Posters for her current ‘Power’ Tour proudly proclaim “The Blues Queen is Back!” and there’s no doubt that Ana Popovic has been away from Bonn for quite a while. That pause was down not just to Covid and her move to The States, but also due to a fight with Cancer that she has thankfully won. She looks as bewitching as ever in those posters, but is she truly still the Blues Queen? There was a packed house at Bonn Harmonie to find out.
Early arrivals at the Harmonie were rewarded with a fine set of raw acoustic blues from the excellent Richie Arndt. Even though it was a solo spot there was barely enough space to fit his stool and a couple of steel/dobro guitars in amongst the gear for Ana and her five-piece band. Richie’s admiration for Rory Gallagher showed in the choices of Empire State Express, Statesboro Blues and Bankers Blues, all of which Rory has covered, and whilst Richie didn’t quite manage to play all of the 19 songs on his handwritten set list in the 45 minutes provided he did finish with a winner in his fine cover of ‘Walking in Memphis’. Definitely a set worth getting to the show in good time for!
I’ve been following the musical career of Ana Popovic since her appearance with Sue Foley and Candye Kane on the 2005 Blues Caravan Tour and saw her a number of times and in a variety of German venues whilst I was a co-administrator of her website back in the day. What drew me to her music then was not only her stellar guitar-playing ability but also her clear confidence in knowing what she wanted and going for it. There were times during those memorable concerts, her instrumental showpiece ‘Navajo Moon’ being the prime example, when she tended to get too much into the technical nuances of playing and had less attentive audience members headed for the bar.
At Bonn Harmonie in 2023, there is no ‘Navajo Moon’, but the pendulum slipped back a little too much the other way at times for my taste. No more long guitar pieces, but instead, what seemed at times like a relentless rhythm attack. No complaint about the musical abilities of her band. Michele Papadia is the only surviving member of Ana’s original European Band and has a delicate way of adding melody without swamping the sound. Claudio GioVagnoli (sax) and Davide Ghidori (trumpet) are almost a concert in themselves over on stage right. It’s great to watch their inter-play and at one point that becomes literal when Claudio fingers the buttons on Davide’s trumpet whilst the latter plays with one hand behind his back. They are all top-notch musicians onstage. But they do all seem to be playing all the time. A short acoustic set like the old days offered would have added to the dynamics.
The set-list is almost exclusively from Ana’s new disc ‘Power’ with nothing going back to her pre-move to America days. The Jazz/Blues of her original trio with Denis Palatin and Fabrice Ach and the Pop/Rock Blues of the later band don’t get a look in. It’s very much an all-out funk rock attack that I guess is fuelled by her collaboration with Buthel the bass player who seems to have become something of a mentor to Ana and is co-writer on most of the new songs as well as adding a powerful funk veneer to everything that’s played.
It’s ironic that Ana has finally and justly been acknowledged by Fender with her own custom-made Stratocaster at a time when the focus has shifted away from her guitar playing towards her songwriting skills. That toughness and positivity that brought her through Covid and Cancer is conveyed in her choice of subject. ‘Queen of the Pack’ is more an assertion of power. Being the ‘Boss Lady’ as Ana describes her role as bandleader. ‘Rise Up’ is about believing in what you see as right and against injustice. They’re heavier themes than the earlier songs and better stated than similar texts and themes as in 2007’s ‘Still Making History’ although I miss the rockier sound of those days.
Ana still goes for that big instrumental build-up from the band before she steps onstage. It always makes me think of BB King who kicked off his shows in a similar fashion. The first number is that very get up and support what you believe in song that I referred to, ‘Rise Up’. Proof that the lady herself has risen up these last years (the latest CD was a Billboard #1) is ‘Foggy’, Ana’s affectionate nickname for the custom Strat. Its steamy chrome finish fits the steamy glasses of many an audience member around me as Ana proves her legs just get longer and her trousers tighter on every tour. It’s a new guitar of course and doesn’t have the aged worn elegance and warmth of tone that comes from old guitars. Is that possible when one talks about electric instruments? Can wood define a sound made by electrically generated string vibrations? I certainly notice that as the evening wears on it’s her ’64 Stratocaster that is ‘weapon of choice’. She wields it expertly but, as already noted, not so extensively on solos as in past years.
There’s no doubt that Ana still performs with her former passion though. The lyrics on ‘Doin’ This’ say it all:
“I Feel Good when I’m doin’ this” and, looking at my photos from the evening I see that same ‘in the moment’ expression, with eyelids half closed like she is looking at us but feeling like she’s a million miles away jamming with Stevie Ray and Jimi.
Despite all the tracks played from her new disc, my favourite of the evening comes with the encore. ‘Slow Dance’ from 2018’s ‘I Like it on Top’ release is a song that sits perfectly in her vocal range and doesn’t need an all-out Funk attack from the whole band to carry it off. It’s simple and effective. Less is more.
She has that house and a fine family in California and she’s had a number one placing on Billboard that has put her where she wanted to be and seemed destined to be during those long tours around Europe fifteen years ago. Ana Popovic is very much on top these days, and that’s just how she likes it. As always, Ana knows what she wants and works hard to get it. I would be disappointed if she was any other way even if she is more Princess of Funk than Blues Queen these days.