July 17, 2004
The roar of the show takes about two hours to subside. After the last encore when I run off the stage back to the dressing room, there is still a lot of ritual to perform before the day’s work is done. Shower is crucial immediately. Soaking wet T-shirt turns to ice within seconds of departing the hot stage lights. That’s why your correspondent can sometimes be seen sprinting through the halls backstage in a mad dash to the dressing room to yank the clothes off, down to buck naked.
No sooner do I reach my haven but there is a clamour at the door, which is actually kind of welcome. Depressing are those shows in distant lands where, after a gruelling set there is no clamour.
The cheerful folk crowding the hall out-side my room are usually local backstage-pass holders who are eager to exuberate with me, then go home, but they unfortunately have to wait. Even though I’m feeling pretty exuberant myself I have to shift my gear and hit the shower to hose off the sweat and lower the body temperature. I’m still squirting fluid out of every pore.
The post concert shower is one of those sublime creations of our Lord that induces the body to drown itself in endorphins
Then all the wet T-shirts and soaking clothes have to be gathered up into a soggy pile, wrapped in a towel and stashed. The room needs to be cleared of personal effects right away because those hall folks are getting a little impatient out there and that door is going to open.
The after-show meet-and-greet is an extension of the show. You just cannot brush off the joy that you have just spent 90 minutes whipping up. So the room fills up and I spend the next half hour shaking hands, signing tickets, programs, money, T-shirts (often on the hoof), biceps, chests, and sometimes, children. I stand in one spot while everybody gets a turn to get his or her thing signed, have a picture taken and cop a feel.
There comes a point when there are just goofy smiles and no more bits of paper, so the folks are gently nudged out of the room and finally, I can now power down – or try to.
By now my Salentino band buddies have pretty much finished their own backslapping, stuff stowing and unwinding. When I get to their room they are smoking and joshing. They always give me a cheerful welcome and we exchange show moments such as
“Hey Francesco you almost exploded during your solo in SANTU PAOLU!”
“I was completely lost in AOULI and when I looked over at Alessandro for help, he just smiled unhelpfully”
“You think I wasn’t lost too?”
La Notte della Taranta (Night of the Tarantula) is an ensemble comprised of me and twenty Salentino brigands blasting away on tambourines, bazookis and all manner of strange instruments. Sometimes Gian Carlo pulls out his bagpipe that is made out of an entire sheep.
Over on the other end of the stage is our musical director and bandleader Vittorio Cosma on keyboards. At the front, stage-right are Enza, Ninfa and Emanuele, the principal singers. Front-stage-right (next to me) are three tambourine players. Not your Kumbaya variety of tambourines – these are the big heavy ones.
In the middle of the stage is a thicket of players on bass, guitars, mandolins, violins and whatnot. We even have an additional drummer on a traps kit.
At the back of the stage, on a huge riser is a jungle of percussion and mallet instruments with four zany Englishmen (Ensemble Bash) in hot pursuit.
The music that we are playing is made of ancient folk songs in the Pizzica style from the Salento region of Southern Italy. Once again, these are not your Peter, Paul and Mary variety of folk songs – these are the big heavy ones.
The first show of the tour is in Florence. A giant stage has been built right on the edge of a cliff overlooking the old city. As I sit at my drums at the sound check, I can see the famous Ponte Vecchio down below. All of the shows on this tour are outdoor events and some of them are free – paid for by the city because our show is “Cultural”.
The sound check was supposed to start at 4:00 but since it’s the first gig, the crew are running late and it’s not till 8:00 that we can start what was supposed to be a full rehearsal. Doors open at nine.
I kind of needed that rehearsal because I only arrived in Italy last night and have never played some of the tunes with the band. I’ve been rehearsing by myself at home with tapes of the tunes. So the show is a train wreck but there is so much random energy amongst the players and within the material that a great time is had by all and the Florentini go nuts. Our show is all about excitement and dancing – and dance the people do.
Next show is in Rome, day after tomorrow so we have the whole day to ease out of the hotel and drive with my buddies Johnny and Mauro down through Tuscany and Umbria to the ancient capital.
