Ana Popović @Newcastle The Cluny, May 7 2019
The beaming chap stood a couple of yards from Ana Popović’s right foot knew he’d made the correct choice just as soon as the Serbian’s impossibly fine backing band burst into life. Having bought tickets for two shows on the same night – on opposite banks of the Tyne – it was a last-gasp call to ditch rising star Samantha Fish for one of the finest blues guitarists in a generation. It might have seemed like cheating on the wife. Going behind your girlfriend’s back. Or unceremoniously standing up your other half. But it was the right call.
With all due respect to Kansas City’s Fish – fresh from a career-boosting spot on Radio Two the previous night – Popović delivered a dynamic set that was as passionate as it was peerless. It was impossible to imagine a better show anytime, anywhere. Ten years away from the North East seemed like a few moments as Popović swiftly reacquainted herself with the expectant locals before embarking on a simply breathtaking journey through the blues.
And what made this show so very special was the crazily high standard of the five guys flanking a singer songwriter enjoying some of the best years of her creative life. Rootsy rhythm, a humdinger of a horn section and keys that sounded like they’d descended from heaven made for a truly magical soundscape – regularly and riotously punctuated by Popovic’s trademark tone and classy touch.
At no point did this feel like a chilly Tuesday in Newcastle. Think a New Orleans basement bar, Nashville auditorium or dimly lit Hollywood hangout – Popović and her band transported the masses to their fantasy venue before cosying up in the corner with their smitten converts.
This was pure escapism illuminated by instinctive excellence. No doubt honed by hours of painstaking preparation, a joyously ambitious set nevertheless had the feel of an improvised jam where personality rather than precision was the prevalent theme. Pitched perfectly, it pushed the limits of what’s possible in 90 minutes.
An unforgettable evening in the company of the award-winning Popović was perfectly summed up within a thrilling rendition of Johnnie Ray – the soaring finale following one of the set’s more intimate moments as Belgrade’s finest deftly tapped her fret board with little more than a faint snare for company. Blues is all about a varied palette and here it was allowed to shine.
The Hammond-style keys at the heart of If Tomorrow Was Today, from disc one of 2016’s ambitious Trilogy, were a treat to behold juxtaposed alongside chunky riffs and Popović’s persuasive vocal. And is there a better groove in modern blues than that which trademarks Unconditional?
Well-travelled troubadour Ben Poole had been charged with warming things up and his life on the road is paying dividends. An understated vocal style might appear weak compared to contemporaries Kris Barras and Jack J Hutchinson but Poole can be proud without being loud. Don’t Cry For Me was a classic case in point as his guitar gently wept alongside lyrics built to last. Poole knows his strengths and any weaknesses are far from obvious.
Exclusive Images By John Burrows