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Festival Report: Mahindra Blues 2020, Mumbai

It’s about the vibe, not just the music

Sunil Sampat Feb 12, 2020

The Mahindra Blues 2020 All Star Jam featuring Buddy Guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Larkin Poe, Keb' Mo' and Ruddy Wallang. Photo: Vikram Chandrasekar

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Here’s a bet I’m laying odds on: If you said to a vast majority of those at the Mahindra Blues Festival (MBF) that the most efficient way to travel in Mumbai was by local trains, they would say they couldn’t possibly handle the crowded compartments. Yet, they were ready, willing and able to push, jostle, elbow and whatever else to be part of the blues audience. For human per square inch in comparison, the Western Railway has no chance of outdoing the crowds at the city-based Mehboob Studios during the MBF. No chance at all! Yet, the weekend of February 8th and 9th in the Bandra, Mumbai locale provided as much of a ‘moving’ experience as the commuter trains!

American blues legend Buddy Guy. Photo: Vikram Chandrasekar

But it was as always is at the MBF – party time; catch up with friends you hadn’t met all year, walk around the vast venue that offered good food, drink and merchandise, choose to get close to the stage and catch the acts or opt for the comfort of the lounges, tipple in hand and a large screen showing the performance. In any case the music was permeating your system by sheer osmosis. It was everywhere.

The thrill of the experience was, of course being in the presence of live performances of this music which is the mother lode of most contemporary Western music – R&B, rock, hip-hop, rap and even jazz. The blues are the basic building blocks of all these sounds and they strike a natural, obvious resonance in most listeners and followers of contemporary sounds.

Typically, one has noticed that the crowd profile at the MBF year after year falls in the age group of 45 to 60, those who were in school and college in the Eighties and Nineties and grew up in the era of classic rock when bands like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Cream, Jethro Tull, et al were dominating the music scene. These ‘kids’ now come to the MBF and relive the type of sound they grew up with. Let’s face it: the British rock groups were largely inspired by the great Blues masters. Muddy Waters was one of the leading blues musicians who strongly influenced Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and a string of rock musicians.

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Keb’ Mo’ performing at the Mahindra Blues Festival. Photo: Vikram Chandrasekar

It is no coincidence that Buddy Guy, one of the contemporary blues greats was a sideman in the band of Waters. Guy is extremely popular at the MBF and has made several appearances here in its decade long tenure.

In the 2020 edition of the MBF, Guy was the piece de resistance of the music on show. His easy, fluid storytelling with guitar, song and casual talk used to be called rap till this tag was shifted to a specific music category has universal charm and appeal. A Mumbai audience never tires of this man’s charm and musical brilliance. At 83, Guy still has the several thousand large audience eating out of his hands and in 2020 more so than ever before.

He is a living legend of this genre of music, the blues, and ranks among the all-time greats of this genre. Not too far behind is a tall, soft-spoken, almost shy gentleman, Kevin Roosevelt Moore who goes by the stage name Keb’ Mo’. His brilliance is different but no less than Guy’s. Mo’ is introspective and thoughtful in his approach to the blues. In conversation with us, he said, “A lot of people want to be intellectual about our songs and try to get meaning out of the words and lyrics. Point is, it’s not about the words, it’s all about the emotion we’re trying to get across.” He further elucidated, “In my studio recording of the song ‘Oklahoma,’ listen to the emotion in the guitar solo towards the end of the song. That’s what it’s about.”

Sister duo Larkin Poe live at the Mahindra Blues Festival. Photo: Vikram Chandrasekar

The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band and the band Larkin Poe — comprising of two sisters — playing mean guitars and belting out the blues were the other two American blues bands on show at the MBF. While the Shepherd band demonstrated the link between rock and the blues sound, Larkin Poe had a more earthy approach to the blues. Both these bands had their share of followers grooving to the different blues sounds.

Guitar whiz Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Photo: Vikram Chandrasekar

The Homegrown Blues Collective and Jowai outfit Quiet Storm were hugely talented Indian blues bands that held the audience impressed by their sounds. Ironically, these bands were easier to listen to because of the locale of their performances; the audiences got much closer to these acts which made for a somewhat more intimate listening experience.

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Time was, when the blues were songs telling stories of losing with booze, gambling and women – who had run away with your money and your best friend – these were tales of lament without being sad and spoke of the release from these troubles. Now, in Mumbai at the MBF, the blues are a place to be seen at, to meet one’s friends, to eat, drink and be merry. The MBF is firmly etched on the calendars of blues pilgrims from Mumbai and elsewhere in India and the world! Most left very satisfied. The MBF 2020 was a big success. The festival motto might as well read: The Blues are coming. Be There.

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