Travelling in a rock band involves five-way committee meetings to decide on important daily matters such as: When do we check out? When do we stop for lunch? Where’s the guitarist? On this tour, the ensemble is so large that I am detached from the group and travel separately in my own little bus accompanied by chums who come out to visit me on the road.
The drive down to Rome takes about three hours. Night off in Rome, wandering the piazzas waiting for Fiona to arrive from LA. At around midnight at the Piazza Navona she comes around the corner right at the moment when the ten-year-old accordion kid bursts into O SOLE MIO. Rome is like that. Fiona is like that.
The Rome show is at a brand new cultural centre. A super modern outdoor amphitheatre with an excellent large and low stage in a half-round. The audience will be seated. Hmm…all of our shows have been standers. The Pizzica music that we play is all about movement and physical release. OK, so tonight will be more of a concert for the ear.
The sound-check is the beginning of our working day - not counting promotion and travel. First you have to check your instrument, which in my case is a complicated array of drums, cymbals and microphones suspended from a maze of chrome. Sergio the drum tech is able to erect the entire mess with everything in exactly the same position every day. When my drums are even fractionally out of place it is a distraction and sometimes I dent my fingers.
After a quick flail around the kit to check the position of everything, I have to shut up because the stage crew are checking audio channels on all of the instruments, one by one.
So I sit there on my drum riser as each player has a short blast on each of his instruments. All the players have their own monitor cabinet, which plays them what they need to hear of the other players. So as they noodle I communicate my needs to Fabio the monitor mixer. He is also dealing with yelps and howls from other players about too much of this and not enough of that. It’s important to get it right. During the show it’s frustrating to not be able to hear the accordion because the player and his little amp are twenty feet away with a lot of commotion in between.
Before the sound check Vittorio and I have had a pow-wow about problems, adjustments and improvements to the show. When everybody is plugged in and audible, Vittorio directs the ensemble to those moments of the show that need attention and we run through a few numbers. At a signal from Giancarlo the front mixer that everything sounds fine, the session is concluded and we all wander off to explore the dressing rooms.
The concert is much tighter on the second gig of the tour. Everybody can hear each other, the grooves feel good and the audience is responsive. There’s a nice thing that Italians do – they ripple with applause during the songs when they like a solo or cool show moment.
CITIZEN STEWART DI MELPIGNANO
Next day it’s a two hour drive down to Naples for a press conference and then on for five more hours to Melpignano. If you imagine a map of Italy shaped like a boot, the Salento region is at the bottom of the heel. It was Sergio Blasi, the Mayor of Melpignano, who introduced me to Pizzica music when he invited me to be the guest performer (or as they more grandly call it, “Maestro Concertante”) at the NIGHT OF THE TARANTULA. It’s an annual festival of Dionysian origins (very old), which celebrates the ecstatic purging of the body that is achieved by wild singing and dancing to the throbbing rhythms of this vigorous music.
Who wouldn’t accept such an invitation? So I played the show and a year later, for reasons that would require a lengthy tale, the city council has invited me to become an honorary citizen and has offered me the key to the city of Melpignano.
Here I am for my investiture, being led into the town square by the Mayor (in full sash and ribbons). There are torches on the stonewalls, flags, banners, and of course, tambourines everywhere. The square is full of people shouting “Ciao Capella!” – which is Salentino dialect for “Copeland.” Faces in the crowd resolve into people I remember such as the waiter at the restaurant where we spent a wild evening in Otranto, or the Duchess at whose palazzo Fiona and I met Gorbachev. And the bandsters are here! They used their day off to drive down from Rome and welcome me into their tribe.
When all are seated, the speeches begin. The city officials are assembled at a long table on the front steps of the City Hall. For an eternity, my qualities as a “humanitarian” are extolled by numerous soaring testimonials. No virtue goes un-praised and many vices are overlooked. In spite of a slight queasiness it’s actually quite moving. I must be one helluva guy! It feels sort of like a wedding or baptism into the warm heart of the Salento people.
