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The Day I Met the Blues

ex·pe·ri·ence
[noun]
An event or occurrence that leaves an impression on someone.
[verb]
Feel (an emotion).

The first time I met the blues was on the winter weekend of February 11-12 at the second edition of the highly coveted annual Mahindra Blues Festival. Oranjuice Entertainment’s suave and skilled execution of this two-day weekend festival at the iconic and retro Mehboob Studio was truly an ex·pe·ri·ence.

Helter Skelter: Mahindra Blues Festival
Buddy Guy leading the Big Jam at the Mahindra Blues Festival. Photograph by Ujaala Chaudhuri.

The Mahindra Blues festival acted as a social leveller for a motley bunch of enthusiasts, who showed up to support and encourage some of the very best blues musicians from around the globe. For a genre of music that hasn’t had the exposure it deserves to be considered popular in India, Oranjuice Entertainment proved that there was indeed an audience for the genre, and the city played host to a packed weekend of applauded performances.

Mumbai’s own Warren Mendonsa’s Blackstratblues, Shillong’s blues rock band Soulmate and Overdrive Trio shared a truly international platform with five-time Grammy Award-winner Buddy Guy, with special guest funk legend, pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph, Grammy Award-winner legend Taj Mahal (Henry Saint Clair Fredericks), flamboyant two-time Grammy nominee John Lee Hooker Jr., and Serbian blues guitarist and singer Ana Popovic.

Helter Skelter: Mahindra Blues Festival
Warren Mendonsa’s Blackstratblues. Photograph by Ujaala Chaudhuri.

The sprawling grounds of the venue (Mehboob Studio) graciously and efficiently transformed into two massive performance platforms, a viewing area and bar (at watering hole prices), elegantly arranged tables and chairs complimenting the Mississippi-themed buffet menu, an exhibit hall adorned with the who’s who of the blues including guitars one could only drool over and an interestingly retro-kitschy-themed flea market in the lawn laid out with tables and chairs.

The greatest artists capture your attention through their sheer power as performers and there’s a lot to be said about magnetic stage presence (especially when one is armed with a camera and the best seat in the house—right up front). Day one witnessed John Lee Hooker Jr.’s contemporary, urban rendition of the Delta blues (‘It’s a Shame’, ‘Suspicious’, ‘Boom Boom’), frequented with audience interactions making us hoarse in anticipation for the Taj Mahal Trio. Taj Mahal didn’t disappoint with his magnanimous ‘finger picking’ blues original compositions (‘Checkin’ Up on My Baby’) and covers (‘Annie Mae’) immersed in Caribbean and African musical influences. As I stumbled out on all fours, my feet and throat numb after three hours of magical mayhem, I could feel Mehboob Studio resonate with the raw pulsating energy of a diverse crowd completely enthralled with such power packed performances. And this was just day one.

It’s exhilarating to wake up hungover from a previous night’s high and say to yourself: ‘Tonight’s going to be just as stunning’. Armed with my faithful digital camera I waved to Lloyd D’Souza (Assistant Manager, Special Events for Fountainhead Promotions & Events) as he tirelessly and efficiently assured faultlessness on day two of the Mahindra Blues Festival. And then I bumped into Festival Director Owen Roncon, who was a perfect host, grinning from ear to ear as he told me to “Go get a drink, enjoy!” I was slightly perplexed at how empty the grounds were on what was definitely going to be yet another spectacular night of performances (Blackstratblues, Soulmate, Ana Popovic, and Buddy Guy) grudgingly accepting of the popular ‘Indian Standard Time’ cliché.

Helter Skelter: Mahindra Blues Festival
The blues Is my Soulmate. Photograph by Ujaala Chaudhuri.

