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Festival Review: Mahindra Blues Festival, Mumbai

Billy Gibbons steals the limelight; Quinn Sullivan’s lukewarm show; Janiva Magness’s Grammy which wasn’t to be

Sunil Sampat Feb 13, 2017
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Supersonic Blues Machine with Billy Gibbons

Supersonic Blues Machine with Billy Gibbons

                            In the beginning there was Adam
                            He was lonely and got the blues
                            So God gave him a woman, Eve
                             Now we all got the blues

We all certainly had the blues in Mumbai on February 11th and 12th at the Mahindra Blues Festival (MBF) at Mehboob Studio. It was a saturation of the blues sound for the seventh edition of this festival. It has now become an event keenly awaited and followed by people interested not just in the blues but also as a social occasion. In years gone by, Mumbai would gather similarly for the Jazz Yatra, multiple-day jazz festivals held regularly at Rang Bhavan from 1978 to about the turn of the century. Then too people would assemble in groups and revel in the picnic-like open-air atmosphere with food, drink, merchandise and socializing. Yes, there was also the music to enjoy! International bands have been the feature of both these festivals. Clearly, both have filled a void in this city’s live performance panorama.

Shemekia Copeland

Shemekia Copeland belted out some powerful vocals during her set at the Mahindra Blues Festival

Two popular musicians returned to the MBF this year. One was Shemekia Copeland from Chicago. She left an impact on her previous appearance, six years ago when the audience requested multiple encores from her. We met her before the concert and asked how she felt about singing the blues halfway round the world. “Everyone in the world sings and loves the blues–only they don’t know it,” she said with her beaming smile. Copeland must surely like to sing; she has left behind her six week-old baby, Johnny, at home. Incidentally, Johnny has been named after Copeland’s father Johnny Copeland, a well known blues singer himself. Asked about her favorite singer, Copeland unhesitatingly spoke of Ella Fitzgerald. “That woman is not from this world. She has got to be an alien. Human beings can’t sing with such perfection.” We also gleaned from her manager/songwriter John Hahn that Copeland likes to sing about women’s issues, domestic violence, discrimination, corrupt preachers and double standards. Many of her songs make strong social statements: “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo” is about refusing to be someone’s rubber stamp while “Somebody Else’s Jesus” argues that since your Jesus shows you the way of truth and peace, it must be somebody else’s Jesus who teaches you otherwise.

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Well, Copeland was a powerhouse at the MBF, a superstar on stage and she could do no wrong. For almost 90 minutes she had the huge audience spellbound with her songs, “Livin’ On The Outskirts Of Love,” “Married To The Blues,” “Ain’t Never Going Back To Memphis” and her signature “Somebody Else’s Jesus.” She also sang two songs from her father’s repertoire and one from her blues idol Koko Taylor. For good measure, she also ”˜took us to church’ for a gospel rendition. Copeland’s performance alone was well worth the price of entry to the festival!

The other musician who returned to the MBF this year was Quinn Sullivan, who is remembered as the star accompaniment of the renowned blues man Buddy Guy, a veteran of the MBF. By strange coincidence, one heard Guy when he was the star apprentice of the absolute blues legend Muddy Waters! Buddy carved a niche for himself in the intervening years and one hopes young Sullivan can tread down that path to fame. Today, at 17, Quinn is a prodigy and a remarkable musician. For having performed on stage for over half of his lifetime, this young man is a seasoned veteran! Yet, his set as a leader at the MBF was tepid; we are sure he will gain momentum as band leader in the time to come.

Quinn Sullivan's performance at MBF as band leader was tepid

Quinn Sullivan’s performance at MBF as band leader was tepid

Los Angeles-based vocalist Janiva Magness rushed back home right after her performance as she was nominated for a Grammy for her 2016 album Love Wins Again in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category. She was, naturally excited about the prospect; her singing career is almost 40 years long and, she says perhaps it’s time for some recognition. (She lost to The Last Days of Oakland by American singer-songwriter Fantastic Negrito). Her Mumbai set was powerful and well received. Her voice is warm, pleasing and ideal for singing the blues.

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Grainne Duffy from Ireland says she grew up being fascinated by Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, whose British blues sound propelled her into becoming a blues singer. Duffy has a melodic voice and sings with honesty from deep down. She was awestruck with the audience and when we asked her to give out a message for her Mumbai fans she said, “Please keep the warmth.”

Headliners The Supersonic Blues Machine–in their ten-gallon Texan hats, metal-studded jackets and pointed ‘Lone Star’ boots–made for quite a stage presence. They kicked off with the ever popular “Roadhouse Blues” and moved on to other standards and a few originals. Guitarist Eric Gales was added to the group and much later, they brought in Billy Gibbons (of the Texas rock band ZZ Top) as a guest.  Earlier, bassist Fabrizio from the band had said to us about Gibbons, “He brings nobility to our band.” The caliber of the band certainly moved up a notch or two after Gibbons walked on stage. One wishes he had played longer.

Make no mistake; the MBF is here to stay. The great atmosphere, the bonhomie, the meeting and greeting of friends, the party atmosphere will ensure that. Oh! Then there’s the music too!

All photos are courtesy of Mahindra Blues Festival

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