Finally it’s time for me to stand up and accept the key, which is silver, about six inches long, and very ornate. I mumble a few words of humble gratitude then, just like that it’s done. Suddenly the tambourines strike up and we are all dancing to the Pizzica. Ich bin ein Salentino! I can’t wait to get back to LA and start kissing all my buddies on both cheeks the way I’m now culturally obliged to do as a newly minted Southern Italian.
But these things fade. By next morning Stewart Copeland, the great humanitarian, can be overheard at the hotel breakfast grumping about the shower and scowling at passers by. Too much Yin causes Yang.
We have a show tonight in Cosenza in the toe of the Italian boot, so we hop into the bus, with my buddy Mauro at the wheel. Mauro is a writer and documentary maker from Milan who enjoys coming out on tour and takes upon himself all driving, navigation, negotiating, and scheduling. With someone like Mauro around, I go into stuffed pillow mode, which is just where the management wants me. Artists are more manageable when they are cosy and docile. It works for me. Rather than jeopardize the tour by disappearing to buy a newspaper, I am encouraged to sit comfortably whilst anything I might need is brought to me. But this is also why so many artists are whining pricks.
We drive over to Cosenza (along the Italian in-step), which is damned pleasant until we get to the mountains where it starts to rain hard. The show is open-air, so rain is not good. Our big stage (with roof) is built into the piazza in front of the city’s opera theatre. Italians take their opera very seriously so the square really is a beautiful spot – but wet. All through the sound-check the rain doesn’t stop.
After the sound-check, the dressing rooms are found way at the back of the theatre up two dank flights of stairs. It’s kind of a long way from the stage so once I get up to my dim little room and put on my gear there’s not much to do but wander down to the much larger band room where the gang all admire my key to their city. I’m going to get a big silver chain and this is going to be some serious bling.
But this is one of those gigs where the glamour of show business feels a long way away.
The prospect of playing our show to a wet empty piazza takes some of zip out of the pre-show banter. In a city I’ve never heard of we are going to perform the sacred ritual in the rain before pitying strangers.
Besides, our secret weapon, Raiss, is not here yet. He is hammering down the autostrada toward us, but we have to wait for him or play without him. He is the centre of a few crucial moments in the show. OK, so we re-arrange the set-list with his stuff at the end of the set. The only thing worse than a grim gig is waiting to play a grim gig so pretty soon we decide to hit the stage and get on with it.
Miraculously the rain stops! It actually turns into a great show. We’re right in the middle of town so people are arriving and the numbers swelling as we canter through the set. Right on cue, a car pulls up. Raiss is here! He comes on stage looking like a Puglian rustic pimp dressed for a wedding. This is no ordinary country hick. He’s like an un-caged bear with a voice like a foghorn. It’s always a big lift when Raiss comes out.
Next day we fly to Greece for a show tomorrow in Patra, about three hours west of Athens. After a day of airports and freeways we get to a casino hotel on the beach. Nice to have a night off with dinner at a table close by the Ionian Sea and a cosy catch-up with CNN in my swank gamblers hotel suite.
There is a press conference next day, attended by the usual guardedly friendly group of media professionals. These guys go from story to story, sent by their editors to fill up the “Entertainment” or “Art” pages. Only a few have any empathy for the subject (me) so at first they sit back in their chairs while I stride in and sit down at a table in front of a plethora if microphones, recorders and cameras. By a stroke of luck, I actually like journalists and am always able to warm up the session pretty quickly. The secret is to show them a little respect and to give them some kind of story worth printing. And of course, laughter is an essential tool.
Tonight’s show is at an amphitheatre that was built in 200 BC. This place makes even Italy seem young! The acoustics in this 1,600-year-old structure are perfect and at the sound-check, without much help from the monitors I can clearly hear each of the twenty players. Makes me wonder about all of the noisy clattering or dead muffled stages that I have been playing for forty years. Acoustic architecture has been regressing all this time.
