Julian Sas – Home at the Harmonie

‘Hey Joe’, the first song Julian Sas ever learned to play on the guitar, really needs neither introduction, nor comment.  Julian’s version is probably one of the best live versions of this song available anywhere today”

John Harrison reports from the sixth ‘Sold Out’ Harmonie concert by Julian Sas in as many years.

There were actually two annual musical events happening in Bonn this evening:  One was the Galician „Foliada“ a music festival combined with a chestnut festival, the chestnuts shipped in especially from northern Spain for the occasion, and the other Julian Sas’ yearly Bluesrock concert in the Harmonie with the special guest being shipped in especially from Holland for the occasion. I set off, from the former after some delicious boquerones fritos (deep fried anchovies) and the sweetest of chestnuts with the sound of eight bagpipes and a pair of drums ringing in my ears, to see the latter.

At exactly eight o’clock the gentle giant who is Julian Sas took to the stage in a Harmonie full to the gunnels with a rapturous crowd who were flattered indeed when he described Bonn as being his second home town. He starts, aptly enough, with “Home Feeling”,  describing, yes, travelling home. “Mercy” is a funky number from Julian’s current CD “Bound to roll”, and reminds one just what a tight trio this is. The song deals with fighting one’s inner demons, and concludes that cocaine and liquor are perhaps not the best long term solution in this battle. Bound to roll”  the title track from the last CD has a thunderous beat and with lyrics such as “ crawling like a kingsnake and howling like a hound” is reminiscent of Omar Dykes the great Blues guitarist from Austin Texas. Swamplands” takes us where it promises, right down to the swampland – and for the first time Julian slides a bottleneck onto his little finger and lets rip, walking us the long way home through the desert sands.

Looking for a friend”  is dedicated to a friend and a complete change of style and tempo.   The first few bars sound like Carlos Santana, with lyrics posing the question, “is there anybody out there who really understands, I’m looking for a friend”.  The guitar work later becomes like Pete Green with a touch of Clapton – velvet with just the right touch of harshness, as Julian reaches out “with both of his hands”.   A fine song to which everyone can relate.  “Blues won’t stay”also from the “Bound to roll” album is an up tempo number, which gives hope of a happier future – because this time the Blues won’t stay.

How about some Rock and Roll?” Julian asks the crowd. Silly question. “Tear it up” is a punchy song Julian wrote two years ago when they were on tour as the support group for Status Quo and which he dedicates to Francis Rossi, who apparently found the riff , albeit tongue in cheek,“somewhat familiar”“Blues for the lost and found”is an “old” song for Julian, a slower tempo number from the 2005 “Dedication” CD.

Halfway into the set and Julian promises us some slide songs whilst reminiscing about being a 17 years old and seeing Johnny Winter play for the first time. He straps on the Fender Firebird, which is tuned to open D, puts on the bottleneck and launches into “Strangers Blues”.   I recognise the first verse from Sonny Terry’s and Brownie McGhee’s acoustic country Blues version.   The words are really quite poignant, in that it is almost as if you have to move abroad to be a foreigner, but you can literally be a stranger, almost anywhere. The original song is afterwards transformed, as Julian “lets it rip” with the bottleneck. The open D tuning where the guitar is, instead of being tuned up to the open chord of E, tuned down two semitones to open D; but in the E chord shape, has a distinctive sound.  Robert Johnson played acoustic bottleneck Blues in this style, but the man who really established it on the electric guitar for the first time was Elmore James in the 1950s, on whose shoulders so many Bluesrock guitarists are still standing today. This was picked up later by the likes of Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter and countless others. So this bottleneck baton has been passed through various hands during its approximately 75 year old history before being presented to us tonight in Bonn so expertly by Julian Sas.

While we’re doing covers, why not dig into Bob Dylan’s huge treasure chest and take out “Highway 61 revisited” again à la Johnny Winter, for an open D bottleneck high driving spin? Another great song from the “Bound to roll” CD.

After changing the Fender Firebird for a Gibson Les Paul Junior Julian dedicates the next song to the late great Steve Marriott who, as a member of the group Humble Pie, wrote “30 days in the hole”.   A classic song about receiving a month’s solitary confinement as punishment for possession of Newcastle Brown Ale and other less legal substances. Julian’s love of dynamics comes to the fore here as he takes the song right down, quiet and low, and bass player Tenny Tahamata gets a well deserved chance to solo. Tahamata wears an almost perpetual smile, and clearly enjoys knowing that what he’s doing so well, is being enjoyed by everyone. He exudes a solid confidence like Donald “Duck” Dunn and his bowler hat is as much a trade mark as Donald’s pipe. Tenny, together with Rob Heijne on drums, forms an astoundingly strong rhythm section which not only allows, but perfectly counterpoints Julian’s unique guitar style. Like a well oiled and perfectly run- in motor power house they provide a suitably heavy loud drive when it is required, but also, as in this number, play beautiful quiet and tasteful accompaniment in the middle section when needed. Sometimes it is equally important what one does not play, as what one does play. Julian turns on the power and brings the sound up to a well fitting crescendo finish to Steve Marriott’s tribute. In a completely different vein, and with the Fender Stratocaster this time, “Burning Bridges”is almost reminiscent of Neil Young. A slow melancholy song from the last CD.

