Review: Life, Death and the Blues (Theatre Passe Muraille)

A personal tale meets live concert in Life, Death and the Blues, debuting at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille

Life Death and the Blues is a hybrid of theatre and live concert making its debut at the Theatre Passe Muraille mainstage. It’s the story of Raoul Bhaneja, a self-professed heart-and-soul blues man whose Indian-Irish background and Canadian upbringing doesn’t immediately lend itself to a pension for blues music, but yet here he stands — a man who’s happy to pour his heart into his harmonica.

Bhaneja, backed by his blues band The Big Time and lead by soul songstress Juno-Award winner Divine Brown, takes the audience on an autobiographical journey of discovery through blues music. The evening caps off with a unique jam session with a different blues legend each night. Allow me to assure you, if each jam session is as electric as the one I witnessed tonight, that session alone is worth the price of admission.

In the program Bhaneja writes that he originally didn’t want this show to be about him, afraid that he was going to unearth and uncork things in his past he didn’t want disturbing, but through numerous years of creation and workshopping, an autobiographical piece is exactly what this became and it made for great story-telling.

Bhaneja, coming from his cultural background and admittedly privileged upbringing, may seem a taunt and affront to the roots of blues — what does this Indian-white guy know about a music that came out of black suffering? Brown, acting as second narrator and someone that Bhaneja can play his story off of, is happy to call him out for overstepping his means.

The race card is evident throughout this story, in fact it plays a common thread as Bhaneja describes his discovery of blues through Montreal and into Chicagon and even as he is awakened to his instrument of choice. What we see breaking through that race card is how music is essentially colour-blind.

Bhaneja’s story plays out with projections of blues legends past and present projected to the backdrop, the overall flow spliced with musical interludes feels a lot like watching MTV’s Behind the Music though more candid and personal.

With the performance being both theatrical and a concert, I had reservations that the music may stand our more than the theatrical elements and I have to admit that I was right. While the live music stands out at the forefront of this performance, the actual acting parts, Bhaneja’s story and the dialogue between Bhaneja and Brown feel incredibly rehearsed. The discussion lacks power and sustenance, there’s no passion behind that argument of whether Bhaneja has the proper chops to call himself a blues man. For a musicphile as Bhaneja declares himself to be, to let that accusation fly without retaliation is an outrage.

But then there’s the music — if you’re going to attend this show, do so for the music. Brown is a songstress first and foremost and my do her pipes shine in this performance. Bhaneja holds his own quite well not just vocally or on the harmonica but as a multi-instrumental musician, too. Then there’s The Big Time comprised of Jake Chisholm on guitar, Tom Bona on drums and Chris Banks on upright bass who all perform solidly.

The icing on the cake for each performance is the blues legend invited in to jam at the end of each show and answer a few questions about their art, making each performance unique. Be sure to check the website for a list of who’s taking the stage during each show. During the performance I attended, I had the pleasure and delight of seeing Carlos del Junco, the best harmonica player I’ve ever seen, rock the mouth organ like nobody’s business. Of course, who you’ll end up seeing will be different but I’m sure the musical prowess will be just as top-notch.

And to me, someone’s who’s both a musicphile and a theatre junkie, the music aspect of this show won out and that’s where I found my joy in attending. Sure, I may not know much about the blues, and yes I did attend with the hopes of being educated and I did, but theatrical elements aside, I lost myself in the music.

Details:

  • Life, Death and the Blues is playing at the Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Ave.) until October 19.
  • Performance dates vary, check website for more details.
  • Performance times are at 2 pm and 7:30 pm.
  • Tickets are $38, $33 for seniors and arts workers, $17 for those under 30 and can be purchased online.
  • Performance runs two hours with one 15-minute intermission, audience advisory in effect for coarse language and herbal cigarette smoke.

Photo of Jake Chisholm, Tom Bona, Raoul Bhaneja, Divine Brown, and Chris Banks by Michael Cooper

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