The only drawback is that the tiers of seats are banked very steeply, which makes standing (or dancing) dangerous; so the audience must remain seated. This is another concert for listeners, and in this case that includes us. It’s the best show of the tour. We can all hear each other beautifully and we really swing together through the nuances of the show. It’s hard to describe the feeling of joy/energy/ecstasy/power that derives from locking together with a large ensemble in this way.
The after-show dinner is at a restaurant disco and we are all on such a high from the concert that we are soon crowding the dance-floor, gyrating absurdly and shouting our own Pizzica songs over the disco beats. In this manner we rave till dawn.
Fortunately we have the whole of the next day to get back to Naples. Maybe less fortunately, I am 53 years old today. To cheer me up, my manager Derek calls from LA to tell me that I’ve been nominated for an Emmy! It’s for my score for the TV series DEAD LIKE ME. Well, this is good news indeed even though I have no chance of winning because of the competition this year.
Which actually is kind of a blessing because I can enjoy the whole process right through the crushing defeat that would be felt if I had a better shot at winning. To have written one of the top five scores in TV-land is fine with me.
As soon as I hang up the phone, I’m back in Naples, Italy, going down to the piazza for dinner with my Salentino gang. The glittering recognition of my work back home seems vague and insubstantial as we stroll the Naples waterfront. After a week on the road we are all pretty comfortable grooving along the corniche at 4:00 in the morning.
The Naples show is different from all the others. For one thing, it’s set in the middle of an old industrial park that has been turned into a museum. It’s quite scenic in an ERASERHEAD sort of way. Huge smoke stacks and monstrous rusting machinery. For another thing the folks in Naples curl their lips a bit at the neighbouring Salentino tribe. In fact they have their own Tarantella music that is a close cousin to the Pizzica and they see cool tambourine players all the time. For the Salentini their local culture is alive – teen-agers do it. For the Napolitani the music and the dialect are for grandmothers.
So the show doesn’t go over that well. We start out with gusto but I can feel that we are losing the crowd with each passing song. I also have my own problems and am having a hard time finding the groove. No matter how much I try to shake it off and listen to the band, I still feel like the drummer at the Korea-Vision song contest. Not groovy.
At the end of the set we leave the stage to meagre applause – which has died to silence by the time I hit the ground. For the first time in 30 years it looks like there will be no encore. But as I pull out my earplugs and head for the shower, the crowd starts up again and actually start to make a noise. Fuck’em. I’m not going back out there unless they start a riot. But maybe the shower can hold for just a minute. Sure enough, the noise builds to a chant, and the folks are stomping and screaming so OK, we’ll give them some more.
But I forgot to put my earplugs back in and when we start up; the volume almost knocks me senseless. Damn it’s loud up here! I’m howling with pain as we romp through our most energetic song (traditionally saved by most bands for the encore – you always expect to play an encore) and I’m trying to blast the rhythm while gesticulating wildly to Fabio to turn my monitors down. There must be blood coming out of my eyeballs. Even un-amplified, my drums are very loud, especially my snare drum – which I tune so sharp as to be able to bring a bird down from the sky. That’s why I need monitors to hear the other guys. So it adds up to a lot of noise and when you factor in the Perspex box that they build around my kit (so that I don’t bleed onto the bouzouki microphones) it is a hell-pit.
The very next night we have our last show, in Milan. It’s the most important night of the tour since this city is where most of the media are based. Most of the national impact of the tour will be made here.
The stage is built in front of a magnificent palazzo surrounded by hundreds of acres of ornate gardens and parkland. The dressing rooms are in the massive drawing rooms of the palace itself, with wood-panelled walls and painted ceilings. A very cool place to play a show. Even the shower is perfect!
But Raiss is in trouble again. He has a show at a festival in Genoa and is racing back to Milan but is going to be late. Since the place is packed and ready by 9:00 we send out the singers, Ninfa and Enza, with Emanuele on guitar and Antonio on tambourine to play some Pizzica songs in the traditional acoustic style. Then Ensemble Bash will come out and do fifteen minutes of their stuff. Hopefully, by now Raiss will have arrived and we can do our show.
