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Veteran music journalist and critic Narendra Kusnur chronicles the emergence of a cultural phenomenon that has made its mark on the global R&B (Rhythm and Blues) scene
The buzz builds up in the first month of the year; friends and groups freeze their plans for the annual ritual in Mumbai — the Mahindra Blues Festival held in the second weekend of February — to bond over great music in a wonderful ambience. Not just Mumbaikars, folks from Bengaluru, Delhi and even other countries are regulars at the Mahindra Blues every year.
It started as a big-ticket music event in 2011 and 10 years on, it has become a true movement — a part of Mumbai's cultural scene that has made its mark globally. After Jazz Yatra, which was an annual feature at Rang Bhavan from 1978 to 2000, the Mahindra Blues Festival has emerged as an iconic western music event that has put Mumbai back on the map. Interestingly, while some of the notable acts and venues are folding up in other parts of the country, the Mahindra Blues is growing stronger with each passing year — thanks to the personal passion and committed patronage of Anand Mahindra, the Chairman of the Mahindra Group.
A Festival Vibe
Having attended seven of the past 10 editions of the Mahindra Blues Festival, I must say that it has not only grown in scale but also in its reputation as a true promoter of music and performers. The Mehboob Studios venue wears an absolutely festive look, and then, stars like Buddy Guy, Jimmy Vaughn, Robert Craig, Tennessee Trucks and The Allan Parsons Project descend on it and take the fans into another orbit.
Over time, the Mahindra Blues has perfected the mix of music while staying true to its one major Blues act. Switching between the two smaller arenas — the Soul Strat Saloon Stage and the Polka Dot Parlour Stage, named after regular visitor Buddy Guy's guitar and shirt designs — and then moving to the big stage for the final acts is all by itself an experience that only a regular will know.
And unlike a typical auditorium event which can be just a music-and-coffee affair, the Mahindra Blues Festival goes way beyond that with its vibe of a full-fledged festival. The booths with records, merchandise and memorabilia are a big draw for the crowd. Not to mention the garden where local acts and activities are showcased and the accompaniment of good food and good wine. You could say, the festival is a feast for the mind, body and soul!
Line up of Legends
Over the years, regulars have been regaled by the performances of greats like John Mayall, Jimmie Vaughan, Taj Mahal, Charlie Musselwhite, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Billy Gibbons, Beth Hart, Johnny Lang, Matt Schofield, Ana Popovic, Shemekia Copeland and a host of others.
Living legends of the genre who have performed here at this festival over the past decade include Buddy Guy, Walter Trout and John Mayall. To promote local talent, the In 2015 for its fifth edition, the Mahindra Blues Festival inaugurated a new tradition — the Mahindra Blues Band Hunt. This annual competition recognises homegrown talent and the winners are given the incredible opportunity to perform at the Garden Stage between the headlining sets in that year's edition of the festival — an initiative that has become an aspiration for new talent.
The 2020 edition of the Mahindra Blues — its tenth year — was yet another class act. The action started with singer-guitarist Keb' Mo', who recently bagged the Grammy for Best Americana Album for 'Oklahoma'. Mo's voice was pure 24-carat gold with the right mix of ruggedness and tenderness. And he was outstanding on the resonator guitar, whose unique tone adorned a few numbers.
The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band, one of the most talented blues-rock guitarists on the contemporary scene, dazzled with their sheer Stratocaster virtuosity and flamboyant pyrotechnics. And then there was of course Buddy Guy. On his fourth appearance at the Mahindra Blues Festival, a jam-packed audience welcomed the legend. At 83, he displayed the energy of someone half his age, with both his voice and guitar showing no signs of fatigue.
Meanwhile, out on the Garden Stage, oodles of talent flowed in the form of Meghalaya band Quiet Storm, the winner of the Mahindra Blues talent hunt contest. And, there were marvelous performances by The Homegrown Blues Collective on the opening day and sister duo Larkin Poe on Sunday.
Ten years on, I have rich memories of each Mahindra Blues edition that I have attended. These are the moments that remain etched in the mind for a lifetime — seeing practically every great performer right here in Mumbai. Now, Mahindra has to just get Eric Clapton to perform and we would have seen it all!
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