Hart-felt Blues? You Beth!
On “Medicine Jar” [from Wings’ ‘Venus And Mars’ album], former Beatles Paul McCartney sang about “there’s more to life than blues…” but, fortunately, he was not talking about the genre.
But Blues – in multiple variants – is precisely what was showcased at the annual Mahindra Blues Festival held at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studios on February 9th and 10th, 2019. Although it may be coincidental, the unwritten theme for this year’s event happened to be Blues in harmoni…ca!
For me, it was undoubtedly Charlie Musselwhite and his band, one of the more authentic blues outfits, which was the highlight of the Festival, but Beth Hart surely provided him and the audience a run for their money with her heartfelt originals. While more of Hart later, harpist Musselwhite ran through a set of contemporary blues repertoire, along with modern blues replete with jazz and funk overtones, showcasing his astonishing technique along with fine vocals. Not only was Musselwhite in perfect form, especially his biting licks and spiralling riffs on the harmonica, but his band was tight, soulful, and sympathetic, making Musselwhite’s performance beyond worthwhile listening for any Blues fan.
Not far behind on harmonica competency was a comparatively younger talent in Brandon Santini, from Memphis, whose originals were extremely satisfying. Not only was his band tight too, but the inclusion of an outstanding keyboardist provided perfect musical support to Santini’s ever changing harmonicas. Continuing in the vein of the blues harp, an even younger talent was featured on the both days of the Festival in the garden at the venue: a 13-year-old Indore-based harmonica player named Rohan Singhal, who was discovered by organisers Oranjuice through the blues vine. Extremely mature in his musicianship and supremely confident, Singhal’s talent was undeniably double or triple his age. Even the winners of ‘Blues Hunt’ for this festival, Shillong-based Blue Temptation , formed in 2014, were a pleasant surprise with distinctive tightness in their musicianship.
However, the commencement of the festival was appropriately provided to the ‘Blues Hunt’ winners of last year, The Arinjoy Trio, who were fortunately moved out from the Festival garden walls into a hall stage this year. With singer-songwriter-guitarist Arinjoy Sarkar at the helm of things, with Aakash Ganguly [bass] and Sounak Roy [drums] in support, the Trio revisited at least two originals from the past – “Cold, Cold, Cold” and “Baby You’re So Fine” – along with a host of other original compositions, notably the brilliant “Nothing Good’s Ever Gonna Last” and their ode to life in the fast lane with “Who You Are”, as they went onto launch their superb, eponymously titled debut album – appropriately mixed by Amyt Datta, who also guests on one of their songs – at the Festival.
On day two, Blues took a tangent with the introduction of Sugaray Rayford as his band included two members on horns. That provided vocalist Rayford an opportunity of extended experimentation through the sounds of boogie, funk, reggae, R&B, and even straight forward rock with a rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”, which received rapturous applause that went onto show just how much of genuine Blues listeners were present at the Festival. Nevertheless, this observation should not take away the wide repertoire and marvellous arrangements showcased by Rayford and his band who, indeed, were a revelation.
But the concluding night appropriately ended with vocalist Beth Hart taking stage. While she is known to have taken risks with her renditions, compositions, and vocals, she fortunately loosened herself for her performance and, at the same time, exorcized lingering demons from the past, especially on her tribute to her sister, Sharon, who passed away [“Sister Heroine”], and on her emotional acknowledgement to her husband who got Hart away from drugs [“My California”]. Beth played several covers too, especially the Etta James popularised “I’d Rather Go Blind” and Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus”, but the best moments remained Hart’s originals, on which she played distinctive keyboards. The Festival concluded with the expected all-star finale, which appeared tepid after listening to the strong individual performances throughout the Festival.
The most notable observation of this edition of the Mahindra Blues Festival was that the focus was deservedly on quality rather than quantity, and this deserved limitation held itself in good stead as the set for the respective evenings ended within reasonable time limits. Nevertheless, the Festival lived upto its reputation of excellence, and it was not surprising that a couple of 20 year olds lamented, at the end of the show, that a year away is too long for the next edition of the Mahindra Blues Festival… effectively supporting my sentiments, precisely!