Tag Archives: Tough On Tobacco

Black Gives Way To Blues

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It must not be easy being a blues instrumentalist in India. But then Warren Mendonsa, the brains (and fingers) behind Blackstratblues (BSB), has not exactly trodden the beaten path. As a bright young spark on the Indian rock landscape, his band Zero (with Sidd Coutto, Bobby Talwar and Rajiv Talwar) released two albums and an EP between 1998 and 2005 and was a big part of the resurgence of the “scene” in that same period. A two-year hiatus to New Zealand followed during which time Warren put together some solo instrumental material that eventually got released as a free-to-download digital album Nights in Shining Karma (2007).

Black Gives Way To Blues

Named after the Mumbai-born guitarist’s favourite weapon of choice, Blackstratblues have released a couple of albums since then and continue to be a big part of the local live music scene. With Jai Row Kavi on drums, Adi Mistry on bass and Bevan Fonseca on keyboards, this instrumental-only band played at Pune’s High Spirits Café on a muggy Saturday in May to a packed house. The gig started on time and I walked in, surprised at how many people were already there to watch. The High Spirits is a small place, with high tables interspersed in an open-air verandah facing a smallish stage with a bar at the back, and it was nice to see hordes of young people of both genders enjoying themselves and the music. Pune has been experiencing some pre-monsoon showers and ‘Bombay Rain’, with a solid bassline complementing the sweet blues melody, felt really right to set the mood for me.

Black Gives Way To Blues

Clearly, Warren attracts a loyal fanbase, and with good reason. The eponymous black Stratocaster is wielded as an instrument of delicate subtlety rather than out-and-out-shredding, and the audience reacts rather well to this approach. Warren is the consummate bluesman, content to chop and lick his way melodically into the listener’s heart rather than adopt the arpeggios-at-the speed-of-light approach popularized by so many guitar virtuosos since the ‘90s. If you’re looking for a wannabe Vai or Malmsteen, sorry- you’ve come to the wrong gig. But if Eric Johnson or Dickey Betts is more of your style, then maybe you’ll enjoy Blackstratblues. I sure did.

Black Gives Way To Blues

The set was short, around 90 minutes end to end, and there wasn’t too much time-wasting or attempts at crowd-pleasing (often the same thing!)  in between. Original followed original in quick succession and, though the tempo of each song varied, I began to drift a bit and used the opportunity to focus on each of the individual performers. What struck me first was that the band seemed to be composed of thorough professionals who seem to enjoy playing together. I noted with surprise that the usually supremely-composed Jai Row Kavi (Indus Creed, Tough on Tobacco) seemed to struggle through a few songs, triggering a suspicion that perhaps blues is just not his genre…or maybe he was just having an off day. Warren and bassist Adi Mistry share an easy musical camaraderie that shows in their jamming but the levels on the bass were set up a little too high for my liking, giving it an overall boomy sound.

Black Gives Way To Blues

 

The keyboard player was used mostly for fills and intros, though he came into his own on one or two of the band’s originals where Warren was content to just play chords and riffs, a rare sight! Fun factoid: in a 2012 interview to Rolling Stone, Mendonsa revealed that the “black” Strat after whom the band is named was originally gold in colour: it was painted black in Auckland after a band member taunted him about it! In any case, the black guitar made way for a sunburst Strat later in the show, with a much fatter bluesy tone.  It struck me that Warren prefers this tone, more associated with a Gibson Les Paul/Marshall amp combination than the traditional ‘thin’ Strat tone. His pedal train may have something to do with that though, to be honest, I didn’t get a close look at it and the information on the official BSB webpage seems to be obsolete.

Black Gives Way To Blues

A gig composed entirely of blues instrumentals can get a bit heavy for the audience and it was nice that the band interspersed a couple of covers to liven up the mix. The Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Mood’, played in a very original manner replete with fat chops, was refreshing. ‘Jessica’, an Allman Brothers Band staple, and more popularly known as the Top Gear theme, was played faithful to the original pretty much. As a purist, I appreciated that! I thought the gig ended early but later learned that a couple of songs had to be cut from the original setlist, so am assuming they were forced to vacate the stage by 11 p.m. as is customary- oh when will this country wise up?

