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A festival regular gets the blues

Every year, I meet the man with the dirty glare. He changes his appearance and attire, but I find him next to me at the Mahindra Blues Festival (MBF) at Bandra’s Mehboob Studios, flashing his Audi car keys and fancy Raybans. From his stare, it seems he wants to ask me, “What the hell do you know about the blues, dude?”

I want to respond, “Have you heard of W.C. Handy, Memphis Minnie and Son House?” But what’s the need? This buddy guy may just scream back like a howlin’ wolf who has had some muddy waters forced down his leadbelly.

Some things haven’t changed at MBF. Either you bump into such attention-seeking show-offs, or you encounter those who not only have serious knowledge about the genre, but also know how to hold their single malts and puff their Havana cigars with smoke blowing at a 42.3 degree trigonometric angle.

The ambience always rocks, the guys reek of Robert Redford’s perfume Habit Rouge, some gaga ladies wear futuristic 2029 outfits, and our friend Brian Tellis reads the same script, though he thankfully changes the names of performers each year. Just kidding, Brian, you are Mumbai’s blues guru.

The good thing is that Mumbai now has a world-class blues festival. Some 15 years ago, we cribbed that the only blues guy we heard was Jeremy Spencer of Fleetwood Mac, whose slide guitar on Elmore James’s version of Robert Johnson’s ‘Dust My Broom’ still rings in our dusty ears. The city’s jazz lovers had a ‘saxy’ blast at the Yatras, but there were practically no blues shows.

Then Buddy Guy came in with his polka-dot guitar and blew the mind off everyone at Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. He returned for the One Tree Festival at Bandra Kurla Complex, which also hosted bluesmen Robert Cray and Guitar Shorty, besides rock acts Uriah Heep and Alan Parsons.

MBF kicked off in 2011, with industrialist Anand Mahindra trying to co-market the strange combination of vehicles and rootsy American music, and getting Buddy Guy and the young monster Jonny Lang as headlining acts. Guy came two more times, but barring the addition of one song, ‘74 Years Young’, he played the same set of songs in five appearances over 10 years in Mumbai. Has anybody written to the Guinness Book of Records about this little feat?

Over the years, there have been some fantastic acts. My favourite was the old-style folk-blues set by Taj Mahal, but one needn’t go by my opinion, as I’m getting old, cranky and senile. There were some great shows by Shemekia Copeland, Ana Popovic, Matt Schofield, Keb Mo and Jimmie Vaughan. Derek Trucks played some amazing stuff, though the rest of his band, which also included his wife Susan Tedeschi, was more snooze than blues.

Cut to 2017. A few very honest statements, and I hope the organisers sportingly dismiss them for my crankiness and senility. One is that I know a group of friends from Bengaluru who have made it to the festival every year. They skipped this year’s edition as they don’t find the line-up exciting enough. The only name they know is Billy Gibbons of the band ZZ Top, but that isn’t worth air tickets and hotel bookings. So 33% of real blues fans are out.

Secondly, a friend makes a statement which I find extreme, more so because we have had great performances by Copeland, Graine Duffy and our very own Blackstratblues. But it’s his opinion, and let’s respect it. “The festival is losing its credibility. There’s more rock and pop than blues,” he thunders. And the man knows his blues history as much as Eric Clapton and Tellis put together.

Finally, both the headlining acts are disappointing. On the first night, we have the teenage prodigy Quinn Sullivan. Brilliant guitarist, no doubt. Plus, he picks up a sitar for the first time that morning, and has the guts to play Raag Ahir Bhairav live, with violinist Narayan Raman giving him company. The problem is that when he sings, he sounds like Justin Bieber. I hear Jimi Hendrix rumbling in his grave when our boy sings ‘Little Wing’. He rests peacefully on hearing the guitar solo.

Where is the blues? “Joss Stone did the same last year. Great singer, but not blues,” roars one friend, who happily flashes his selfie with her. “Great guitarists don’t make great musicians,” whines another. “He’s a kid. Give him a chance,” argues a third friend.

Day two has guitarist Eric Gales with Gibbons in the Supersonic Blues Machine. Half the folks confuse the first man with the late Eric Gale and call him a legend. They probably still don’t know they spent their money on the wrong Eric. Thankfully, a few years ago, they didn’t mistake the live Jimmie Vaughan for the late Stevie Ray Vaughan.

There is no sign of Gibbons, and I happily fall asleep in the food court. Someone shakes me up, and Gibbons does some three songs in my bleary daze. I see the man with the dirty glare next to me again, sipping vodka and Absolut-ly crying blue murder.

“This is the blues dude,” he barks. I shoot back, “Did you know Gibbons and Dusty Hill were the two guys with long beards in the 1970s band ZZ Top, and the only clean shaven guy was called Frank Beard?”

Mr. Glare faints, drops his Audi car keys and vanishes. As I rush to hand the keys back, I inadvertently eavesdrop Farhan Akhtar discussing with Sanjay Dutt, Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor on how he should grow a Billy Gibbons beard for Rock On Part 16

Who’s to blame? Well, blues to blame.

The columnist is a freelance music writer

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 10:08:57 PM |

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