Ana Popovic + Toby Lee
Friday 10th March 2023
O2 Academy Islington, London
Ahead of the internationally renowned singer and guitarist's compelling new eleven-track album, 'Power', the result of her recent journey battling breast cancer, that's due to be released on ArtisteXclusive Records on Friday 5th May, Serbian Blues artist Ana Popovic stopped off at London's O2 Academy Islington on Friday night, the middle leg of her five-date UK tour, with special guest Toby Lee, a former recipient of the 2018 UK Blues Awards Young Blues Artist of the Year, no less, at the tender age of just 13!
Toby Lee became a global sensation after building an on-line following playing guitar at BB King's Blues Club in 2015 when he was just ten years old. Inevitably, the Shakespeare country kid was tagged as the "future of the Blues", that also saw him, not unsurprisingly, as a fixture in the stage show, 'School Of Rock', plus three release under his guitar belt, namely his 2017 EP '10', followed by 'Aquarius' in 2021 and finally last year's covers album, 'Icons Vol 1'. Similarly, last April at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, the WRC caught the impressive six string guitarist supporting another Queen of the Blues, Joanne Shaw Taylor.
Given a welcome early curfew at the larger downstairs venue, Lee kicked off his half hour guest slot with a plethora of photographers, albeit with some unfortunate punters obviously not aware of the 7.15pm start. Thankfully, I was there to witness Toby launch into his stonking six-song set with "Lets play some music guys", as his power trio loosened up with 'The One'. Lee's question to the gathering audience on "How are you doing this evening?" was met with a massive thumbs up, as he aired a newbie, 'Time Ain't What It Used To Be', that not saw an outstanding solo from the Gibson endorsed guitarist, but also a good old fashioned traditional grimace, given his fresh young face.
Toby's different, but sublime take on the classic Leiber Stoller Blues hit 'Kansas City', that's also featured on the aforementioned 'Aquarius', reminded me of the innocent style of Connor Selby, with Lee's wah-wah pedal eventually going into overdrive, backed up by the powerful engine room of Sam Collins on bass and Max Williams on drums. It was then time to slow things down slightly with the beautifully constructed, 'Paper Aeroplanes', which was followed by another from 'Aquarius', 'The Search For Happiness', that inevitably drew comparisons with the mannerisms of a young Joe Bonamassa, the floppy hair, another incredible guitar solo, and a strong vocal that belies his years, that will only, like JB, mature and getter better over time. Indeed, Lee covers JB's 'The Ballad Of John Henry' on his 'Icons' album, as he also does with Jeff Healey's, 'Can You See The Light', his storming finish to too short a set, the one consolation witnessing Toby's Gary Moore-like gurn (who is also covered on 'Icons') as Lee closed out with another glorious solo.
In fact, Toby's likeable personality obviously worked wonders given his merchandise plug at the end of his set, so much so that the queue was still there as the main event was about to start! Indeed, the last time the WRC caught Ana Popovic was September last year on an extremely cold Sunday night, although by all accounts, her band, including bassist Buthel Burns, warmed the hearts of the Swiss Paillote Festival audience. Given this was the first time I had seen Ana - more of the same tonight please!
Cue the apt horns accompaniment of Prince & The New Power Generation's 'Sexy M. F.' as Ana Popovic, sporting thigh high leopard skin boots, fishnets and a slit skirt, with her long blonde hair falling around her shoulders, was heralded onto the stage with a Jazz jam from her band, consisting of Jerry Kelley - drums, backing vocals, Michele Papadia - keyboards, Claudio Giovagnoli – saxophone, Davide Ghidoni -trumpet, not forgetting the aforementioned Burns.
Wow - what an entrance as the sassy Serb bowed in front an ecstatic, swollen crowd, before letting rip and meaning business with a breathtaking guitar salvo on 'Can You Stand The Heat', the title track from her 2017 album, that also saw thunder thumbs Buthel stepping up to the plate. "What's Up London?" shrieked Popovic, before demanding "Let me see those hands up", as she launched Duracell Bunny-like into another from 'CYSTH', namely 'Object Of Obsession'. 'Love You Tonight' from 2016's 'Triology', then gave the opportunity for her amazing waistcoated horns section to shine, particularly Giovagnoli's sax solo that seamlessly melded into another unbelievable solo from Popovic.
After requesting that we give it up for Toby Lee, Ana's take on her cover of Tom Waits' 'New Coat Of Paint', (that also on 'Trilogy'), had everything, not only taking you back to those days of the Speakeasy with bar room pianos, trumpets and a female singer (of which I definitely detected a Streisand vibe in Ana's vocal), but also a bit of Reggae, another Giovagnoli sax solo plus an unusual solo on her red guitar that saw Popovic kicking her pedals with those boots. Taken from her latest album, the passionate, Santana sounding, 'Power Over Me', saw a fab solo on Papadia's Yamaha, although talking to Michele afterwards about their setlist, and the fact that they don't have one, as it's all spur of the moment stuff apparently, I'm sure that the similar sounding Samba vibe of 'Ride It (Till The Wheels Fall Off)' followed next?
Again at odds with Setlist FM, the Jazz Funk of 2016 album title track 'Like It On Top', with Popovic's 'Shaft' guitar vibe was next, that demonstrated both the tightness and the chemistry of the band, as they all stood in line at the front of the stage at the end of this master blaster. "Doing Alright?" politely enquired Ana, before another from the new album, the tender ballad, 'Luv'n Touch', with its Bacharach vibe, matched by an equally beautiful tone on Popovic's red guitar. Thankfully, I was not the only one slow on the draw when Popovic asked the audience for the name of her new album. Of course, Ana sweetly obliged, as she answered with the striking and dynamic 'Queen Of The Pack' from 'Power', and then reinforced the message with another, the slide guitar and keys of the sexy 'Strong Taste'.
The short, but ever so sweet, Blues of 'Brand New Man', and another from 'Like It On Top', 'Lasting Kind Of Love', included well deserved band intros from Ana, before the aptly named 'Doin' This', another relentless driver with that Carlos S. feel, from the new album, brought this exhilarating set to a close, including a drum solo from Jerry, who with Buthel, must obviously shop at the same tailor's at Nile Rodgers, who in turn was jokingly fanning down Claudio, during another combustible sax solo, before one final guitar solo from Ana.
Of course the crowd cried for more, and given we were well inside the 10pm curfew, the sextet duly obliged with the opener from the new album, the boldly assertive anthem 'Rise Up', written by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, as we felt the rumble again with a shaking, bouncy drum solo from Parisian Kelley, complemented by some stand out backing vocals. Popovic's slide guitar intro for the final encore of the gargantuan, 'We Can Change The World', saw the delighted audience clapping along to another Ghidoni/Giovagnoli medley, with it's positive, very moving chorus message, given particularly what Ana has been through recently.
As I've said many times before, the beauty of our current plethora of female Blues Rock guitarists is that they all bring something different to the live table. Again, Ana is no exception. A real tour de force, while her influences may have originated in the Blues, as expected, her great funky and jazzy set, complemented by fabulous horns and an absolutely phenomenal rhythm section, was a joy to behold.