Black Gives Way To Blues

All in all an evening well-spent. The crowd composed of diehard fans who seemed familiar with the music- it would be a stretch to say they “sang along” since there wasn’t much singing to do- which is always a nice feeling for an Indian band. There didn’t seem to be any sound glitches or co-ordination issues. Maybe the setlist could also incorporate some acoustic stuff going forward.  As someone who is not intimately familiar with the band’s work, I still came away impressed. 10/10 will watch again!

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Pepsi MTV Indies at Mehboob Studios, Mumbai

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Escape Festival Day 3 at The Lake Resort, Naukuchiatal

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The Escape Festival Experience at The Lake Resort, Naukuchiatal

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An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

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“Remember, these people are not your friends. They will buy you drugs, make you meet girls…but they are not your friends. And remember, it’s all happening.” –Almost Famous

My first attempt to cover a music festival made me feel like William Miller from the movie Almost Famous, though I realized soon that the comparison was too glorified. This wasn’t going to be a window into the dark secrets of the bands but just a platform that would put forward an experience at Escape. I had been to the Escape Festival two years ago and I remember the experience fondly. It was the perfect ambience, well organized and the music was selectively good. I was looking forward to going back to rediscover what it feels to be in the arms of music for three whole days.

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

Like all events, this one was no exception with regard to the lack of organization. It probably went a step ahead. The venue did greet us with a spectacular scenic vision and a remarkable stage but almost everyone complained of waiting endlessly for a room – even the artists. We were tired, hungry and without a roof for hours and it was only after several outbursts from artists, visitors and media alike that things seemed to be sorted. Almost everyone complained about the lack of organization and vacant stares from the people responsible. But when the music started, everyone just shut up.

Let me throw some light on what the festival was about – there were over 17 bands performing amidst a brilliant sound and stage, aptly named Soul Garden,  there were film screenings, artists displaying their work and a second elaborate stage called the Magic Forest  for electronic music and an impressive list of artists.

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

The evening of the 24th started with Delhi Roots (apparently with no one from Delhi in it), whose genre is defined as Latin Reggae. A last minute addition to the list of performers, I particularly enjoyed Sergio, the bassist’s performance. It was the first appearance of Shirish Malhotra on the Saxophone (and then on the flute), in the festival. Vocalist/Guitarist Antone was a huge support to Sergio not just with music but also stage presence.  For me, the band didn’t do much musically, though they did lift up the crowd’s spirit.

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

Next up was Atul Ahuja with a host of accompanists. The accompanists included Shirish Malhotra (Saxophone), Anirban Ghosh (Bass), Nikhil Vasudevan (Drums) and Stefan Kaye (Keyboards), who apart from a few unintended mistakes made Atul look good. This was the perhaps the only act to do all covers on stage, and popular ones at that. Stefan’s stage antics amused the crowd and the artists alike.

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

And then the band that I had been waiting for came and stole the show! Thermal and a Quarter kept the crowd going with their popular songs and did some songs from their new album. Bruce was and is a treat to watch. The relatively quiet duo- Rajeev Rajagopal (Drums) and Leslie Charles (Bass and backing vocals) – helped the band belt out some of the best songs of the evening. Not only is their legacy of over 15 years as a band commendable but the fact that they dish out something new also is.

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

The evening ended with Faridkot who started on an impressive note with great sound but ended as a band that sounded monotonous. The band that calls itself “confused pop” had an eclectic mix of blues, soulful harmonies, slick guitar riffs and powerful vocals, but unfortunately after a point it sounded like they were playing the same songs. I did enjoy the harmonic melodies of IP Singh and Sonam though! The first day was hectic and it had nothing to do with the stage acts, just the management, but I was glad it ended well.

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

From the looks of it, the second day had a lot to offer at Escape. Against the backdrop of the peaceful lake, where I could find people jumping in and boating, there were movie screenings. No one seemed to have a clue about them and I found a lot of people coming up to me and asking the clichéd question “So, What’s The Scene?”  It was unfortunate that people missed out on the movies and music only out of lack of information passed on to them. I am not a huge fan of electronic music but I was pleasantly surprised by the music served at the Magic Forest because I expected straight up electronic, but it was experimental.

