The seventh annual Mahindra Blues Festival (MBF) wrapped up in Mumbai in fine style with a star-studded lineup including Shemekia Copeland, Quinn Sullivan, Janiva Magness, Billy Gibbons, and Blackstratblues – and ending with a final jam featuring many of the performers.
Blues giants at earlier editions of the festival include Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker Jr., Taj Mahal, Jimmie Vaughan and Keb Mo. There was also a talent hunt for the best new blues band in India, and the winners for 2017 were Delhi-based group Blu. See also my writeup on MBF 2016, and interview with guitarist-composer Warren Mendonsa.
The two halls at Mehboob Studio in Bandra were packed with blues fans of all ages, as well as the outdoor performance stage, lounge, and vinyl store (also check out the festival art here). The blues, commonly regarded as the mother of all modern Western genres ranging from jazz to funk, has a large following in India as well.
The first performance was by festival regular Blackstratblues, a blues-rock ensemble led by guitarist, songwriter and producer Warren Mendonsa. The drummer at their MBF performance was Gino Banks. Warren’s early influences were bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin (at MBF he also played ‘When the Levee Breaks,’ with Shazneen Arethna on harmonica).
The group is named after Warrens’ black Fender Stratocaster guitar, and their albums include `Nights in Shining Karma’ and ‘The Last Analogue Generation’. The group played a range of mostly instrumental tracks of blues, rock and psychedelia.
An international star kicked off the next performance: singer-composer Janiva Magness, winner of the Blues Music Award and Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year. Her latest album ‘Love Wins Again’ was nominated for the 2017 Grammys. After the legendary Koko Taylor, Janiva is the second woman to win the highly coveted B.B. King Entertainer of the Year award – and she showed her mighty vocal prowess at MBF 2017 to loud rounds of applause.
The final act on Day One was guitar prodigy Quinn Sullivan, all of 17 years old, who has already shared concert stages with Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, and Los Lobos. He has also opened for B.B. King who later invited him play his treasured ‘Lucille’ guitar.
At MBF 2017, Quinn endeared himself to the audience by plucking some notes on the sitar before commencing his stellar set. He was accompanied by the talented Tom Hambridge on drums. His most recent album is ‘Midnight Highway;’ his first two albums were ‘Cyclone’ and ‘Getting There.’
Delhi-based quartet Blu, the winners of The Mahindra Blues Band Hunt 2017, performed on both nights in the outdoor theatre between the main acts. The musicians, hailing from Northeast India, played a mix of delta-inspired songs along with blues-rock. Members include Pranai Gurung (lead guitar), Kapil Chhetri (guitar, vocals), Rahul Rai (bass) and Chewang Lama (drums).
The second day kicked off with Grainne Duffy Band from Ireland. Grainne is a guitar player, singer and songwriter, drawing on the blues traditions of Memphis and Chicago. She was influenced by Aretha Franklin, Rolling Stones, Peter Green, and the three Kings – BB, Albert and Freddie.
The charming singer showed off her wide range of vocals and guitar riffs at her first performance in India, with the audience shouting out to her to keep coming back. Grainne’s albums include ‘Out of the Dark’ and ‘Test of Time,’ and she has won a number of awards in Europe as best female vocalist and best live performer.
Vocal powerhouse Shemekia Copeland then took the stage, belting out a fiery set of blues, soul and rock. The ‘gale force’ three-time Grammy Award nominated singer does her father proud: Johnny Copeland, ace blues guitarist. She has produced a range of albums such as ‘Turn the Heat Up’ and ‘Outskirts of Love,’ and has performed in festivals across the world.
Shemekia has sung with Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Carlos Santana, and James Cotton. She drew a thunderous ovation for the songs ‘I am a Woman’ and ‘Ghetto Child’ — some of which she sang without the mike, and her powerful voice still cut right across the hall.
Shemekia showed why she truly deserves the title ‘Queen of the Blues,’ passed on to her by Koko Taylor’s daughter Cookie. She also endeared herself to fans in India by sharing that she had left behind her newborn son so that she could perform in Mumbai.
The festival ended in rousing style with Supersonic Blues Machine featuring the legendary Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top) and Eric Gales. The group was spearheaded by Texan guitarist-singer-songwriter Lance Lopez and bassist-producer Fabrizio Grossi, along with Indiana drummer Kenny Aronoff.
In other interviews to the media, Fabrizio said that blues is like pasta – “you can add bolognese, tomato or clams, but the main ingredient is pasta!” Tennessee guitar virtuoso Eric Gales has also played with funk pioneer George Clinton.
They played a range of classics like ‘La Grange,’ much to the audience’s delight. The scorching guitar solos leapt to another dimension when the musicians were joined on stage for a memorable final jam by Warren Mendonsa, Quinn Sullivan, Graine Duffy and Shemekia Copeland.
The Mahindra Group also organises the Kabira Festival in Varanasi, a tribute to the great poet-saint and promoting his message of equality and dignity across religions. The corporate group has a won a number of CSR awards for its initiatives, which also includes the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META).
Anand Mahindra, the automotive group’s chairman and managing director, is a blues lover himself. “The festival shows that you’re a real believer, and you’re not just supporting another festival in New Orleans. You’re such a believer, you’re taking it across the world. That’s how you create empathy, trust and admiration,” explains Anand, in a Live Mint interview. We all look forward to the next edition of the Mahindra Blues Festival already, in 2018!
Written and photographed by Madanmohan Rao
Editor & DJ, World Music and Jazz;
Bangalore Global Correspondent for Jazzuality.com .