Arts Theatre

Life, Death and the Blues has soul but needs work

Feelin' the blues
Feelin' the blues

True to its musical namesake, Life, Death and the Blues resists easy categorization. Call it a narrated concert, maybe—it’s not a play in the proper sense of the word, but neither is it simply a music gig.

On the Citadel’s Club stage, bluesman Raoul Bhaneja traverses the history of the blues alongside his own personal experience and entry into the genre. He enters the stage dressed up in classic blues costume—fedora, sunglasses, cigarette—and delivers a wincingly hackneyed impression of an old bluesman before breaking character and addressing the audience directly—much to our collective relief. Thus proceeds the show: a bit disorienting as we hop from storytelling to direct (and often rather heavy-handed) commentary on the racial, sexual, classist undertones of blues music and cultural appropriation, all of which is interspersed by musical numbers.

Bhaneja, an affable stage presence, is joined by his live band the Big Time and Juno-winning vocalist Divine Brown, who is immediately a welcome presence. She’s there as Bhaneja’s counterpoint, a devil’s advocate who quickly calls him on his bluff and bluster. “Music is universal,” he asserts grandly. “No it’s not,” she shoots back.

During the show’s first half, Bhaneja is preoccupied with justifying his legitimacy as a “natural-born bluesman,” a claim which Brown continually strikes down and badgers him about. It’s these scripted parts that come off feeling stilted, for they sound entirely too scripted for the conversational tone the show aspires to maintain. Life, Death and the Blues has been evolving since Bhaneja premièred it just over a year ago; it still seems unfinished: mired down by too much telling and not enough showing, and a meandering narrative through-line that doesn’t clearly link all the disparate elements unearthed throughout the evening.

It’s in the music, unsurprisingly, that this show is easily at its strongest and most engaging: Bhaneja is a capable musician and Brown is a vocal powerhouse. Her solo numbers are fantastic, as is Bhaneja’s hauntingly beautiful fusion of Sindh lullaby (from his paternal Indian heritage) with bluesy elements from Brown. A local blues artist joins the duo on stage to cap off each night (this night welcomed the excellent Kat Danser).

Another rewrite may be in order to synthesize the story’s disparities while maintaining its big heart and soul.

Until Sun, Mar 1 (8 pm)
Directed by Eda Holmes
Citadel Theatre, $35 – $89

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