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

Fuzz Culture stood out but I think that had more to do with my preference than strictly about electronic music. The act consists of  Arsh Sharma (guitarist/vocalist of The  Circus)  and Sri Mahajan (Drummer Parikrama). People were looking forward to Vachan Chinnappa and Waga Waga (Aeroplane Records, UK) but a brutal stop was put by the cops during Vachan’s act. So the acts that did perform were Frame/Frame, Loopbaba. Fuzz Culture, Tarqeeb, Ez Riser and Buffa Pirate (who performed the next day morning to no audience instead of their scheduled Saturday night performance).

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

Soul Garden started with what was called the “Square Root Sessions”, which featured upcoming bands. Out of the three bands which performed, Pilgrim Tree HousePrateek Kuhad Collective and Gravy Train, Prateek was my pick. The evening sun was about to set so the acoustic works of Pilgrim Tree House and strums of Prateek’s guitar were a perfect mood setter. Just when I thought the strumming of Prateek’s guitar was becoming monotonous, Vir Singh Brar’s Jambi (a musical instrument that I hadn’t heard before) set the music apart. I didn’t quite enjoy the Hindi compositions for the mere fact that they didn’t offer anything new.

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

While I understand the popularity of Gravy Train coming from their act and interactions on stage, I would hope they concentrate on music as much. Akshay Johar’s bass stood out for me in the band. Gravy Train features Tanya Nambiar (Vocals), Akshay Johar (Bass), Karan Malhotra (Guitar) and Bhairav Gupta (Drums).

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

The amateurs set the mood and now it was the turn of the popular bands to carry the shiny beacon which pretty much flickered till the end. Sanchal Malhar of Indigo Children fame and Toshar Singh Nongbet of India’s Got Talent fame kept the crowd going. It was good to see the crowd enjoying Toshar’s opera style!

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

Bertie Da Silva and Amyt Datta were the opening act to Skinny Alley’s tribute. They had the fellow musicians up in applause and the crowd enjoying every moment of their performance.  The evening belonged to Skinny Alley who paid a tribute to the great Gyan Singh. More than a performance that has to be subjected to scrutiny as a musician, it was an emotional drive. It was good to see Bruce (from Thermal and a Quarter) joining in the tribute that lasted for quite some time and kept the crowd going. Jayshree’s vocals didn’t seem to fade till the last song and the applause from other musicians was endearing. More than musically enriching the second day for me was an emotional roller coaster (of the good kind).

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

And then came the third day and I was reminded why I had come to Escape and stuck around the chaos. The Magic Forest offered a treat to the interested souls as the artists played well into the wee hours of the morning. The featured acts were Shantam, Vial, Dirty Saffi (who unfortunately did not play), KT, Tadayan, White Wizzard, Arjuna, Al Psummetrix, Technical Hitch and Post Modern Pundit. From the description and the buzz created, I wanted to listen to Post Modern Pundit and Dirty Saffi, but I was hooked on to Blackstratblues who were playing around the same time. Amongst the bands performing in the Square Root Sessions, The Cham Chams didn’t perform. No Thoroughfare and Raunak Maiti started the evening and Run! It’s the kid set the pace.

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

Unfortunately, I missed No Thoroughfare’s performance as I was drawn to watching a movie (which was brilliant). Raunak Maiti had Prateek Kuhad joining him for a few songs as all his songs were acoustic compositions. I did not enjoy his compositions on the keyboard as they sounded incomplete. It seemed the two artists from Mumbai had quite a support though in the audience. Dhruv Bhola (Backing Vocals/Guitar) and Shantanu Pandit (Vocals) from Run! It’s the kid helped gradually shift the music from acoustic to Folk/Reggae sounds. The Ukulele added the much needed zest. Most of the bands featured in the early part of the two days were acoustic or Reggae.

