‘E maj Blues’, a warm, slow ballad was the first of the lot.

Blackstratblues at UB City - Bangalore Habba 2012

A cover of Billy Cobham’s ‘Stratus’ was really unexpected, mostly because I’d never heard this song before. A driving bassline with a busy 16 beat to keep the drummer busy let the guitars take over for a groovy jazz-rock track. It is always fun to watch a three-piece outfit create such a ruckus onstage, each maintaining their range, dynamics and yet not sounding like a competition for sonic space. ‘The Universe Has A Strange Sense Of Humor’ was up next – a very intimate and very personal sounding piece, which was quickly followed up with ‘Soar The Sky’ that was easy to listen to and wonderful to watch as it was being performed by the master himself. The highlight was the time meter switches from the solo feeding back into the main motif.

Johan dutifully maintained his elegant bass lines throughout the show and Sidd – a real beast behind the skins, he treated percussion lovers to a magnificent show. His energy was spilling all over the kit and even knocking over hapless drum mic stands that seemed to be in awe of his intensity and prowess.

Warren took a little time to talk about writing the songs in Auckland and how the overcast weather often inspires you to write songs sitting by yourself with a guitar, like ‘Ode To A Rainy Day’ – a beautiful ballad that opens up deep emotions with a minimalist texture that is intensely stirring.

Blackstratblues at UB City - Bangalore Habba 2012

His vocabulary seems to prefer “feel” over technicality and honesty over elitism. Warren’s guitar playing sounds more like an extension of his thoughts perfectly connected with a voice that is singing gloriously in his mind with overwhelming emotion and empathy. ‘Blues For Gary’ brought it all back to the legends who have wielded the strat before Warren – black or any other color for that matter. All of this just had to lead into one of the greatest pieces of music I’ve ever come across – ‘Anuva’s Sky’. All I can say is learning to play this song, will spawn an entire generation of soulful, patient and hardworking guitarists who, in my opinion, are of a dying (unborn?) breed.

The band was wildly cheered into an encore – their rendition of ‘Norwegian Wood’, and as if the night couldn’t get any better, the boys launched into three more ‘Untitled’ jam tracks that simply floored the last bunch of people who faithfully stayed on till the fitting finale.

It was a privilege to be able to watch the Blackstratblues albums performed live – although slightly tailored to suit the minimal performing format – the evening was all about  great hooks worked into catchy melodies, great tunes delivered humbly, with conviction and straight from the heart.

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Fidel Dsouza

Fidel Dsouza is a Journalist/Editor at WTS