Strains from Warren’s infamous Blackstratblues trio playing true with their ‘good honest music’ kick started another magical night of the blues. A ‘surprise’ treat was Nikhil D’Souza’s soulful vocals. The slowly seeping in crowd made their presence felt and soon the hall was packed with hungry hordes swaying to Nikhil’s ‘Feeling Good’. From the corner of my eye I noticed the effervescent bundle of positive energy, fashionable, and funky Tipriti ‘Tips’ Kharbangar, vocalist and rhythm guitarist of Shillong’s blues rock band Soulmate, animatedly chatting with her band mates as they waited to go on stage. As a front row spectator, I was intrigued with Tips’s body language and the impressive expression of emotion in her vocal range (‘Set Me Free’, ‘Lies’). With a confident, sensual attitude to boot and complete devotion to her music I was, undoubtedly, floored. Of course, Rudy’s playing was as effortless (‘If You Were My Guitar’) as it was soulful and with Tips stealing the show from right under his guitar, it was a night of teamwork from Soulmate. I was thrown into yet another powerful performance courtesy Serbian blues guitarist and vocalist Ana Popovic: blazing fierce-ness on her guitar and resplendent in her shimmery silver outfit. The sounds from her guitar and lyrics (fusion influences steeped in the blues) coupled with her energetic stage presence dazzled the audience and she was a trigger delight for many shutterbugs.

Staggering out into the blissfully cold February night (unusual for Bombay), I joined a long queue of what seemed to be a homogenous ‘Buddy Guy’ population outside Stage 1 which would soon herald in the final act of the Mahindra Blues Festival. Straddling a bottle of water and applauding my decision to wear comfortable flats, I literally swam in with the crowd. I’ve always been really proud of my shorter-than-usual stature and tonight, I couldn’t have been more proud as I stood tall—right up in front. This was my first time at a Buddy Guy concert and I couldn’t have been more prepared with my bottle of water and faithful camera.

Helter Skelter: Mahindra Blues Festival
Buddy Guy, live at the Mahindra Blues Festival. Photograph by Ujaala Chaudhuri.

And then it began. The curtain came down on Brian Tellis, radio personality and chairman of Fountainhead Promotions and Events, as he heralded in a man with the strat to a thunderous applause. The energy exuded by Buddy Guy as he finally came on stage was as incredible as it was infectious. Now I’d heard the music and seen the live videos but nothing could really justifiably explain, verify, or describe what I experienced in the next two hours. He played, he laughed, he teased, he improvised, he shocked, and he surprised. Buddy really wasn’t kidding when he broke into ‘Nobody Understands Me but My Guitar’. Unable to stop recording on my faithful camera, my hand shook in excitement as he effortlessly moved off stage and into the audience, leaving behind a trail of thrilled gobsmacked fans and tireless shutterbugs, T.V. crew, and security. On his way into the audience, I was honoured with a huge smile and a generous handshake—even luckier was a 10-year-old who squealed in delight as he was handed the Buddy Guy plectrum. But that was Buddy (“I’m only 75 years young”) as he teased and thrilled the crowds with his extended solos, mingling, shaking hands, giving out plectrums, and playing his guitar the entire while.

Basking in a limelight that was clearly all his, Buddy graciously shared his playing with his keyboardist, rhythm guitarist, and bassist. The first of his special guest musicians was the astoundingly talented Robert Randolph on the pedal steel guitar and then there was the imminent ‘jugalbandi’, resounding in delirious applause. Next, Buddy invited on stage Ana Popovic, Taj Mahal, and John Lee Hooker Jr., all of whom appeared one by one, followed by other members of their bands, including Will “Roc” Griffin on keyboards, Frank “Tebo” Thibeaux on bass, and Jeffrey James on guitar. It was intense—each and every artist indulging in a playful duel and enjoying their own music. Respect for each other’s contributions and a unified love for music brought all the performers together as they captivated an audience that were finally rendered speechless (discounting screaming and whistling as a form of speech).

Video: The Big Jam

Obsessed with T.V., Ujaala is a hustler, granddaughter, lover, film fanatic, foodie, and canine whore. She tweets often @motleyreverie.

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