Mahindra Blues Festival 2017: The seventh edition of Asia's largest blues fest is also its youngest
Quinn Sullivan. Shemekia Copeland. Grainne Duffy. Warren Mendonsa-led Blackstrat Blues. For the first time in the history of the seven-year Mahindra Blues Festival, almost 80 percent of this edition’s lineup is under the age of 40. Heck, Quinn Sullivan will turn 18 a whole month after headlining Day 1 of the festival this weekend. This would have been a series of inconsequential numbers but for one thing: the blues, a genre with an identity crisis, is often regarded as one for the older, single malt-drinking generation where songs of suffering, angst, revolution and even seduction are sung with hues of country, soul, gospel, and rock sub-genres in it.
When most people think of the blues, they think of greats like BB King, Albert King, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy…the legends who have come to define the blues. There are also blues rock musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and even The Rolling Stones who have inadvertently introduced music lovers to the blues through their works. The likes of John Mayall, Buddy Guy and Walter Trout among a host of others, are the most popular names in the world of the blues today, and it’s no surprise then that to most casual music listeners, the blues is the turf of the elderly.
It is in this climate that the Mahindra Blues Festival’s 2017 lineup is a massive indication of where the world of the blues is internationally, and in India. Considering the festival is Asia’s largest blues festival and MBF’s online community is the largest in the world, the role the festival plays in measuring a trend or pattern, is a crucial one.
Says Owen Roncon, co-founder of Oranjuice, the company that has been organising the event, “If we take the age out of the equation for just a moment, we’ll see that the festival has always been attracting genuine music listeners. That said, over the years we’ve seen an increasing tribe of young music listeners who seek good music and not just the experience of being seen at a multi-stage festival. That, to us, is testimony to the quality of music, and the discerning nature of the audience.”
When MBF organised its pilot edition in 2011, the first night was headlined by blues heartthrob Jonny Lang. He was just 30 then. He was joined by Shemekia Copeland in the lineup, who was then 31 years old.
Since then, there has been at least one young international artist at the festival. From Derek Trucks, Nikki Hill and Dana Fuchs, to Joss Stone, Quinn Sullivan and now Grainne Duffy, there has been a steady stream of young international blues artists of repute who have graced the MBF stages. Consistently over the years, the Indian talent to have performed at the festival, have been decidedly young — Blackstrat Blues, Soulmate, Ashutosh Phatak’s all-star lineup. Since the past couple of years, MBF has also started a national Talent Hunt in association with the pioneering True School of Music, where bands battle it out for a spot at the festival. This year, Delhi-based Blu will perform at the festival. Music composer of the Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy trio, and a blues musician par excellence Ehsaan Noorani has been judging the competition since its inception. Ehsaan says, “We were pleasantly surprised at the number of entries we had for the contest. At one point we had to stop accepting more. The talent pool in India is huge. We’ve seen some exceptional talent coming out of not just the major cities in India, but even smaller ones. Last year’s Lal and Company were from Bhopal. All these musicians love how accessible the blues is. With its 12-bar progression, it becomes easy to play but it’s difficult to feel. And musicians love nothing more than to be able to express themselves through their music. The blues is also a clutter breaker for young artists in a music space replete with pop-rock artists.”
For young Indian musicians who play the blues, says Owen, the genre lends itself brilliantly to a guitarist or a singer-songwriter. It is easy and heartfelt, so it makes the joy one gets out of music so much more accessible. And for the audience, the setting for a six-band performance is remarkably snug.
He says, “The youth in Mumbai have very limited choices for live music venues, a scene that continues to be dominated by EDM. We have never aimed to do something of massive scale with the festival. Familiarity of name increases investment in the festival. Our aim is to actually make big names more accessible, while also building pedigree in the live music space. The blues is an intimate genre and we aim to keep the experience of the festival just that way. Any larger than it already is (3500-4000 capacity), and it’ll be a full-on rock show!”
Warren Mendonsa who is among India’s most talented musicians today, burst into the scene with 90s rock band Zero. The guitar wiz, who has a great fan following and is considered among the nicest guys on the scene, helms the band Blackstrat Blues. This year will be his fourth time on an MBF stage, each time playing to a packed house. “While in most festivals the opening act sees a crowd trickling in, at MBF we have always played to a packed house. That is very encouraging for an artist or band that is opening the proceedings, for what will be a long evening of music. Most of the music we listen to, right from 60s rock (Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton etc.) to Amy Winehouse, John Mayer and Black Keys have always found a way to stay contemporary. And you can trace all these artists back to the blues. It is a very open form of music and young musicians today appreciate this creative space the genre gives them. Once you learn the basics of the blues, it then totally depends on the artist to take it forward,” says Warren.
The Mahindra Blues Festival has grown in talent with every passing year, building a determined blues scene via talent hunts, radio shows and online communities, with it. And just as it gets older, it seems to grows younger as well.
The 7th Mahindra Blues Festival will be held over 11-12 February at the Mehboob Studios. Tickets available here.