125 solo shows, 38 Festivals, a new CD, 10 weeks in the US Billboard Blues Chart, ‘Pick of the Week’ choice in America’s ‘US Today’ newspaper, a live DVD, opening for BB King, jamming with Buddy Guy… it’s been quite a year for Ana Popovic, and The Harmonie in Bonn was where she chose to close it – the final show of an eventful year, and what a gig it was!
Endenich was definitely the place to be on Saturday, and I don’t mean just for their Christmas Market. For those who were lucky enough to get hold of a ticket and find a corner of the Harmonie’s concert hall to squeeze into this was an evening to brighten up the coming concert-less weeks ahead before the 2012 season kicks off again in earnest.
There was plenty of sparkle in Ana Popovic’s glitter top as she hit the stage and plenty of sparkle from her band too as they sailed through a first set promoting the latest ‘Unconditional’ disc. The CD opener ‘Slideshow’ is the set opener too and ideal for Ana to get comfortable with the sound and warm up for the evening ahead – a sizzling bottleneck driven stomp that gets everyones attention from the word go. From then on it was ‘Business as Usual’ both the song and the attitude of the band as they tore through a set that always rocked but had the Blues sewn into it seamlessly.
This was not, as most readers will know, my first time hearing Ana live. I’ve generally headed for the front and let the atmosphere take me away. This time around I wanted to step back a little from the front row mayhem to get a fresh perspective (and get away from the hot and sweaty masses all vying for the few atoms of fresh air available). Looking down from the balcony gets me a better view of the work sticks-man Stephane Avellaneda puts in. A year or so back he was powerful and loud. Now he is still all that, but there are light touches too that colour the music perfectly – and, come drum solo time, there is still an ‘in your face’ solo to pin you to the Harmonie wall. Michele Papadia on Hammond is quite a big man, but adds delicate touches to colour out the sound along with a solid Blues feel. Finally of course there is Ronald Jonker, or ‘The Flying Dutchman’ as I’ve come to call him through his penchant for taking off into the air when the groove gets him (and it gets him often!). Nominated by the Dutch Blues Foundation last year for Dutch bass player of the year it’s not hard to see why – just hard to believe he didn’t win. Jonkers solo on ‘Change My Mind’ was ten minutes of musical magic. From stageside in the past I always thought Ana was playing rhythm accompaniment but from my Balcony look-out I discovered he was covering it himself along with covering just about every pop/rock hook known to man – who else could sound-check ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Smoke on the Water’ in the same musical breath?.
The second set was reserved for Ana at her very finest. The current showcase now includes her tribute to the traditional Blues with ‘One Room Country Shack’ – sung by her onstage not so long ago with writer Buddy Guy, and Mr BB King also onstage (allbeit in a chair and without his ‘girl’ Lucille on his lap to play with). Next up was no surprise. No show since I can remember would be complete without Ana’s own signature piece ‘Navajo Moon’ of course. In 2006 when I first heard it this was a delicate number that went volume-wise from 0 (Ana would literally switch off the guitar) to about 8. The 2011 version goes from about 3 to 11 on the volume scale – at it’s height reminding me faintly of Thin Lizzy as they hit the Celtic riff of numbers like ‘Emerald’. Somehow Ana pulls it all spellbindingly back down again to a gentle finish. Down to the last number, and the heat from the audience has even reached the stage now. Ana is blowing hair from her face even as she pumps out the licks to the storming finish of ‘Hold On’. When it’s all over Ana asks “Did you have a good time Bonn?” The roar of approval that came back will hopefully have told her that she too should come back – as soon as possible.
My ‘Crows Nest’ distance from the stage also started me thinking with a distance of years. Ana Popovic in 2005 on this very stage as part of the RUF Records Blues Caravan. A short but sweet set of Rock Blues – and the feeling that I was watching someone very special indeed. Someone who would one day sell out the Harmonie on her own and play Premier League Blues Rock with a fine band of her own. Someone who would maybe play in Bonn’s Museums-mile Open-Air tent, home of only the finest. This year Ana has achieved all that and much more – I felt like punching a fist high in the air from the balcony and screaming out “I told you so!” Not that anyone would have paid me any attention with Ana mesmerizing onstage.
With the last show of 2011 over drummer Stephane is heading for a break “with maybe some music playing among friends”, Ronald is hoping to perhaps do some gigs with his own band ‘Toaster’ and Hammond man Michele is heading out on a tour with Italian singing star Dolcenera that includes a Vatican Show no less. Ana herself has the tapes of a planned acoustic live disc to work on, as well as visits to America for work on a new studio CD. Did someone say this was the end of music making for Ana and her band in 2011?
Coda: Following on from the ‘Sold-Out’ signs last weekend for Julian Sas I hope someone high up in Bonn is taking note that a lot of people out there want good contemporary live music in Bonn.