WIB Live: Vanja Sky Band

What’s The Buzz?

Vanja Sky Band live @ Yard Club

Cologne, Germany

Words & photos: Vincent Abbate

You’re seated in a cheap collapsible camping chair at 3 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, scarved and blanketed but still freezing your ass off, doing the math. If we get on the road at five and don’t take too long of a dinner break and manage the 150-mile drive back to Cologne in two hours or so … that’s what it’ll take for you to use the concert ticket currently burning a hole in your pocket. Vanja Sky at the Yard Club. Shows start and end early there. Even on a Saturday night. Under the circumstances, you’ll be lucky to catch the second set.

But then the head baseball coach at your son’s training camp comes through in the clutch. He decides six hours in miserable drizzly weather is long enough and shuts things down 90 minutes earlier than planned. Yippie! You pack up, jump in the car, turn up the heat and though the roadside stop at McDonald’s – a promise to the boys in the back seat – takes longer than it should, you’re home in plenty of time. A quick change of clothes and you’re out the door, onto the #7 tram, change at Rudolfplatz, the #15 to Wilhelm-Sollmann-Straße and the traditional bottle of Kölsch from the gas station for the ten-minute walk to the venue. That and a couple of tunes from JD McPherson loosens you up for the evening.

And boy do you need loosening. Life’s been heavy and intense lately. The ground beneath your feet feels more like quicksand. You look to the heavens for rescue. Rescue in the form of music maybe?

You feel the rumble of “Rock ‘n’ Rolla Train” even from outside the venue. It’s a couple of minutes past eight and the show has started. The room is reasonably full but there’s enough space between the concertgoers for you to spy the silhouette of your best buddy swaying near the stage. You grab two beers, snake your way to the front, poke him in the back and complete your delivery. The touch of your glasses is like the sound of a starter pistol. The evening has officially begun.

There’s been a delivery for Vanja as well. A few songs into the first set, the star of the evening asks who the bottle of schnapps standing at her feet is from. A gentleman in front identifies himself as the culprit and she thanks him with that sly smile of hers. “This is gonna be a fun night!”

She’s clad all in black. Sparkly boots, leggings, a body-hugging leather jacket. Joan Jett? Suzi Quattro in her younger days? Visually, you never know what to expect from Ms. Sky. But the new look suits her musical direction. She came up through the Blues Caravan but the rock has been a big part of her all along. It’s in there, so it’s gotta come out, John Lee Hooker’s daddy might have said.

A series of familiar, straightforward songs – “Devil Woman,” “All Night,” “Voodoo Mama” – introduce us to the current iteration of her band. Sebastian Michael Harder on drums, Guenter Haas on lead guitar, Björn Kröger standing in on bass. So there’s been some turnover, especially following the recent departure of longtime guitarist Robert Wendt. But the new configuration is obviously capable and doesn’t miss a beat.  

Around you there is already consensus. Many in the crowd have not seen Vanja Sky since her last visit to the Yard Club in 2019. The setlist isn’t dramatically different from back then, but there’s a marked difference between the pre- and post-pandemic Vanja Sky. While she is physically slimmer, her voice has bulked up and can now easily compete with the roar of the guitars. The screams in particular reveal her as someone who puts it all out there. And if that doesn’t get you, the crowd walk she does on The Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” will: Sky gives out small, hand-crafted gifts, establishing a bond between herself and the people who have come out to see her.

Meanwhile, the beer continues to flow.

Even before the break, there are signs that the first few songs are merely a prelude to something potentially colossal. Sky premieres an original song, “Run Away,” from her upcoming album Reborn, due this summer. It’s hard to pinpoint after just one listen, but “Run Away” certainly feels more expansive than anything she’s recorded in the past. Acoustic and folksy in the first half, shifting into an extended electric instrumental section thereafter, it’s too simple to call it southern or jam rock. Regardless of labelling, the song’s meaty power and the deft playing of the two guitarists is what takes this particular concert to the next level.

It almost doesn’t matter what the band plays after that. By the break, Vanja Sky has won us over. There’s a noticeable buzz in the room. Those not sniffing around the merch stand are busy extolling her virtues amongst themselves. The freezing afternoon in the rain is long forgotten. If the theme of Sky’s current tour is rebirth, she has already taken you halfway there.

The second set starts with the energy created in the first and then builds and builds and builds as any great concert does. Sky reaches back to her 2018 debut album for “Crossroads of Life” and “Hit Me With The Blues,” a pair of originals that sound better than ever before. The tried and tested Rory Gallagher number “Shadow Play” gets the crowd chanting along as in a soccer stadium. There is soloing but nothing excessive or showy; the musicians instead work as a unit, playing with focus, letting the audience feel the exuberance of hearing a tight band in a full club on a Saturday night, reminding us of how something as simple as rock’n’roll can save us from ourselves.    

Long after the show, the buzz refuses to dissipate. Everyone wants a piece of Vanja. Getting to within ten feet of the merchandise stand has become impossible. Sky’s admirers have encircled her there, like moths to a messiah. It’s a familiar post-show ritual that seems to last hours this time; while the band’s tools of the trade stand unattended onstage, patiently waiting to be broken down, she poses for dozens of pictures and signs scads of CDs.

The forced abstention of the pandemic, now seemingly over and blotted from our memories, undoubtedly put a hole in many of us that still needs fixing. We’re not all the way there yet. So maybe what’s happening right now is a kind of rebirth in small steps.

A night like this, with a radiant figure like Vanja Sky at its center, edges us one step closer.     

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