Ana Popovic rocks . . . plain and simple. Born in Belgrade, (formerly) Yugoslavia in 1976, Popovic was raised in a home where music was important. Her father was a guitar and bass player who was “always inviting friends for nightly jam sessions.” She could also often be found listening to her dad’s blues and soul record collection. She would not pick up his guitar, however, until she turned 15.
She took lessons and by the late 1990s she formed her own band named Hush. By 1998 she had played the major clubs and even appeared on Yugoslavian television. With the end of communism Popovic was playing gigs in Greece and Hungary. She recorded her debut disc Hometown.
In 1999 she moved to Holland intending to study jazz and world music at the Utrecht Conservatory but her musical muse had other ideas. She formed a Dutch band. After becoming a regular performer she scored a contract with Ruf Records in Germany.
As the new millennium began Popovic recorded her first Ruf release, Hush! (in honor of her first band) in Memphis, Tennessee. It was produced by Jim Gaines (Stevie Ray Vaughan) and hits stores the next year. That same year she was included on a Jimi Hendrix tribute CD named Blue Haze along with such artists as Eric Burdon and Buddy Miles. She covered “Belly Button Window” on the compilation and toured with Bernard Allison who played on one track of Hush!
2002 included a place on the Jimi Hendrix Tribute tour and 3 nominations for the 2002 Blues Awards in France.
She released her WC Handy Award-nominated, multi-genre album, Comfort to the Soul, in 2003. At Belgium’s Rhythm & Blues Fest she jammed with Solomon Burke who invited her to complete his tour with him. The next year she took the “Jazz a Juan-Revelation 2004” Award in Juan Le Pins, France.
2005 witnessed the release of Popovic’s third Ruf CD/DVD Ana! Live in Amsterdam. The following year she was nominated for multiple awards and recorded her first Eclecto Groove release in L.A. after scoring another record deal. The new disc, Still Making History, climbed to number 4 on the Billboard Blues Chart.
In 2008 the remixed recording hit number 3. After appearing in a 2009 guitar documentary she recorded her next project Blind For Love with producers David Z (Prince) and Mark Dearnley (Paul McCartney) and gets to share a stage with B.B. King. In 2010 Popovic was nominated for a British Blues Award and released a live DVD, An Evening At Trasimeno Lake.
The following year she put out Unconditional which reached number 7 on the Billboard Blues Chart. The tributary track “One Room Country Shack” was chosen as “Pick-Of-The-Week” by USA Today and she garnered a 3-time nomination for the 2012 Blues Music Awards in the US.
Last year the Vintage Guitar magazine cover girl played The Mahindra Blues Festival in India where she performed with such legends as Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker Jr. After relocating to Memphis, she headed into the studio to record her most recent release the 14-track Can You Stand The Heat. Leading the way with her lead guitar and vocals, the sexy singer-songwriter is backed by a bevy of other artists including: bassist John Williams (Al Green), keyboardist Frank Ray Jr., guitarist Harold Smith, drummer Tony Coleman (B.B. King), trumpeter Marc Franklin, saxophonist Kirk Smothers and backing vocalists Stefanie Bolton & Sharisse Norman.
The opener is the jazz-tinged titular track “Can You Stand The Heat”. This is the first of her original material here. With its scaling keys and gospel-like backing vocals it sounds like it was written on a hot summer night.
(Your randy writer always appreciates double entendres especially coming from a gal with a guitar, ya know? Still, the real question is: Can this lady stand the heat of playing with the big boys? This strong opener would make it seem so.)
The second song is a cover of Albert King’s blues classic “Can’t You See What You’re Doing To Me” with lyrics by Turk Roy and Fred Ahlert. It’s been done before but she works it enough to own it and that always makes a difference. Next is her original “Mo’ Better Love” which may be not really need to be so full of sound but a stripped down version follows so have no fear.
The next number is “Object Of Obsession”. This is the first example of what Popovic can do when she teams up with other writers (in this case bassist Williams). Yes, boys and girls, she does indeed “play well with others”. The near sultry song “Boys’ Night Out” follows and is the result of a collaborative effort between Popovic, Coleman and M. Van Meurs.
“Hot Southern Night” follows. This was co-written by Popovic and Van Meurs. It’s a Memphis-like blues-tinged tune. It features Grammy Award nominee Lucky Peterson on guitar, organ and additional vocals.
Popovic includes her own effective adaptation of “Every Kind Of People” which was first made famous by the late Robert Palmer. She switches it up again with “Ana’s Shuffle” which she co-composed with Coleman. It’s a good instrumental jam on which Popovic seems to be paying homage to Stevie Ray Vaughan.
It’s followed by another tuneful team-up by Popovic and Coleman called “Blues For Mrs. Pauline/Leave My Boy Alone”. This slow blues burner has a definite Buddy Guy connection and offers a nice contrast to the previous piece. Lyrically it has an honest, slice of life feel to it.
The tenth tune is “Leave Well Enough Alone aka High Maintenance You”. This is a punched up piece courtesy of Popovic, Coleman and Van Meurs. Also included here is “Tribe” which features guest percussionist Felix Hernandez and co-composed with Coleman. It has a noteworthy guitar intro and is vaguely reminiscent of Led Zeppelin.
Popovic’s version of The Rolling Stones’ lesser known “Rain Fall Down’ is next. This one is interesting to hear with a female lead vocalist. Popovic makes a sincere effort at this somewhat sleazy song but it’s tough for anyone to do a dirty Jagger jaunt especially a married mom of two. Sherry Williams provides backing vocals.
The disc also includes “Growing Up Too Soon” which features some new faces as Popovic introduces Grammy winner Tommy Sims on bass, Javier Solis on drums and percussion and even a choir of children including: Jovanni Ramirez, Jerard Woods II, Justin Woods, Sarah-Clayton McBrayer, EmmyLayne Myers, Noelle Jamison and Nori Jamison.
The chorus remains the same for the closing cut–a remixed version of “Mo’ Better Love”. It certainly gives listeners a different perspective on the full out version. Frankly, it just sounds like it was fun to record.
Overall, Popovic’s work oft’times seems to be a tribute to the likes of Albert Collins or old school Stax but more importantly, this release seems to reveal Ana Popovic is breaking new ground as she attempts to tell her tuneful tales through her guitar. It’s definitely a hot blend of jazz, soul, funk, groove and blues. The real question is Can You Stand The Heat?
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.