Mahindra Blues Festival 2020 was filled with stellar performances, but it may be time to retire the all-star jam
It was heartening to see the proceedings being opened by The Homegrown Blues Collective, an ensemble put together to mark the tenth year of the Mahindra Blues Festival.
Some might accuse the team behind the Mahindra Blues Festival of playing it safe while programming the milestone tenth edition by bringing back Buddy Guy for the fourth time. Then again, Guy is the official ambassador of the event. The main stage has been named the Polka Dot Parlour after him (or more specifically his shirt and guitar); he brought his protégé Quinn Sullivan to play the fest in 2015; and hosts an American offshoot of Mahindra Blues at his club Legends in Chicago. Also returning was Keb’ Mo’, who performed in 2016.
The organisers said in a recent interview that they “ensure that there is gender, age, and ethnicity balance” in the line-up as well a “mix of genres”. This diversity cuts also across stature, never mind that we got an all-American international roster. Like most years, the 2020 instalment included a living legend, a couple of superstars and fast-rising talents. In addition to Guy and Mo’, who are widely considered the foremost representatives of Chicago blues and Delta blues respectively, there was blues-rock icon Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his eponymous band and Grammy-nominated roots rock duo Larkin Poe.
While Mahindra Blues has ever so rarely faltered with its choice of international acts, we’ve frequently complained in our yearly festival reviews about how infrequently Indian artists are given the opportunity to play the main stage. So it was heartening to see the proceedings being opened by The Homegrown Blues Collective, an ensemble put together to mark the tenth year.
What we particularly liked about this performance, led by Shillong duo Soulmate and featuring past winners and finalists of the festival’s annual Band Hunt as well as local heroes, guitarist Ehsaan Noorani and keyboardist Loy Mendonsa, was that Soulmate, Rohit Lalwani of Lal and the People and Arinjoy Sarkar of the Arinjoy Trio presented original material when they could have just as easily taken the tired-and-tested route of rendering covers. The hour-long set was equal parts a party and a showcase of proficiency. We did however note that like their US counterparts, the Indian contingent too comprised entirely of guitarist-vocalists (we lost count of the number of Fender-Strats we spotted over the weekend).
Even though he fits the description, Keb’ Mo’ stands apart from the lot for his is a relatively softer take on the blues that incorporates elements of R&B, rock and funk. Indeed, his 2019 release Oklahoma was entered in and won the Best Americana (as opposed to Blues) Album category at the Grammys. This time around though, he showed us a different side. Half way into his set, after a particularly moving rendition of Indian fan favourite, the ballad 'Just Like You', which he performed solo on steel guitar, he rolled out the humorous 'Suitcase'. Next we were introduced to randy Keb’, the butt-shaking bluesman who introduced the soul-drenched 'Dangerous Mood' as a song “about sex”. Like in 2016, he chose to close with a laidback track, 'Shave Yo’ Legs', instead of going out with a bang.
In contrast, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and co. love playing to the gallery and gave fans exactly what they were expecting: blues so heavy you could call it hard rock. They went all guns blazing right from set opener 'Woman Like You' to their closing cover of 'Voodoo Chile' during which Shepherd played the guitar behind his head. Shepherd said he was going to “slow things down just a little bit” on 'Heat of the Sun', but by the end of it he was delivering some of the fastest riffs we heard all evening. Every song featured searing solos and the one-two punch of saxophonist Joe Sublett and trumpeter Mike Pender, the combination of which made us feel like we were on a musical journey travelling at full speed. Somewhat ironically, Shepherd’s breakthrough hit 'Blue on Black', the one track that got almost everybody in the audience singing along with co-vocalist Noah Hunt, had the shortest solo of them all.
The surprise for most attendees was the relatively lesser-known sister duo Larkin Poe aka vocalist and electric guitar player Rebecca Lovell and lap steel guitar player Megan Lovell. The siblings showed us that they share not only amazing instrumental abilities but a great on-stage chemistry as well, as highlighted during their call and response exchange during the dancey 'When God Closes A Door'. While Megan raised eyebrows with her ability to shred as skilfully as the more famous axe wielders on the bill, Rebecca showcased a powerful voice that was occasionally reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt. A people-pleasing pair, they played their tune 'Mississippi' on request and treated us to the live premiere of the title track of their next album.
The longest lines, unsurprisingly, were for Guy who made a welcome return and proved that while he may not be able to perform for as long as he did when he last visited in 2015, he’s just as sprightly for the time that he is on stage. While each of the acts that preceded him, and his own guitarist Ric Jaz and keyboardist Marty Sammon, are virtuosos in the own right, no one can quite match the octogenarian when it comes to entertaining the crowd.
For those who happened to be catching him for the first time, he showed off a few of his old tricks by playing the guitar with just one hand, with his teeth and a drum stick. As always, his set, a now-familiar mix of his own compositions and standards by the likes of Muddy Waters, was peppered with humorous banter and heartfelt tributes to everybody from Albert King and B. B. King to Johnnie Taylor and Jimi Hendrix. Among the standouts, like last time, was 'Skin Deep', for which he played electric sitar.
After his designated 90 minutes, Guy was joined by Shepherd, Mo’, the Lovell siblings and Soulmate’s Rudy Wallang, who each got a couple of minutes to give us a last look at their remarkable riffage. But it wasn’t quite the euphoric end expected of this decade-commemorating edition, leading us to conclude that it’s time for the Mahindra Blues Festival to retire the all-star jam. It made sense when it was demarcated as a separate act. By including an abbreviated iteration in the Sunday headliner’s slot, it feels more like an obligation than a celebration. If the idea is to create once-in-a-lifetime moments, then maybe some of the international artists could do guest spots in each other’s sets.
Now that we’re giving unsolicited advance to the organisers, we recommend also giving the Band Hunt winners an opening slot on the smaller SoulStrat Salon on Saturday at say 5 pm, instead of relegating them to the garden. Maybe the fear is that not many people will turn up early to see them but doing this will relieve the acts from having to compete for the audience’s attention with their needs for food, drink or a loo break. They’ll also get to know what it’s like to perform on a stage of that size. Given that the jury members favour groups with a big, rock-like sound, such as this year’s champs Quiet Storm, we feel they won’t have much too trouble filling up the room.
Beth Hart is a Grammy-nominated blues singer who’s been bringing energy and soul to the stage like few other performers, from the early 1990s
The Groovebox Jukebox: From Semwal's Elephant In The Room to Anthropocene by Rafoo, music for the new year
Semwal's Elephant in The Room has a warmth that is ideal for winter, while Rafoo's musical output is informed by her career in sustainability and policy research.
The Mahindra Blues Festival has grown in talent with every passing year. And just as it gets older, it seems to grows younger as well.