March 14, 2023

All musicians of course, when touring the UK, will hit London at least once. It’s an inconvenient fact of life for us south-easterners though, that very few push further south or east into Kent. When the Serbian-born, California-based guitarist Ana Popovic scheduled her UK tour, she was all set to follow this usual path, but when an extra date at the famous Shepherd Neame brewery in Faversham, North Kent, was inserted into the itinerary at the last moment, I pounced on it gratefully. Before celebrating Ms Popovic’s incredible talent though, I have to give a shout-out to the youthful Toby Lee, who served as support, with his power-trio format backline of Sam Collins on bass and Max Williams on drums. Toby made news a few years back when he released a tribute to BB King on YouTube, which  went viral when he was just ten years old; he won the Young Blues Artist of the Year award when he was 13 and the hot-shot English guitarist is still only 18 now. More of him later.

Ana with trumpeter Davide Ghidoni (photo – Graeme Stroud)

Following Toby, Ana’s band of international all-stars played two hours of intense, Latin-inspired jazz-blues of an incredibly high calibre. They started into an introductory piece named Can You Stand The Heat, which featured great solos from the Italian trio of Michele Papadia on the keys, Claudio Giovagnoli on tenor sax and Davide Ghidoni on trumpet – and this was before Ana had even stepped on to the stage. When she did though, there was no doubt who was leading the pack, with her excellent vocals and league-leading guitar skills.

The Texas-based backline of Jerry Kelley on drums and Buthel on 5-string bass looked as cool as you like, with Buthel putting in a stunning display of slap bass. Before the first number was out, the band had laid their credentials on the table, and no one was arguing. Three high-energy, up-tempo numbers passed in this way before they slowed the pace for New Coat Of Paint, a Tom Waits number which showcased Papadia’s keyboard skills and Popovic’s incredible Stratocaster virtuosity. This was only a sub-highlight to the main act to follow though.

The main highlight for this reviewer followed soon after with Johnnie Ray, from her 2016 triple album Trilogy. Working its way up from an extended ballad intro on phased, tremolo keyboard, the guitar comes in after a while in tasteful counterpoint, with the whole band eventually taking up the cause. After a while, they quiet down to little more than a whisper; at one point I had to look at each band member in turn to confirm whether anyone was playing at all, the musicianship was so subtle. The extended lead solo at this point was a masterclass in jazz blues; it certainly would have drawn a standing ovation were it not for the fact that it’s a mostly standing venue, so most of the audience were on their feet already; still, their appreciation was audible.

The following number, Brand New Man, was announced as a blues, stripping the whole arrangement back to a traditional 12-bar; Buthel the bassist and Jerry the drummer were both given space to showcase their incredible skills. This was followed by Queen Of The Pack from the new album Power, scheduled for release in May, before Ana paused for a chat to introduce another new number, simply called Doin’ This – she proclaims her love of everything to do with music, writing, performing and touring, and gives kudos to the parents who encourage their kids by buying them gear and driving them around while they are finding their feet as performers – plenty of parents (and former kids) were nodding in agreement. The main set concluded with the (mostly) instrumental bottleneck slide number We Can Change The World.

Toby Lee was invited back to the stage for the encore, a guitar duel rocker named as Hot Southern Night – he and Ana traded their hottest guitar licks on this one, grinning like madmen. Notwithstanding the utter masterclass Popovich had been delivering all evening, the teenager had license to play fast and fluent, and he held his own with honour. It was a great gig, and a privilege to behold a musician as brilliant as Ana Popovic and her equally brilliant band. I hope she comes down into Kent again.

Ana Popovic’s new album Power is released on 5 May 2023 on CD, vinyl and digital, by ArtisteXclusive Records

Left to right: Michele Papadia, Jerry Kelley, Toby Lee, Ana Popovic, Buthel, Claudio Giovagnoli, Davide Ghidoni (photo – Graeme Stroud)