THE blues anthems ‘Boom Boom’, ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ and ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ filled the air. And yes, there was the right mix of legendary names, the younger talented lot and Indian bands, playing two days of scintillating blues in an absolutely festive atmosphere.
The great bluesmen Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal were the star attractions at the second instalment of the Mahindra Blues Festival, held at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studios on February 11 and 12. Add names like John Lee Hooker Jr (son of the legendary John Lee Hooker), pedal steel guitar wizard Robert Randolph, Serbian singer-guitarist Ana Popovic, and the Indian bands Soulmate, Blackstratblues and Overdrive Trio, and what you had was a perfect setting for the blues lover.
Ah, Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal! The former has been on the scene for some 55 years now, and the latter for 45. Two contrasting styles —with Buddy playing electrifying electric blues and Taj amalgamating an array of world music influences into his sound. It was Buddy’s fourth concert tour of India, and Taj’s first, even though he takes his name from the famous mausoleum in Agra.
Of the two, Buddy attracted the larger crowd — and probably more rare reviews. He played well-known numbers like ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, ‘Mustang Sally’, his own ‘Slippin’ In’ and ‘Love Her With A Feeling’, and even walked into the crowd to everyone’s delight. The thing is: barring his new song ‘I’m 74 Years Old’, he’s done pretty much the same thing on his previous three visits. The first time I saw him at the Jamshed Bhabha Hall in 2005, I was totally floored. A couple of years later, he did an action replay at the One Tree Festival, which he repeated at last year’s Mahindra Bluesfest.
This time too, he used the same formula, the only difference being the guest appearance by the brilliant Robert Randolph an hour into his gig. Surely, 95 per cent of the crowd loved him, and he’s also been a personal favourite all along. But then, why should an artiste of his stature, ability, showmanship and following keep playing the same set again and again? In the end, it never really mattered.
Taj had a comparatively smaller audience, and probably didn’t create the same kind of hysteria —in fact, there were a few who were just not impressed. But he played his own brand of blues soulfully enough to delight the purist. With his unique infusion of folk, country, Caribbean, African and Latin American influences, he was brilliant on the songs ‘Fishing Blues’, ‘Corrina’, ‘Going Up To The Country Paint My Mailbox Blue’ and ‘Lovin In My Baby’s Eyes’. He didn’t compromise by playing to the gallery, and yet, impressed with his sheer feel.
Yet, the majority went home remembering Buddy’s act more, even though it was repeat bluescast. The reason was simple: today’s audiences, whether in India or probably anywhere else, prefer the more uptempo type of blues. Crackling guitar solos and pounding drums are what drive away your blues. A high-pitched falsetto is an advantage. Roots music is for the traditional, or rather old-fashioned listener.
It may be safe to say that unlike the previous generation which grew up on the blues, today’s lot has been exposed to the genre more through rock music, after listening to blues-influenced bands like the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers, Janis Joplin, Jeff Beck and certain songs of Led Zeppelin, or to specific blues-rock acts like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Moore. So at blues concerts, they look for something more energetic and electric.
In this festival, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker Jr and Ana Popovic provided precisely that. Hooker Jr played his father’s songs ‘Boom Boom’, ‘I’m In The Mood’ and ‘I Got My Eyes On You’, but added his own contemporary twist to them. Popovic played a lot of contemporary and original material, but also did a modern medley of songs by female greats Big Mama Thornton, Koko Taylor and Sugar Pie DeSanto.
Compared to the old-school listeners, the following for great masters like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, BB King, Albert King, Jimmy Reed and Elmore James is now restricted to a select few, who are passionate about the genre and interested in getting into the depths. So when it comes to selecting a line-up for a festival, organisers will naturally go for the more rocking blues acts.
The heartening thing, of course, is that the blues is finally getting recognition in India — the latest positive sign being Brian Tellis’ blues show on Mumbai’s Radio One on Sunday nights. While the Jazz Yatra began in the late ’70s and catered to the jazz fans, the number of blues concerts has been few and far between. Fleetwood Mac’s slide guitar virtuoso Jeremy Spencer came a few times, and dazzled with blues favourites like ‘Dust My Broom’ and ‘Telephone Blues’.
A few years ago, the One Tree Music festival attracted artistes like Buddy, Robert Cray, Walter Trout and Bernard Allison, though it wasn’t strictly a blues event, but showcased other genres too. Managed by Oranjuice Entertainment, the first Mahindra Blues Festival in 2011 featured Buddy, Jonny Lang, Matt Schofield and Shemekia Copeland. It clearly filled a much-needed gap, and also gave exposure to Indian blues bands, Soulmate being simply fabulous.
After the successful turn-out and fabulous music one heard this year, one can truly hope for many more fantastic blues experiences in future. The only hitch, and a very important one: by pricing it pretty high, the organisers are not making it accessible to some of the genuine blues lovers, but instead catering mainly to those who can pay through their blue-blooded noses, even if they think Muddy Waters is some brand of premium whisky.