“Just got home after a hell of a gig in hell’s kitchen: the Harmonie Bonn” – Julian Sas describing his sold out 15th gig in consecutive years at the venue. If this is Hell then maybe the Devil does indeed have the best music…
As usual when I walk in the door of the Harmonie on a Julian Sas night the talk is of Sas, of Blues and of Rory Gallagher. As usual too, most of it is in Dutch. The familiar triumvirate of Rock guitarists smiles out on the front of a dozen ‘Dutch Blues Club’ T shirts – Hendrix, Gallagher and, of course on an evening like this, Julian Sas. It seems appropriate this year more than ever with Sas just having picked up an award for ‘Best Performance Musician’ in the prestigious European Blues Awards, and knowing the big Dutchman’s love for playing live I’m pretty sure he will be able to deliver on that title this evening.
By the time Sas and his band arrive onstage there is barely room to breathe, let alone move. It doesn’t stop the smiling fans around me from sending out ‘runners’ to collect a half dozen beers on regular intervals though and somehow they manage in the next almost three hours to even take pictures – of each other, of the band, and indeed of each other with the band behind. There are regular arrivals beside me of cellphone wielding Dutchmen and women taking a quick shot before disappearing again into a thick forest of waving hands and smiling faces.
The set-up onstage has changed somewhat from last year’s show. Where Tenny Tahamata used to lay down the bass lines is where tonight Roland Bakker presides over his Roland Synthesizer and Crumar Mojo Organ. Tellingly I notice that the mike stand of Sas is also over to this side, leaving a gap front of stage before new bass player Fotis Agagnostou. As far as band placement onstage goes it seems odd but all makes sense as the evening progresses and it becomes apparent how much Sas draws on interplay with Bakker. It really adds a welcome new dimension to the music.
The result is a Julian Sas Band sounding even better and rock solider than I remember in the past (and they were no slouches back then either!). When Bakker and Sas hit the chords together there’s a new found punch, and when they play off each other, as they do on the CD title track ‘Coming Home’ it’s really a revelation of almost Gospel dimensions.
New bassman Fotis Agagnostou makes regular forays across to join Sas and whenever Sas himself goes over to the bass players stage side Agagnostou takes the opportunity to swap notes and smiles with Bakker. I sometimes muse whether bass players are given a specific spatial circumference outside of the lead singer/guitarist into which they ‘shall not pass’. It looks like a boxing sparring match at times between the two but adds to the onstage musical tension that the band radiate so well.
If you found that previous Sas gigs sometimes started to sound samey after an hour then those days are very definitely gone. There’s always a keyboard flourish and response from Sas on Gibson Goldtop, Firebird or Fender Strat. You can almost take a bet on the song from the guitar selection. Something bluesy with slide? Firebird, something smoothe like the dreamy long time crowd pleaser ‘Blues for the Lost & Found? Gold top, or indeed something from Gallagher? Everyone has their eye on the Stratocaster in Sas’ guitar rack and hopes…
Hoping for that particular guitar choice tonight I’m sure too is Mr Music, Bernie Gelhausen. Sas reminds everyone that Bernie’s support is the reason he comes to the Harmonie every year and insists we all go down to the shop on Monday “and spend a thousand Euros”. I reasoned with Mr Gelhausen once that the shows are sell-outs so why the special photo tickets, why all the posters? “It’s a part of the show” was his vindication. It’s actually going an extra mile that sadly these days too few people bother to go in fact – as Sas himself does on this very stage – the goldtop Gibson showing up his blood from the impassioned playing in crimson relief around the tone pot.
Lots of new material is on offer but the older songs all seem to have a new lease of life tonight. ‘Sugarcup Boogie’ get’s everyone moving despite the seeming scientific impossibility of doing so given the space we all have. The same goes for “A tribute to Chuck Berry” with ‘Devil Got my Number’ and the steam-train velocity of ‘Statesboro Blues’.
You couldn’t force such a devoted audience out of the hall until all the lights were on and someone could actually prove that Julian Sas had left the building, and anyway, that Fender Strat is still there waiting… so chants of ‘Julian!’, ‘Julian!’ at ear bending decibels follow. The Man himself is more than ready to oblige. Tuning up a Les Paul Junior he promises to a rousing cheer: “Give me one minute. I’ll take all your hearts out tonight!”. Next up is ‘Bullfrog Blues’, promise delivered on, and audience suitably wild.
“This is one we haven’t played for a long while” he announces. It starts slow, it builds on a slide riff, it sounds momentarily as if Mr Gallagher’s ‘Million Miles Away’ is coming, but Sas is in a playful mood and switches track into another gloriously hard hitting Rory classic ‘Shadow Play’. Impossibly, it hits even harder than the version offered a few weeks ago here by Rory’s own band – kudos here particularly to Rob Heijne who I think would have been on Rory’s shortlist had he been around and playing like this in the 70’s.
The set finished an hour ago but Julian Sas is still signing autographs and talking guitars and foot pedals to the Dutch Blues Fan Club. I chance throwing in a question in English: “How do you play with so much emotion non-stop for three hours?”. Sas knows the answer immediately, “Well you know I get up onstage and everyone around me is happy, laughing, cheering and having such a good time already so really I have it easy – all I have to do is play”
Tickets for next year’s party (with a 3songsbonn image on them!) are already available, but selling fast…