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The Universe Has a Strange Sense of Humour by Blackstratblues

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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.

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

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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.

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.

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