Ana Popovic Rides the Funk Train at Bonn Harmonie

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.

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RosaWay – Stranger (Infinity Gritty/Ropeadope Records)

Stéphane Avellaneda will be familiar to many readers.  I remember first seeing him as the new drummer behind Ana Popovic some years ago now.  My thoughts then were that he was a rock drummer and that he was LOUD too!.  After a couple of shows though, it became apparent that Stéphane could also play subtle accompaniments too, and was a man always ready to experiment a little with the sound.  Of course, within the confines of the Ana Popovic Band, it was the lady in charge who dictated the shots.  Fair enough, it’s her band and her songs.  Fast forward to 2019, and with Ana Popovic now ripping it up a storm Stateside for much of the year with her band, Stéphane has taken the opportunity to team up with French vocalist/flautist Rachel Ombredane to make an intriguing debut disc via Kickstarter donations.  The result is a duo named RosaWay and an excellent Jazz/Synthpop EP named ‘Stranger’

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Ana Popovic – Can You Stand The Heat (AErec003)

 APheat“I wanted to capture the hot Memphis summer, the greasy Stax sound,” – Ana Popovic

 For all those people who identify Ana Popovic  purely with the Blues it’s worth noting that she has been using words like ‘Funk’ and  ‘Jazz’ in descriptions of  her sound since the early days of ‘Hush’ in her native Serbia. Certainly, if you didn’t catch those styles within the laser grooves of her previous discs then you undoubtedly will on this one.  ‘Can You Stand The Heat’  is probably the closest she has come to producing the sound that was in her head from those early days, and if I say closest’ it’s only because, perfectionist that Ana is, I suspect she is already working on any weaknesses that occurred on the new CD.   Has she got a lot to work on?  Find out here.

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Ana Popovic in Koblenz

Evenings are lighter, the Cherry Tree in the garden has blossoms, and Ana Popovic is back at Café Hahn.  Three sure signs that Spring is here and all is right with the World.

Things are certainly right with Ana Popovic right now.  She’s just returned from her most successful American tour yet, with ‘Sold Out’ signs fast becoming a regular  feature on  the doors and windows of venues Stateside.  Her ‘live video ‘An Evening at Trasimeno Lake’ has garnered lots of well deserved praise , and she’s recently finished work on her next CD who’s release around July this year will coincide with a concert right here in Bonn supporting the most famous and revered Bluesman on the planet, Mr BB King, at the Museumsplatz.   Not that the huge audience expected for the King of the Blues will distract Ana – last years Beer Festival in her hometown of Belgrade saw her perform in front of a sobering 75.000 people.

Ana Popovic Band in Koblenz

The APB in action

At Café Hahn in Koblenz on this pleasantly warm evening the audience is very much smaller but no less attentive as Ana mesmerizes with her guitar magic.  Flying Dutchman Ronald Jonker on Bass introduces her  still in the manner of Fabrice Ach when I first saw her in Koblenz seven years ago.  I doubt there is anyone here who doesn’t know her now though – most of this audience has probably come back every year since as I have. 

The intro might not have changed much since 2005 but the music that follows it and it’s presentation certainly has.  The old three piece band always had something of a jazz feel about it and the show had a slightly lighter touch that tended to drift off into long solos – which tended to lead to a similar drift to the bar from the hardcore Bluesrock fans present.  In 2011 though there is no drifting off to the bar.  The band and their blonde tousle haired leader hit the stage running musically and stay there for two hours of high octane Rock/Blues.

As always Ana Popovic is as good to look at as she is to hear.  Her entrance onstage this year brings even more cheers than usual as she appears in a leather skirt and trademark leather studded high boots.  The outfit is an indication of the way the evening is going to be musically.  The rockier moments from Ana’s recent discs  are well represented in storming renditions of her best up-tempo  numbers like ‘Nothing Personal’, Hold On’, and ‘Steal me Away’ with it’s ‘coming right atcha!’ chug along guitar riff.