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

Beneath the star studded sky, breezy intoxicated air and the tremendous sound and stage, Blackstratblues began to mesmerize. Warren Mendonsa wielded his weapon and dedicated songs to the sunny evening, the rainy days and Zeppelin (his dog). Jai Row Kavi (Drums) joined Warren and made the shift to blues pretty effortlessly. This was one of the moments when I was reminded why this festival was worth coming to!

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

Tough on Tobacco was again high on reggae and quite predictably, Sidd kept the crowd going. A band that starts to describe itself “as a 6-piece progressive disco dance metal bhojpuri act from Outer Mongolia” is indeed a humor tinged pop-reggae band. I was particularly intrigued by the photo of the band on the schedule brochure and their music seemed to explain it! The band features Sidd Coutto (vocals/guitar), Gaurav Gupta (guitar/vocals), Pozy Dhar (guitar), Neil Gomes (violin/sax/flute/vocals) , Johan Pais (bass) and Jai Row Kavi (drums/vocals).

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

The evening ended with Ska Vengers, another act that was sought after in the fest. The eight-piece band made the crowd stand up and dance to their tunes. Vir Singh Brar got on the stage to join them, this time acknowledging the band by dancing. It was the first time I was listening to them and they came across as a modern twist (the twist being interspersing various genres of music) to Jamaican music. Shirish played with the first band in the 3-day festival and then played with the last as well. There isn’t any musical significance to this but it sure is a fun fact! The lineup includes Samara C. (vocals), Delhi Sultanate (vocals), Stefan Kaye (organ/percussion), Raghav Dang (guitar), Tony Guinard (bass), Nikhil Vasudevan (drums), Rie Ona (alto saxophone) and Shirish Malhotra (tenor saxophone). The electronica stage was thumping simultaneously, which made me feel torn between the two stages. However people who were clear about their agenda must have enjoyed to the fullest!

An Escape to Naukuchiatal – The Escape Festival 2013

My first impression of Escape (from two years ago) was that everyone finds his space – a space that is personal and oblivious to fun as defined by others. This time I found an invasion of my space mostly by the mismanagement and lack of information. Escape for me was never about getting high on anything other than music and the ambience, and I found myself meeting people who thought otherwise. But the effort of bringing so many creative minds under one roof is indeed commendable; if only the fest had been managed well, it would have left a lasting impression on my mind.

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Tough on Tobacco Album Launch at The High Spirits, Pune

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Tough on Tobacco’s Big Big Joke album launch at The Blue Frog, Mumbai

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On the 15th of May, somewhere in Mumbai a bunch of doctors successfully performed a rare heart operation, construction work came to halt, and Mahesh Bhatt noticed that Sanjay Dutt had been crying. Away from all of this, within the stylistic confines of The Blue Frog, a hundred or so people grooved as if in a trance. Mumbai based band, Tough on Tobacco had transported its audience from the usual laptrap of the city, into the world of funk, reggae, rock and eccentricity.

The band was launching their second album Big Big Joke with a gig at the Frog that night and they started off their set with ‘College of Life’. The catchy intro on rhythm proved to be the perfect crowd puller and by the time the band moved on to their next song ‘Come On Down’, the crowd really had come down. The only setback was the backing vox which could hardly be heard through the mix. The reggae, funk styled song had most of the house on their feet.

The band then moved on to ‘Rock N Roll Party’. The chirpy upbeat tempo alternating with a headbang-worthy beat proved to be a rare treat for the audience. The crowd jumped and nodded their heads to the unabashed rhythm of this energy avalanche and appreciated it with a generous amount of hooting. This was followed by the song ‘Dog’ that saw Jai Row Kavi go crazy on his drum-set and ‘Door’ with Gaurav Gupta on vocals for the intro.

“This is a song about you”, said Sidd Coutto before beginning with the band’s next song, ‘Wonder’. The song was magic combined with the effect of the blue gobo-filtered lights and caught the audience spellbound. It was the perfect build-up required to play ‘Happy’ which seemed to completely consume the audience in a sort of musical hug. The first half was given the perfect end with the song ‘Alone’, which was a crowd favourite.

