Gemini by name – Gemini by nature. Canada’s Darling of the Blues Layla Zoe presented a dynamic concert at Bonn Harmonie recently, showcasing both hard and soft sides to her music that perfectly mirrored her star-sign.
Before I get started on my review, where were you music lovers of Bonn? The latest release by Layla is really a gem of a disc. The Harmonie was comfortably filled, but for someone really in the prime of their music-making, and with a super band behind her, as Layla is right now, it should have been packed.
If my glowing review of the new disc led you to buy it, you will know that ‘Gemini’ is in two parts – soft/hard or maybe even light/dark. The same is true for Layla’s current concerts. The result is an evening covering quite a large musical spectrum that extends far out beyond Rock/Pop and Blues. There’s a Mystical side with ‘Mumbai’, Folk with ‘I Can’t imagine my life without you‘, not forgetting The Reggae tinged ‘Little Sister’.
Such a varied set is certainly a test of musicianship for the men behind Layla, but one that they master with Bravado. I’ve seen Claus Schulte behind the drumkit at Dottendorf Jazz Club before, so I know his range of styles is good. Christoph Hübner on bass is so slightly built that he’s almost invisible sideways on. His eyes are closed for some 80% of the show it seems (I recall seeing Layla looking up at his closed-eye concentration at one point as if she was about to say something and realizing, with a smile, he wouldn’t see her anyway). In the event, he doesn’t need to see the beat, he feels it and keeps it perfectly along with Schulte.
At precisely 8pm though both Schulte and Hübner are backstage as Layla Zoe and Jan Laacks take their seats onstage for the ‘Fragility’ (acoustic) side of the evening. Strictly speaking, it’s not completely acoustic. Laacks has four guitars in his rack, and only one is a Yamaha acoustic. The difference between an acoustic guitar amplified and an electric one really isn’t so great, it’s a matter of how you create the sound they produce – and Jan Laacks is, for my money (and not a few others here tonight I hear later) one of the best in the business when it comes to getting the ‘right’ sound out of six strings.
Like the disc, the show begins with the slow-burning, world-weary ‘She didn’t Believe’. It’s a perfect opener to set the relaxed pace of this set, but I’m glad afterwards to hear Laacks pick up the Yamaha and dig his slide deep into its frets for the deep-bluesy intro to ‘I’ll be reborn blues’. It’s the first time I’ve heard him playing down-home acoustic Blues and, like every other style he takes up, Laacks nails it perfectly.
I never took to ‘Can’t imagine my life without you’ on the CD and it doesn’t work better on my ears live either. Sorry, Layla, I find the lyrics are too ‘twee’. The only good thing to say here is that hearing them sent me to a dictionary to discover a new word and it’s meaning – ‘touk’. I’m relieved when the music returns to gritty Blues with the tale of Hermann Wallace and ‘The Deeper They Bury Me’. The true tale of Wallace and his tragic life is even grittier than Laack’s guitar can muster – and that is gritty indeed.
Musically, ‘Mumbai’ is the complete opposite. How do you recreate the hypnotic and exotic sound of the studio take? It takes ‘Fingerspitzengefühl’ as the Germans say. Jan Laacks really has to tease out every note, weighed like gold-dust and given just the right final weight by delicate use of his guitar tremolo arm. It’s the perfect number to underline that ‘Gemini’ is actually the combined talents of two Geminians – Zoe’s passionate and thoughtful lyrics combined with Laack’s musical score. There’s a twenty-minute break in which to ask how they can top this sets magic.
Like part one, Part two – ‘Courage’ follows closely the chronology of the disc. ‘Weakness’ explodes all the more, following as it does the previous set. Layla lives her songs so much that I feel like I have to take refuge and avoid her glare as she snarls out “Men can’t help it honey – they’re just weak!” to a Led Zepp style riff. ‘Dark World’ and ‘Ghost Train’ continue the rock-out. Talking about Led Zepp, earlier is it a coincidence that a track here about old Rockers is labelled ‘White Dog’? Well, probably yes, but if Layla isn’t about to replace Robert Plant, she sure has a voice to out-match many an old rocker. “New Blues Pussy is moving in. She’s got something to say, your time has come!”. A powerhouse performance indeed, and even though I’ve moved to a place well away from the stage I can still feel the firegirl’s fiery heat during ‘Gemini’ and, most fiercely, during ‘Bitch with the head of red’.
There is some respite with ‘Roses and Lavender’ dedicated to Layla’s Niece and Nephew in Canada, but the second set really is like an erupting volcano with its showers of intensity. From the back of the hall, it seems a little calmer with several metres between myself and the self-styled ‘Bitch with the head of red’. Until ‘Are you still Alive’ that is. As the band launch into the second verse, Layla disappears from the stage, to appear moments later in the audience, imploring every single one of them individually it seemed to answer her question: “Are you still alive?!” It really was an unforgettable few minutes that seemed to step outside of music and into something altogether more spiritual.
My two favourite female Blues-Rock singers are Layla and Dana Fuchs. Both possess an uncanny ability to change into spiritual Faith Healers with a Church of their very own denomination – It may not have a name, but I’m very much a believer. Music can indeed heal the Soul. Listening later to the CD again I can’t help but feel the emotional performances on it are even greater than here onstage tonight. Songs that were medicine to the singer and are now also medicine to the listener.
If you’re planning a visit to one of the remaining dates on Layla’s tour then be prepared for a roller-coaster of emotions, one of the best voices in Blues-Rock and one of the best guitarists in Europe (if not the World). One of this year’s very best CD’s played live in fact. Don’t forget the fire-proof jacket though – this show is hot!