The Deaf Institute is small but full this Bank Holiday Sunday and it’s an early start too. A guitar squeals out as fingers race furiously along its fretboard prior to the gutsy stroking of chords as Ben Poole tells us he can’t ‘Take It No More’. Heartbreak and life’s weariness are sighed out in whisper down the mic, add his modern manly looks to that and the horde of women downstairs out clubbing would go ape over him. There’s a fair few admirers here upstairs too. Personally speaking, I’m pleased that things are sounding a lot heavier and raunchier than on his records. Not bad going for saying this is a three piece, with his producer and former King King drummer Wayne Proctor beating out the rhythm at the back, and Beau Barnard on bass.
The sturdy rock of ‘Win You Over’ follows. With a 12 bar blues chord sequence that’s crunchy while being melodic it demonstrates the deftness of his strumming hand, harmonies add flavour, and although there’s not much room on stage Poole gives it some leg movement comes solo time.
“We’ve played 120 shows in 19 countries since September,” he informs us a little later. What’s more they only arrived from Belgium earlier today. It proves to be a short set, but features no lack of energy. The percussive rhythm of ‘Starts The Car’ revs up charging away as he solos and giving Proctor chance to flex his muscles underneath. Suitably warmed up, the guitarist removes his jacket as the rhythm section set up an almost reggae blues feel, before being joined by broken chords. ‘Cry For Me’ sees him plucking echoed notes and hammering-on in an act of pure testosterone as he throws guitar poses. Things slow down and he repeats a lick variation that gets louder before screeching out into 12 bars of rock and roll. They return on song, and the end there’s deserved long and loud applause.
He changes guitar again as they prepare to end their set with his latest album’s title track, ‘Anytime You Need Me’. Its slinky strutting dance rock again with a strong chord presence, ones that funk up in the choruses and give way for a wrangled neck wah-wah solo, followed by one on bass, then back to guitar as it all rocks towards a mighty crescendo. After tonight, I plan on re-evaluating young Mr Poole.
Half hour later there’s a big band perched on a little stage. Drums, bass, keys, trumpet and sax players line up and they’re all pretty tall guys, one a little wider than the rest playing before the introduction goes up: “Please welcome on stage Miss Ana Popović!” If you’ve seen her DVDs or been lucky enough to have caught her in the flesh live before you know this showbiz build-up is part of her shtick, fortunately she talented enough to carry it off. How she fits on stage, I’ve no idea, but she does and impressively they all maneuver about without tripping over each other while grooving to the music.
For the fashion hounds among you, she’s wearing a sparkly red and black corset style crop top, her leggings have a red spangled swirl down the right leg (Think Jimmy Page’s dragon suit for the attractive young blond of today) with a sunburst guitar to match and with which she starts fill on out the sound already being produced while added fire on top. “Good evening” she cries out into the microphone and we’re off into the Cry Baby blues of ‘Ana’s Shuffle’.
Time for some proper songs she sings sultry and savvy over both the offbeat funk rock of ‘Can You Stand the Heat’ and the jazzier ‘Object of Obsession’. The horn section is tight, beefing up the sound. She shrugs her shoulders, leans down on the one side and pours out liquid notes, the bass gets funky and her soloing becomes more soul injected. She really grips that neck, pulls in familiar licks builds them up, enthuses them with freshness and taste. Upbeat syncopation is what we’re getting tonight, with ‘Love You Tonight’ next.
There’s a lot of expressive waving of hands and running fingers through her hair as she sings, but when tricky time changes resound over a rumbling groove her fingers are there keen on her strings. She and the sax player trade licks, interplay, and solo. The musical interludes come and go and sometimes you’re not sure if they’ve changed tune. Most affecting during this section is a slow, sultry blues solo that gets into a sexy groove with piano tinkling away underneath before vocals enter the picture. The overall effect is like some lost 3 + 3-era Isley Brothers number with Gladys Knight singing over Ernie Isley’s aching guitar, only it’s a single Serbian lady accomplishes both feats. It ends with much applause.
The horns dance over funky blues, there’s happy rapturous piano playing, the intensity increasing and some super emotional solos that briefly gets interrupted by her amp playing up. “It doesn’t like English electricity” she complains. Not to be defeated she carries on playing, hollering out vocally while punctuating her words. A clavinet bring back the funk while Popović rocks out long and loud, she and and the bass play off each other as complicated time signatures ensue, then before you know it horn section’s standing either side of her, all facing audience and blasting away.
As the keyboard players takes ever more Max Middleton style jazz imbued chords she picks up a red Stratocaster and delivers a burning torch song, with mellows solos of inventive colour and deep character. This superior guitar playing, with her often looking for something new to say on the guitar and saying it in deft and deliberate manner.
‘If Tomorrow Was Today’ has her back with her sunburst finished guitar. It owes a little to The Stones’ ‘Miss You’ in its chord structure but is played as hard stomping blues rock tonight with her unleashes some ferocious slide playing, adding effects and showering it all in sexy Technicolor as the band gel tight around her. “My daddy was a preacher” she sings for the Albert King cover ‘Can’t You See What You’re Doing to Me’. Its gruff 12 bar sound pleasingly at odds with the more sophisticated grooves we’ve been tapping our feet to all night. She turns from playing sweetened boogie to Johnny Winter style hammer-on pneumatic pinging resounding as she plays left handed her right arm raised triumphantly in the air.
It’s an interesting audience, the crowd is pretty much mixed 50/50 male and female, a lot of couples, so when Ana Popović starts talking about female empowerment you know she’s unlikely to get any old fashioned raised eyebrows. It’s the subject matter of her latest album, Like It On Top, but let’s face it the double entendres of the title track are only a tad more subtle than your average Whitesnake number.
Sex is a powerful weapon though, and she uses it well, always dressed to kill; that she’s also a fantastic guitarist just adds to the whole package. ‘Like It On Top’ is more head butting funking blues rock, her bass guitar really giving it some. However, it’s a cover of Steely Dan’s ‘Night By Night’ that truly defines what the lady is about these days.
Blues and rock are where she started, jazzier melodies have long featured in her set, but tonight’s set swims deep in the slick west coast sounds of yesteryear given some modern oomph. Think the Dan, The Dobbie Brothers, and when she plays slide Little Feat. It has its eyes set on mainstream show business acceptance while strategically avoiding any sense of cabaret.
That stated, she gives the song a particularly dark blues feel, the lyrics taking on a greater sense of menace.
A jazzy chorded instrumental groove extends into savvy blues ending in a bolero like feel. There is colour, cohesion among her musicians but again her amp starts playing up again. She pulls through soling exquisitely with articulation save for those audial burps. “My amp is not happy with me and I don’t know if we’re going to finish the next number but we’ll give it a try,” she declared. Having got through to the other side she sounds like she’s in need of some shopping therapy, asking for recommendations as she has a day off tomorrow.
There’s one more number and as she leaves stage the band plays on. Recollecting songs that have stood out during the evening ‘How’d You Learn To Shake It Like That?’ was a good time bump and grind sing along, ‘Brand New Man’ hardy blues shuffle with extra swing, her solo simply gorgeous on it and ‘Johnnie Ray’ a mid-set highlight. The band conclude and leave the stage. The audience call out for more, but are audibly disappointed when the lights come on.
The lack of encore is frustrating. The show started earlier than expected so there was plenty of time before any Sunday night curfew (and one also got the impression the place was going to be a night club later). Was she too annoyed and frustrated by the disruptive sounds from her amp? Let’s hope it was that rather than any diva like qualities emerging. Regardless, live she proved a fantastic guitarist tonight.