Sidd Coutto finally took a break from his robo-hipster influenced stage antics and got down to talking about their new album. ToT’s second album was being launched after a hiatus of four years, he said. The projection screens started to drop down as the band announced “Watch this video about the making of the album and the album art.”

What ensued was an absolute cracker. The people in the audience were beside themselves with laughter as they saw Jai(aunty) pointing disgustedly with an “eeee” at her daughter(Johan Pais) as she(he) spitted food out. The video captured this being repeated around four times in order to capture the perfect shot.  Jai(aunty), was clearly the crowd’s favourite for the night with a stride and pitch that was very much stereotypically lady-like and actions that were not at all. The video was a piece of marketing wizardry with five humorous lads/band mates/family members trying to tickle every bone in your body.

Then video ended, the screen was lifted up and ToT dived straight into the first song from their new album, ‘Do What You Gotta Do.’ It’s not really new material since the band has been playing songs from its second album before official release since 2010. The song, ‘Yahweh’, came next and like its predecessor saw many in the audience singing along with the chorus. The third song from Big Big Joke was ‘Follow Your Dreams’. Sidd Coutto is perhaps one of the few front men out there who don’t look down upon their audience from above stage. Whether he is singing about following your dreams or singing about how happy it has made him to do so, the lyrics can be seen reflected on his face as emotions. Raw and real, just as he is. It’s probably this very quality that enables Coutto to engage a viewer and truly be able to move them.

Songs ‘Ordinary’, with Gaurav on the lead vocals and ‘Big Big Joke’, the title track, were played in quick succession. The soft mellow tunes were like a sweet balm, add to this Pozy Dhar’s sweeping solos, and you have a very happy audience. Rock ballad ‘Love Love Love’ followed by ‘Blow Yourself Away’ were the highlights of the night in terms of Coutto’s dramatics. The band members were grinning playfully at each other and making comical faces. They seemed to be really enjoying themselves on stage.  Midway through ‘Blow Yourself Away’, Coutto introduced the band in his typical sing-song manner.

The set, as usual, was ended with a hot favourite ‘Smoke Some Ganja’ with a guest appearance by Tracy Pais, wife of Johan Pais. Coutto called her on stage to celebrate her birthday. Jai Row Kavi is handed a mic and Tracy and him work out a funny on-the-spot Marathi improvisation laced with nonsensical exclamations and animated voices that has the audience rolling on the floor, laughing. Then the song reached its climax and the audience and band members went crazy in unison jumping and dancing to the upbeat second half of ‘Smoke Some Ganja’. The song ended too soon and the band was already packing up as Sidd thanked the audience and briefly explained where one can get access to the download codes.

Among the audience that seemed to be coping with what looked like withdrawal symptoms after having consumed some very addictive tunes, one could see many celebrities from the Indian independent music scene. There was Vishal Dadlani, Karsh Kale, Gino Banks, Vinayak Pol, Warren Mendonsa , Bobby Talwar, Rohit  Pereira, Akshay Rajpurohit to name a few. As the show concluded, they all had one thing in common as did everyone else in Blue Frog.  Smiles of contentment.

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Ken Stringfellow, Tough on Tobacco and Punk Ass Orifus at Blue Frog, Mumbai

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January is a month of pleasant weather for the Mumbaikars. One could not hope for better weather on a day when a musical evening like this was following! The 18th of January was a special day for Mumbai – an event featuring Ken Stringfellow, a maestro in his own right, was slated for the evening in Mumbai’s Blue Frog. American guitarist Ken has been associated with biggies like R.E.M., Neil Young, Snow Patrol and Big Star for several years of his career. We could bet that an opening set from him was sure to be a true reflection of his portfolio.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there was more – we have all heard Sidd Coutto’s Tough on Tobacco before, but we were wondering how they would sound when Ken’s strings would be strumming along. Stunned? Yes, so were we, when we heard that Tough on Tobacco was slated to join in on Ken’s later performances. It was sure going to be fun!

