The therapy that is Blackstratblues
It was in 2007, while in a hostel room at MICA, that I first heard of and heard Zero, who I still believe was India’s best ever band. Apart from the stellar songwriting, what left my jaw dropping was the guitar playing of Warren Mendonsa. My GTalk status at the time often proclaimed his divinity and a look back at chats from that era (which Google helpfully retains to embarrass you) showed I’d sent quite a few tracks of said band over the college Intranet, often with notes which were some variant of “LISTEN TO THE FREAKIN’ GUITAR SOLO!”.
My indie music maturity, sadly, coincided with the breakup of Zero and the relocation of Warren to Auckland, New Zealand. Thankfully, he didn’t stop playing, and gave us his stellar first solo album, Nights In Shining Karma, with an adorable childhood photo as album art. Many of us Zero acolytes could hum the album top to bottom.
When I moved to Mumbai in early 2009, I was always hoping to be able to see Warren live, and that dream became a reality during that year’s Independence Rock (another relic from that era). At a soaking Chitrakoot Grounds, preceding another of my favourite bands from that time — Motherjane — was Warren. In flesh and blood! I honestly don’t remember too much from that gig, I think I was just still in shock being able to see him perform. I did wear a very raggedy t-shirt which I had scribbled “Warren Is God” on. Warren himself later edited the slogan to “good” when I had presented it to him for an autograph.
But the true moment of joy came later in that year when I heard that he was relocating back to India! This was a bit of respite I needed from a shitty year — half of which was spent in a horrible job (ah, recession), and the other half saw a very messy breakup and the unexpected passing away of one of my best friends. In that period — where I shut a lot of people out of my life — live music came as a welcome distraction, and realising that Warren would be a part of it for at least the foreseeable future was fucking thrilling.
The Mithibai Gig
Warren’s first show after returning to India was to be held at Mithibai College in Mumbai’s suburbs — an unlikely venue to herald back a kvlt Indie legend. However, college gigs at the time were notoriously difficult to gain entry into (what with needing to show up a day before during specified times to get tickets, something working professionals might find tough to do), so I had all but given up hope of coming.
At the same time, Warren had released his second album, The New Album (I didn’t complain about the name as long as creativity was channeled into the music). In an era before Bandcamp or the indigenous OKListen, he set it up as a free download, with an option for people to pay whatever they liked. Being a fan, I genuinely wanted to pay, but couldn’t owing to not owning a credit card at the time. I mustered up the courage to mail Warren asking how I could pay for it, never expecting to hear anything from then. Pat came the reply in four minutes : “I’d be happy enough if you enjoyed the album and pass it on to all your friends. Come along to one of the gigs if possible and buy me a red bull or something. It’s all good : )”
It took me 6 minutes to reply — 2 to type out words, and 4 to get my jaw off the floor. After telling him I couldn’t come because of the ticket issue, he cheerfully put me on the guest list, meaning a friend and I were treated to a VIP area (basically, there were seats and a student came and gave us nimbupani while all the plebs were behind a barricade). On 16 Dec, we went and were treated to an amazing gig — first by Vishwesh-fronted Scribe, and then Blackstratblues. The screams were deafening, as he tore into some of his top tracks from his two albums, interspersed with a cover of Misirlou (that Pulp Fiction theme). Finally, he said he was “introducing a few old friends” and that’s when Mithibai really lost it — the original four of Zero were back together, for a surprise performance before their hotly-anticipated reunion show a week later at Hard Rock Cafe (which is still one of my favourite musical memories in India and warrants a full piece by itself).
At the time, I was reviewing gigs for Chordvine, a small music blog, just as an attempt to do a bit of formal writing. I ended up interviewing Warren for them and that experience made me even more in awe of the man. (alas, the site and the interview no longer exists, though if you’re interested, ping me — I should have it in my mail archives).
Once, when I’d uploaded a few videos — he politely asked me to take them down, not because of any copyright violation but because the sound was bad. That’s when I realised how obsessed this man was about sound.
Over the next few years, I’ve caught Warren several times — enough for friends to say I was a professional stalker. One friend, when asked by another one whether he listened to Blackstratblues, commented “Of course, one does not befriend Chuck without knowing about Warren.” I was so obsessed, I once even had a dream where Warren played with the Backstreet Boys, in a gig called “BSB&BSB”. Not kidding.
To prove I’ve seen him at several gigs, here’s one photo from (almost) each year.
Over this time, he’s released five albums that have by default meant that any other Indie release from that year could, at best, aspire to #2 in year-end lists.
Since the time of my GTalk statuses, he’s graduated from being a prodigiously good guitarist, to a senior scenester, a much-sought after producer and collaborator with younger artists like Tejas Menon and Dhruv Vishwanath, often springing up at gigs and playing a casual yet brilliant solo.