Sugarcup Boogie”  is a number self-penned from Julian, fifteen years ago,  a “blast from the past”,as he remarks, and this one doesn’t pussyfoot around, it really rocks. This song is from the “Dedication” CD and it’s hard to imagine that Julian has been around for over 15 years with 7 CDs to his name and yet isn’t as well known as he deserves to be. Moving on to a guy who Julian refers to as the man who “started it all for him”.  It’s also the moment that many people in the audience have been waiting for, as he dedicates “Shadow play” to his idol, that renegade Irish Blueser Mr Rory Gallagher. Rory was naturally very popular in his native Ireland, despite its predilection for traditional Celtic music, and he was also very popular in the UK. Your correspondent remembers seeing him live in Stoke-on-Trent in the mid 1970s. Nowhere was Rory more popular though than in Germany, and the same seems to apply to Julian Sas, who is naturally very well known in the Netherlands, but nowhere better acclaimed than in Germany and especially in Bonn, his “second home town”. Playing with shadows “ A little Dr Jekyll and a little Mr Hyde” and Julian has all the audience singing a “Got to get away” refrain in “Shadow play”.  The smiling faces are everywhere, not least on Julian’s own impassioned visage. “Hey Joe”, the first song Julian ever learned to play on the guitar,really needs neither introduction, nor comment. Ever since Jimi Hendrix put his inimitable stamp on this, up until then, relatively unknown song back in the mid 1960s, it has been a Bluesrock classic. Julian’s version is probably one of the best live versions of this song available anywhere today. “Devil got my number”is an up tempo rock and roll song and a perfect close to the evening. It was exactly 20.00 hrs (the official beginning) when he started playing and exactly 21:59 hrs (the official end) when he finished, without a break. He couldn’t possibly have officially played for longer. Julian said, “Thank you very much indeed” and with a danke schön, bid us farewell until next year-

So that was it, a magnificent evening, with one of the best Bluesrockers around. Luckily, it wasn’t “all over now” though . The crowd weren’t quite ready to be homeward bound yet, and after a tumultuous applause Julian and the band yielded to an encore, and there were yet more treats in store. This time Julian didn’t reach for the Strat, but for a Gretch, which I later discovered had been completely stripped right down  with an old fashioned Gibson P90 pick up just wired up to a simple volume and a tone knob. No frills, no nonsense here, just the deal. It’s tuned to an open A chord and there’s a capo on the second fret, so it’s playing in open B, but in an A chord shape, and we about to get not one, but two versions of “Bullfrog Blues”, first theclassic version from William Harris and then the Rory Gallagher version.

Rob Heijne takes a trip to the ‘Zone’

The bottleneck’s out and we are getting ever closer to guitar heaven in the Harmonie. Good to see Julian going right back to the raw roots of this music. There’s even a Howling Wolf voice impression in there, “Did you ever wake up with them bullfrogs on your mind?” and I swear if there had been heavy duty velvet curtains at the Harmonie, Julian would have been climbing up them the way the Wolf used to do! After playing it “how they played it in the 1930s“, as Julian said “ now we’re gonna play it like they did in the 1970s“ and everyone knows which Irishman’s version is about to explode out of the stripped down Gretsch now. Blues rocking doesn’t get much better than this. Then, before the applause has died away, Julian sparks in with the distinctive opening riff of  Boogie all round”  and the band is completely in unison. What a great, tight, pulsating three piece band this is! Like everything Julian does, he does it to the full and this encore is no exception, a full twenty minute’s worth of powerful musical joy.

So what sort of a man is Julian Sas? He’s a man very much steeped in the Blues tradition, who takes great pleasure in playing his music, and even more pleasure from seeing other people enjoy it . He’s a man who likes to play his music loud, but who also loves dynamics and wonders more than most at the enhancement this can bring to almost any style of music. He’s a very cautious man too, who pays great attention to detail. He has not one, but two Marshall amps on stage, some of the most reliable amplifiers in the world, which even Pete Townsend had trouble willfully destroying so many years ago. He only plays through one, but the other is on permanent standby, so that in the unlikely event of his amp blowing up, he would be plugged in and playing through the other before 98% of the audience realised what was happening. He’s perhaps a little bit sentimental and perhaps superstitious, as suggested by the north American Indian dreamcatcher on his guitarstrap, although he already plays well enough already. Finally, here’s a little anecdote which is a true mark of the man though: At the end of the show I scoured the stage for a set list. I had in fact actually noted 80% of the songs played, but I find it’s always best to verify, just in case one has missed or mistaken something. There are normally a few lying around, one for each musician and one or two for the stagehands, but I found none, and asking Julian for a spare one he replied „ we don’t have one“. He followed up immediately with, „hang around though and I‘ll write one out for you“, and sure enough, after autographing a shed load of CDs for fans, this is what he actually did. So apologies if this report is a little longer than usual, but I felt that after Julian went to all the trouble of listing the songs, it would be most ungracious and impolite not to make the best use of it. So Julian, apart from being an amazing guitarist and singer/songwriter, is also an unusual hulk of a man who when he grimaces, sometimes almost menacingly, is really only smiling passionately, because he’s enjoying himself, life and his music so much.

Do try and catch some of that joy and pleasure for yourselves and go and see Julian Sas play live (tickets for next year in Bonn are almost sold out already) and failing that buy his latest CD „Bound to roll“

Mission Accomplished – The Julian Sas Band

Julian Sas English Website

Julian Sas German Website (to whom a big thank you for the pictures used here!)

Footnote:

It was 23:15 when I arrived back at the Gallician Foliada and although all the chestnuts had already been eaten there were still six pipers piping and now four drummers drumming away as I had left them five hours previously. Round about midnight the evening, like all good things, finally came to an end, but not without reflecting what a wonderful thing musical traditions are and a big thank you to Mr Music for arranging the now traditional annual Julian Sas musical pilgrimages in the Harmonie.

– John Harrison

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