Ken Stringfellow, Tough on Tobacco and Punk Ass Orifus at Blue Frog, Mumbai

Ken Stringfellow commenced the event at Blue Frog with a crowd of listeners cheering for him. His first sounds were quite conservative, just as it suited the mood. There was pin-drop silence at the venue, and just a minimalist guitar could be heard with Ken’s suave voice. As the chords fluctuated, Ken’s voice responded likewise. Most of the songs that he performed were his own, but he threw in a cover by The Long Winters. How he mingled with the audience was a delight in itself. His jocular mood and remarks, which were occasionally offbeat too, were befitting the kind of ambiance he had created.

By the time Ken wrapped up with his set, one could sense a commotion in the audience. It appeared as if Ken’s set had charged everyone. The hands had begun to sway, and the smiles were widening. A surprise had been shot at the audience! Four young men dressed in formals had taken over the stage. They called themselves Punk Ass Orifus and before the onlookers could recover from the abrupt entry, the ‘men in black’ had set in action! Sidd Coutto took care of the rhythm guitar and vocals. Gaurav Gupta donned the role of the lead guitarist. Johan Pais managed the bass guitar, and Zorran Mendonsa stood behind the drums.

They played a short set, but it was enough to pour life into the audiences. What they played could easily qualify as Punk, Hard Rock, or Reggae. Their energy was never down for a second and they kept the audience engaged throughout. ‘The World will carry on’, ‘Bad Feeling’ and ‘Matter’ are some of the prominent tracks that they played.

Ken Stringfellow, Tough on Tobacco and Punk Ass Orifus at Blue Frog, Mumbai

After a short while, Bobby Talwar of Zero fame reached the stage, and much to our amazement took on the Djembe, instead of his customary bass guitar. It was difficult to believe that his hands were not accustomed to the Djembe, for he played it surprisingly well! The audience grooved along with him – these sudden surprises proved quite effective. However, they were far from over!

Warren Mendonsa was yet to join! He came to the stage to deliver the final song, and chose to play his Black Strat to ‘Mayan Song’, in his distinguished style. His solo performance on this song was a treat to the senses. The evening had shaped up really well! Sidd Coutto appeared once again, and had some fun moments with his kit. He cracked some light-hearted jokes and we caught a glimpse of his jokester side! Perhaps that is what won him the loud screams of “We love you Sidd Coutto!” from the lovely ladies in the crowd.

Ken Stringfellow, Tough on Tobacco and Punk Ass Orifus at Blue Frog, Mumbai

And then there was a pause… For the first time, one could feel some inaction on the stage, but that was tolerable. The evening had been good and quite active by far. After about 10 minutes, the groomed men of Punk Ass Orifus were nowhere to be seen. They were replaced by Tough on Tobacco, who had switched to the informal attire. Jai Row Kavi took to the drums, and Pozy Dhar managed the guitar. What do you know? Some more fun was lined up for Mumbai!

They opened their share with their signature song ‘Happy’. Tough on Tobacco chose most of the songs from its new album, and borrowed some songs from the first album too. Many more tracks were served to the delight of the listeners. The bigger a canvas is, the freer a painter’s strokes are. That is just what was happening at Blue Frog. Song after song, their canvas was expanding, and the genres kept adding up. By the end of several spontaneous performances, Tough on Tobacco had played a wide range of genres, and with an ease that left the listeners in awe. ’Yellow Tops’ and ‘Washing Powder Nirma’ were some spectacular songs that Tough on Tobacco made up.

Ken Stringfellow, Tough on Tobacco and Punk Ass Orifus at Blue Frog, Mumbai

The evening had been fantastic! The audience had enjoyed it to the fullest. What was promised at the beginning, however, was yet to be seen. Ken Stringfellow and Tough on Tobacco were yet to jam together. Right then, Ken returned to the stage, and jammed to the lovely blues song ‘Crack Whores’ along with the band. The evening was now complete.

It was a wonderful moment that Mumbai witnessed on the evening of 18th of January. To those who could not make it this time, I’d say that sometimes wonders happen twice! Make sure you don’t miss out on the next one!

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Tough On Tobacco with Ken Stringfellow at The Blue Frog, Mumbai

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