Erja Lyytinen – Rocking the Harmonie

Erja Lyytinen’s Facebook profile currently sports a photo of the lady in a hard rock pose and flanked by a solid wall of Marshall amps. Bonn council will be pleased to know that she doesn’t have this sound system on tour with her but it certainly tells you where Erja is musically in 2023. Is she releasing the inner Lemmy? By 8:15 pm at Bonn Harmonie we will know for sure.

But first, we have some Blue notes to hear and it’s not surprising, given the singing style of Maggie Mackenthun, that she and partner Gerhard Sagemüller call themselves Kosmic Blue – a nod to the band behind legendary vocalist Janis Joplin. The duo don’t aim to change the World with their music but simply let their love for singing and playing rub off on the audience – which it does from the first song.  Although they do have a full-band set-up, tonight it’s a trio and down to Gerhard to provide rhythm guitar, lead guitar, and drums.  Which he manages very well and always with a smile.

It was pretty much an all-Blues set apart from the self-written German number, ‘Das Leben ist Schön’ composed during the Covid epidemic with an always look on the bright side of life attitude. The song made a nice change linguistically and musically but a meaty electro-acoustic blues is what Kosmic Blue seem to do best. , Maggie and Gerhard have shared a lot of years and stages together and it shows in their easy rapport with the audience. Returning to that Janis Joplin connection Maggie tells us with a smile that the final song tonight was penned by one of the many men that Janis had a fling with, and Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ proved to be the best song of an enjoyable set. If you like your Blues with a retro tint from the heart then you really should give Kosmic Blue a listen.

If, on the other hand, you like your Blues with a hard rock tint then you would, perhaps surprisingly, also have been on 7th heaven tonight with Erja Lyytinen touring currently as a power trio that nudges strongly into Taste/Cream/Hendrix territory. It’s a big musical step from the slide-blues that first won the hearts of Harmonie fans when Erja was here in 2006 as a part of the Blues Caravan. The lady has charisma by the bucket load though and a smile that is guaranteed to get you on her side even before she plugs in her guitar and lets rip.

Erja is so well established in Bonn now that the audience is clapping along from the very first chords of the opener ‘Diamonds on the Road’. Even this early in the proceedings it’s clear to me that this is going to be a set of hard-hitting rock music. Liro Laitinen has an attacking style that is very much in the Ted McKenna ‘hit ’em hard’ school of percussion. Heikki Saarenkunnas may be playing bass finger style but he’s keeping it deep and rumblingly rocky for the most part. Yep, this will not be a set to fall asleep during for sure.

The set is pretty much the one on Erja’s latest live CD ‘Diamonds on the Road’ but that’s where the similarity ends. Tonight the bass player is very much heavier than the usual Tatu Back playing in Erja’s band and there is sadly no keyboard to add an extra bit of texture. ‘Rocking Chair’, ‘Bad Seed’ and ‘Black Ocean’ are suitably heavier than the already rocking versions on disc. There are some somewhat lighter moments in the set as on ‘Waiting for the Daylight’ but you could almost see the leashes straining on the band to get back into a hard and heavy riff, and indeed ‘You Talk Dirty’ sounds like it’s riff could have come straight from Led Zeppelin III.

‘Wedding Day’ provides a brief respite with a delicate opening ‘La Vie en Rose’ melody beautifully played by Erja but, all too soon for my liking, the band are cutting loose again and putting their heavy stamp on the proceedings.

It’s no surprise, especially given the trio set-up this evening, that the Hendrix classic ‘Crosstown Traffic’ makes for a powerful first encore. It is surprising though that things actually cool down a little for the evening’s final number ‘End of Music’. It’s been a loud and spirited set and even if I would have wished for the foot to come off the gas a little more musically I did enjoy the band’s energy and particularly bassman Heikki Saarenkumas who has a great heavy rock sound not to mention wonderfully expressive facial expressions that say how much he’s digging what the band is playing. It’s also true to say that Erja kept the audience with her all evening from the clap-along opener to cajoling everyone into finding the energy to raise cellphones in the modern equivalent of a swaying cigarette lighter salute to the closer.

I miss the smoother musical touch of past shows; I miss ‘Steamy Windows’ and I miss Erja’s steamy slide playing on ‘Soul of a Man’. When I asked her about the power trio sound later she made it clear that it’s her music and her choice. She is of course absolutely right, and the happy, smiling, sweaty faces leaving the Harmonie were proof enough that her audience has enough hard rockers at heart in it’s ranks to fill the hall again next time around. Or will she have a different sound by then? That’s up to Erja. But whatever the sound and whoever the musicians, you can be sure it will be played with a smile from the heart.

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