The Ode to the Blues featured a bunch of super-talented musicians unfurling a brilliant medley of sound

Counter Culture celebrated the 102nd birth anniversary of Robert Johnson recently. This year also marks 75 years since the devil and his hounds finally caught up with the 27-year old Delta Bluesman. The makeover in the music and its culture since the 1930s had been emphasized with coloured chalk in acid-swirl lettering, welcoming folks in to the Ode to the Blues Festival- an evening of contemporary Blues.

First up was Overdrive Trio from Mumbai. “A very good evening to all of you. This first one’s called ‘You’ve Gotta be tripping.’” If Sunny Dsouza sounded heavily influenced by Stevie Ray Vaughan, he accomplished the tremendous feat of actually pulling that off, bleeding notes dry. The talented guest, 15-year-old Kush Upadhyay, provided contrast with his shriller guitar tone and raw, psychedelic feel. Stepping things up by a notch, they invited the wonderfully virtuoso Warren Mendonsa. The remainder of the set would assume a continuum of solos, each outdoing the last like an intoxicated debate.

Next up was Bangalore’s longstanding Chronic Blues Circus with a troupe large enough to fill up their tent- five on guitars and one each on drums and keyboard. The ringmaster, who formed the band over 20 years ago, Peter Isaac, started things off with his harmonica as his extended line-up found bearing and harmony within the set of originals. On “Any Man,” Peter switched to the saxophone as Miriam sang: “We’re going to take you for a ride.” Between the youngest and the oldest member in the band was a gap of some 40 years. The styles and tricks the elders had learnt from Jimi Hendrix or Allman Brothers wound their way from the likes of B.B. King or Muddy Waters. The source lay further back in the age of Skip James and Robert Johnson.

The Hoodoo Gas pressed the fast-forward with Taj Mahal’s groovy ‘Leaving Trunk.’ Ananth Menon sang and maintained a spirited lead as Vasudev Prabhu nailed the blues harp licks. On ‘Malted Milk,’ Arjun Chandran’s loaded slide guitar riffs cranked up the intensity of the song’s distress. Talking out of their heads and getting the dance out of the crowd with tight drums and bass, they struck out as a well-rounded act. Later, Bassist Snehal Pinto and drummer Deepak Raghu lay down the landscape for Mendonsa as he swept through with the emotional ebbs and flows of his cinematic blues. When Ananth and Arjun rejoined the stage the three guitarists looked like a relay team, taking turns to support with rhythm before unleashing into solos.

The last featured act before the loose jams began was Monica Heldal from Norway. For a fitting tribute to the mutation of a wooden box into a soul-rousing jukebox, it was about time for an acoustic set. A mellow adaptation of Dan Auerbach backed the 21-year-old with the ambient weeping of his electric guitar.

However, it was Heldal’s spotless finger picking on a crystal clear acoustic guitar that provided most of the soundscape. On Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Banker’s Blues,’ Heldal sang sweetly, “If you’ve got money in the bank, don’t let your woman draw it out, ‘cause she’ll take all your money and then throw you out.” On Lightning Slim’s “Nothing but The Devil,” the tendency in the audience was to sit down in front of the stage and stare in amusement as gritty takes from a tormented mind came tumbling out of the nymph-like ‘Daughter of the Everglades.’

Whether boastful or morose, the Blues continues to celebrate a passionate inner energy breaking out of an oppressive mood. Fifty-six-year-old Owen Bosen says he started playing the bass after a 20-year hiatus when the Circus revived the blues for him. Eighteen-year-old Aayushi Karnik who featured as guest guitarist with the Circus says, “I used to watch a lot of Tom and Jerry when I was a kid and used to try following the trumpet parts on my guitar.”