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The diva of blues

Raucous, barn-burning and good-time blues at its enjoyable best... that summed up the concert by Dana Gillespie and her London Blues Band, the other day at the Taj, says MUKUND PADMANABHAN.


DANA GILLESPIE'S life is crammed with arresting details that are unrelated — directly at least — to her own music. She played a part in two of timeless rock operas of the late 1960s and early 1970s. She was the Acid Queen in The Who's "Tommy" (which, over the years, evolved into a classical recording, a ballet and even a motion picture) and she was Mary Magdalene in the first run of "Jesus Christ Superstar" (nothing Andrew Lloyd Webber had done since then has come to this).

She has worked alongside Bob Dylan ("an old buddy; I went on tour with him in 1997") and David Bowie ("his wife would dress me in stiletto heels, black stockings, suspenders and little skirts split to the waist ... .it looked pretty outrageous and didn't always go with the blues world"). She's hosted radio shows and been associated with television. As a "a good-looking startlety type" in the early 1970s, she was offered a clutch of film roles in pulp cinema ("I was always rushing across strange landscapes fighting pterodactyls and tyrannosaurusi," she laughs.). If this weren't enough, she was an accomplished water and snow skier ("till my knee had to be operated on").

With such a diverse background, you would expect her musical life to be just as varied. And it has. She's done folk, she's gone pop, she's flirted with glam-rock and she's even done three bhajan-based albums that were inspired by visits to Satya Sai Baba.

But on her Indian tour, as a part of which she captivated an invited audience at the Taj Coromandel on Sunday, Dana Gillespie appeared in what is her best known avatar: as the doughty diva of `down-and-dirty blues'.

Gillespie and her extremely talented London Blues Band tap a genre that was popular in the 1920s and 1930s, represented best by women such as Ma Rainey and the legendary Bessie Smith - a classic blues tradition which is forged through feminine eyes and marked by a woman's particular slant on sex and infidelity, love and loneliness. The lyrics are often so explicit that sexual innuendo seems a much too subtle way of describing the in-your-face lyrics. But there is much more to the music than its outrageous quality; it reflects the unruly, promiscuous, drunken street-life in black working class America of the period. Beyond the brazenness and chutzpah are distinct assertions of sexual equality through voices that resonate with toughness, resilience and independence.

Within minutes of the concert, one thing is apparent — this is raucous, barn-burning, good-time blues at its enjoyable best. Gillespie's delivery is not as raw and blustery and one might expect of such a musical genre, but her voice and style are suffused with a full-throated flirtatiousness and every now and then cunning nudge-wink slyness. As for the lyrics, they couldn't be raunchier. The refrain of her opening song goes, "Big boy, you drive me crazy with your toy". Those on other songs such as King Size Papa, Organ Grinder Blues and Staying Power are just as risqué.

There is a bass and a lead guitar apart from the percussion, but a number of tunes are driven by a resonant piano (keyed by the young and hugely talented Julian Bruntaud) and a rasping saxophone (played by Mike Plaice, who trades the instrument in now and then for a harmonica, on which he achieves a sound which is at once wobbly and improbably beautiful.) Many of the tunes have elements of the rhythms of pop and rock n' roll and what really lends the occasion the full-blown character of a blues concert are the jazz-style solo improvisations that the band does extremely well. Even the more traditional and slower blues numbers such as St Louis Blues have a joyous and upbeat quality to them. And as the concert, Dana Gillespie's earthiness and infectious energy doesn't fail to rub off on the audience.

The plush, formal and aseptic character of the Taj ballroom is not the most appropriate place to capture the raw and gritty character of a blues concert, but Gillespie charms the audience into loosening up. Up in front, she has a high-ranking diplomat and his wife on their feet and swaying. A number of others are bopping in the aisles. As evenings went, it is difficult to remember a more good-humoured pleasurable one in recent times.

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