He’s moved from being “Zero’s guitarist” to a man who has carved out his own identity— indeed, so many of his audience today aren’t even aware of his work with said legendary band. This was most stark during his most recent gig (antiSocial, Lower Parel, 28 Dec 2019) when drummer Jai Row Kavi teased a small bit of a Zero song, and a small section of the audience (including self) screamed “PSP! PSP!”, a reference to Zero’s most famous song, PSP12". It was so shocking to me that only a few of us were in on this — I was disappointed, but yet so happy that Blackstratblues had organically found an audience that wasn’t just leftovers from the Zero days.
Indeed, having attended gigs in Mumbai since 2009 — I’ve seen the audience change (and grow!) so much, a Blackstratblues show being one of the rare occasions the “2009 scenesters” get together.
What makes Blackstratblues so special?
The fact that Warren is a fabulous guitarist, and is backed by 3 solid musicians is an obvious answer. But certainly, it’s more than that — the country has no shortage of good acts.
Perhaps it’s the universal nature of his music that appeals to everyone from fans of Amit Trivedi (who Warren plays guitar for) to self-proclaimed metalheads. His style of playing is melodic yet complex — appealing to those who don’t know how many strings a guitar has, to those who come to his gigs to make notes about chord patterns. There’s something in his compositions that move from “familiar intro -> slow part where people can soak it in and notice how good the other musicians are -> faster part when pace picks up -> epic ending where everyone goes berserk fuck how good is everyone in this band” that just works with any audience. It never gets too complex to alienate pop fans, and yet there’s enough happening to satisfy the snootiest of progressive rock snobs. He’s been around for so long in the scene that his contemporaries extend from Rock Machine to Across Seconds. He’s played to broke college kids and rich Mahindra Blues Fest attendees alike with the same songs (that being said, I’d love to see Scribe unleashed on an NCPA audience). His Dravidesque “shut-up-and-let-music-do-the-talking” approach is a refreshing change in an era where showmanship is seen as a mandate (indeed, Warren is at his most awkward when faced with a mic, though his banter skills have improved drastically since 2009). The music feels timeless — it could sit with in a 60s blues legends pantheon, or with Eric Johnson’s 80s catalog, as well as feel relevant at a 2019 music festival.
Adding to this is the fact that very few phones are out during a Blackstratblues gig (except of course, to record, and increasingly, to do ‘torch waves’). Everyone is completely focused on the music, leaving social media notifications for another time. This also comes from the fact that he quietly commands respect without demanding it. When you can play like Warren, you don’t need to resort to “I CAN’T FUCKING HEAR YOU MOTHERFUCKERS, MAKE SOME BCMC FUCKINGMOTHERFUCKING NOISE MUMFUCKINGBAI” — I’ve seen drunk, rowdy college audience hush themselves as Warren starts playing, as if anything but total appreciation and silence would be an insult to this man’s talent. (It is)
But more than anything else — and forgive me for being cheesy here — his music just leaves people feeling happy. I’m not saying other musicians make you feel sad, but there’s something about a Blackstratblues show — the songs, the tightness of the band, the flow of the songs, the sudden transition from the slow Ode To A Sunny Sky to the headbanger Renaissance Mission — that just makes everyone leave the venue with a giant, giant grin on their faces. There’s just positivity all around, and this is something I’ve felt at every single BSB show I’ve gone for.
One of my friends, Nikhil Udupa (who co-runs the crowdfunded music festival Control Alt Delete) put up an Instastory during the previous BSB gig, calling it therapy. And in these tumultuous times, it does feel like that. Heck, the band could get a medical license and charge money for improving the mental health of everyone who showed up.
Many rock fans envy those who lived through the 70s — being able to see Zeppelin, Sabbath and Purple live in their heyday. I, for one, am thrilled to be born when I am, for I get to see Warren Mendonsa, Jai Row Kavi, Beven Fonseca and Adi Mistry play live music, exceptional show after exceptional show. If history is just, this band will be revered not just all over India, but the world. If that happens, I can dig out that prized “Warren Is Go(o)d” t-shirt, the autographed setlists and the email exchange where I swapped Red Bull for a free album download — to show off.
Thank you, Blackstratblues. You mean more to this generation of Indian music fans than you possibly ever know.
PS — for those who have never heard Warren beyond Blackstratblues, check out his best work with Zero:
- Christmas in July (incredible instrumental)
- PSP12" (Zero’s most famous song and a moshpit-inducer at the indie old-age home)
- Cry (in my opinion, Warren’s finest ever solo, and in my top 5 solos of all time, ever.)
- Spitleaf (another, lighter instrumental, closest to BSB you’re used to)
- Found (a sweeeeeet solo from Zero’s first album, great example of their excellent catchy songwriting)