Quieter moments when they come are slow Blues rockers like her marvelous ‘Blues for M’ and of course Ana’s tribute to Steve  Ray ‘Navajo Moon’.  The latter is always my touchstone to Ana’s development,   a constant throughout the years I’ve seen her.  It was the number that in the early shows first brought people to the stage through it’s staggering array of guitar playing dexterity, only to lose them again when the dexterity seemingly teetered on the edge of self indulgence.  In 2011 it’s been stripped down – not from it’s complexity because it still has a high ‘wow’ factor – but into raw emotion.  It builds and builds and just when you think it can’t get any higher, Popovic switches from plectrum to finger picking and pushes it a little further in the direction of heaven.  In short, these days everyone listens and bar sales are down!

Ana Popovic in Koblenz

Red Hot - Ana Popovic and band in Koblenz

Following Ana’s time spent in New Orleans with Producer John Porter there are also a couple of new numbers on offer this evening.  “Don’t be too hard on us” Ana pleads to the audience.  “We’re still playing these songs in at the moment”  The good news for all Blues fans is that both songs are a return to her bluesier roots.  The first “Unconditional” could be a further take from her last, love themed, ‘Blind for Love’ CD and the second ‘Worksong’? is more rootsier.  “It won’t all be Blues, but there will be more Blues than before” is how she later described it to me.  Good news indeed for Blues lovers.  The same bluesy emotion rings out in ‘Sitting on top of the World’ which made a welcome return to the set-list after a lengthy absence.  A song full of fire and emotion.   Indeed the best moments in an Ana Popovic concert are are when the lady just closes her eyes to play more from her heart and less from her fingers.  I would love to have had an acoustic set from her on Friday with numbers like ‘Calendars’ and ‘Blind for Love’ as she did a couple of years ago, but with every new release there are more great rocksongs songs to play and acoustic has taken a back seat.  If you feel the same then you will be pleased to hear that Ana is planning to record an unplugged show at Linoui, Luxembourg this coming October.  Maybe there will be an acoustic Tour to go with it?  I can’t imagine an entire evening without Ana and a Strat hung from her petite shoulder.

Did I mention the APB?  Ana’s band has been together now for some six years and it shows in their seamless interplay.  I forgive Stephane Avellaneda for always forcing me to check the spelling of his surname because he has really made the drum-stool position in the band his own.  He and bassman Ronald Jonker are a formidable rhythm combination and although they laugh and smile back and forth throughout the show it’s clear they could be locked in two separate rooms in two separate Countries and still keep the beat to perfection.  Both are fexible musicians but it’s clear they are rockers by nature.  Avellaneda has a powerful style and Jonker has just released a CD with his own band ‘Toaster’ which is in the best 70’s Hard Rock tradition.  Blues or Hard Rock, Mike Papadia on Hammond can be relied on to deliver the right emotional tone from his corner of the stage. Despite sitting on the opposite stage side from his fellow band members he’s right there with them on the beat and rythm as well as giving Ana someone to trade riffs with.

Ana Popovic and Band in Koblenz

Papadia, Popovic and Jonker making music

Blues fans have a tendency to be critical about musicians who have risen through the ranks on Blues music and Blues labels to find a more mainstream level of success.  In an interview I did with Henrik Freischlader the German Blues Star recognized the need for innovation to get youngsters ‘feeling the groove’ and into the music.  I saw Ana’s father taking a walk in the morning air the day after Ana’s show.  He was proud that Ana has her own musical style.  “Your daughter is very special” I told him.  “Yes” he smiled “ but of course I would say so, she is my daughter “.  Well I am in no way related to Ana Popovic, so take it from me, without any bias whatsoever, Ana is a special talent.  If her musical journey takes her away from the Blues we will have a fresh sound to enjoy – and if, as the next release promises, her journey takes her back to the Blues – we will have a lot to enjoy too.  So you can have your cake and eat it too.  Food for thought indeed.    If you were in two minds over the price of a ticket for BB King at Museumsplatz in July remember there’s a second good reason to be there and the ladies name isn’t ‘Lucille’ it’s Ana!