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Festival Review: Mahindra Blues Festival, Mumbai

Is it a picnic? Is it a reception? Is it a garden party? Or is it all three and then some? Wrong if you guessed either of those options, it’s a Blues Festival!

Sunil Sampat Feb 21, 2018

The finale of the Mahindra Blues Festival 2018 was a jam session featuring musicians from all the bands with the headliners. Photo: Courtesy of Mahindra Blues Festival

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Mid-February is synonymous with the Mahindra Blues Festival in Mumbai just as the same month is with Goa Carnival or the Jaipur Lit Festival is with January. The Blues Festival rolls in each year on well oiled Mahindra wheels to Mehboob Studio in Bandra, Mumbai; the huge fan following is consistent. Friends meet and catch up here–you can be sure the loyalists are always there. It is very likely that you will bump into friends here–sometimes literally as the venue draws huge crowds. This year the event was completely sold out on both days, February 10th and 11th.

Says Brian Tellis, one of the main organizers of this smoothly run event, “There is no point in trying to  increase footfalls. We draw the line on the numbers attending and concentrate on improving facilities and comfort for those attending. This time we are also focusing on making the event more green with things like water stations for drinking water and discouraging plastic bottles, etc. And of course, concentrating on the quality of the music.”

The closest thing one can compare the MBF phenomenon is the erstwhile series of Jazz Yatras when held at the open air auditorium Rang Bhavan in South Bombay, as it was then. There too one witnessed the confluence of friends and the coexistence of food, beverages of various strengths and good music, in that case, jazz.

Yet, interestingly, the audience profile for the most part in both the Jazz Yatras and the Mahindra Blues Festival are quite similar; the age group of between 35 and 55 of a largely corporate crowd. In one case they grew up listening to jazz and it held for them a certain nostalgia. In another, they grew up the amplified sound of the electric guitar (read classic rock) played at a high decibel volume. The MBF is dominated by this sound, as is the atmosphere; standing room only except for a very few seats for perhaps 50 people. Both these festivals have also attracted a crowd of young students, which bodes well for the future.

Coco Montoya (L) and John Mayall jam out together at the Mahindra Blues Festival. Photo: Courtesy of Mahindra Blues Festival

And then of course, was the music! The acts on both days were well balanced in terms of the star quality,  with a couple of very polished Indian bands also in the mix.

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The opening session with Layla Zoe from Vancouver, Canada–yes the blues are indeed international was impressive with her driving groove, slightly rough edged, earthy voice and often laced with her own lyrics. She has obviously been influenced by Janis Joplin. Zoe’s intensity has been tempered by her dexterity in the delivery of her songs.

Coco Montoya, with his dynamic stage presence was the highlight of the opening night with his superb guitar playing and persuasive, rhythmic lyrics. The crowd couldn’t get enough of Montoya’s concert and were treated to a special surprise when John Mayall made an impromptu appearance, joining Coco Montoya with a dazzling harmonica solo.

Walter “Wolfman” Washington was a special part of the MBF 2018. He opened Day 2 of the event and it was soon evident that he was from the tradition of blues wizard Muddy Waters. Washington  played with a band that included a  trumpet and a tenor saxophone. This horn section added luster to the group. Washington’s playing was true to the roots of the ageless traditional blues sound. He was masterful on the guitar as well–though he indulged in some showmanship by plucking his guitar with his teeth on a few occasions!

The highlight of the Wolfman’s concert was his rendition of a song made very famous by Ray Charles, “I’ve Got A Woman.” Charles had recorded it in 1956 and the song sounded very contemporary and fresh in 2018  in the hands of the Wolfman. That’s the power of the blues.

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John Mayall at the age of 84 sounded just as youthful as he ever did in his recordings. This headliner of the festival was truly appreciated by the Mumbai audience and the organizers are to be thanked for bringing him into our midst. He was as smooth and flawless as ever.

Through this festival, the two Indian bands, Blackstratblues and the Arinjoy Trio did themselves proud with their performances. The Warren Mendonsa led Blackstratblues have played in Mumbai for some time now but they reserved their best for this festival. Memorable from their performance was the revival of the Marvin Gaye classic, “What’s Goin’ On” with its timeless lyrics.

The Arinjoy Trio from Kolkata were indeed a revelation. Led by guitarist/vocalist Arinjoy Sarkar and ably backed by Akash Ganguly on bass and Sounak Roy on drums, they were the (pleasant) surprise of the festival. This band was the winner of the Mahindra Blues Band Hunt 2018. They were chosen from the short list by Loy Mendonsa and Ehsaan Noorani. They played on both days of the festival at the Garden Stage and appreciated by a sizable audience.

The finale of the MBF 2018 was a jam session featuring musicians from all the bands with the headliners. This was a fitting end to this year’s edition of the MBF.

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