Cities like Milan are usually hard to impress because they get to see any show that passes through Italy. For a band touring Europe, Milan is often the only gig they will do in Italy. It’s the same problem with London or New York. The critics get to see your show in front of the least impressible audience.
But tonight, for some reason, it’s different. This crowd is like a vat of gasoline. Emanuele just has to go out there with a lighter (his acoustic guitar) and the place is immediately ablaze! The folks are already clapping, hollering and dancing to the bare bones Pizzica – so much that I’m worried about how my Bash buddies are going to follow up.
But it’s not a problem. Chris, Andrew, Joby and Steve (Ensemble Bash) are four eccentric English percussionists who are my hit squad whenever I do stuff in Europe. They have a strange act that is hard to describe – kind of Blue Man Group meets Debussy by way of Steve Reich. They have been accepted into the band of Salentini but I’m the only one who has ever seen their show. So it’s fun to see the Italians gasping at the antics of their strange English friends. And the audience is still going nuts. Will there be any cheers left for the main event?
By the time Bash have finished their turn all the Salentini are at the side of the stage to watch them. As the stage crew re-rig the gear for the full ensemble we find ourselves singing Christmas carols for some reason. I don’t know who started it but we’re all singing SILENT NIGHT even though we are sure tonight will not be silent. Halfway through JINGLE BELLS Reno the stage manager gives the signal and it’s time for the show.
We start our set with UCCI a fast splashy tune to wake up the crowd. But these folks are already awake. They are already so whipped up that the energy invades the stage and this sprightly tune becomes a devils thrill ride. We are playing so fast, infused with such superhuman energy that I swear the stage is revolving, bucking and heaving to the music and the crowd is swirling around us in frenzy. And this is just the first song. Bamp! We hit the last hit of the song and go straight into the mid-tempo MENA MENAMO. Now this is usually a solid heavy number that loosens people up after the flashy intro, but tonight the folks are stomping and whirling already.
Pacing is a very important aspect of live performance – and not just for artistic reasons. My instrument is demanding physically but different types of rhythm use different energies. So after the 100-yard sprint of the first tune, the easy lope of MENAMO is supposed to be a breather, with Mauro, Antonio and Canayo (the Rascal) doing most of the work with their tambourines.
But tonight there is no stopping for rest. The crowd immediately pick up the new beat and we just have to feed the monster. We rage through the song and hit end-trick like a daisy cutter bomb. The crowd is screaming and whistling and on stage we are all laughing and shaking and hollering at each other. This is the last show of the tour and we’re going to soak up every minute.
Usually, after a song finishes, you wait for the applause to die away before starting the next tune but tonight there is no dying away. Just a continuous whistling and cheering.
Our next tune is a cheerful dance, kind of a light moment usually but no sooner do the tambourelli hint at the rhythm then the crowd are on it. By now we have regained our professional composure and manage to keep the groove light and bouncy even though the audience is providing a driving rhythm of its own. The stomp of the crowd is so strong that we lay right back on our instruments riding the wave. We’re holding our fire because we know that it’s time for the secret weapon.
Halfway through STORNELLI a large sound is heard and suddenly Raiss is in the house.
He oozes on to the stage and we kick into a new gear behind him as he gets into some kind of spoken anthem. God only knows what he’s growling about in that strange dialect but he whips himself, the audience and the band into a wild fury as we break into a chorus that the crowd picks up on and it’s a sea of upraised arms shouting with Raiss.
We crash to another big song-end and the crowd roars – which is fine but we have to shut them up now. We have been on stage for maybe twenty minutes, pretty much raging all the way so now a change of pace is needed
The next tune starts quietly with voices and wafting sheep/bagpipe. When Gian Carlo leans into a few wailing notes, the crowd gets the hint and the hubbub dies down. While the singers hold the spotlight, I nip off stage to grab a dry tee shirt from a pile next to the monitor desk. Heaven right now is a dry towel and a jug of Gatorade as I watch Ninfa and Enza beguile the crowd. A minute ago the joint was rockin’ but now it’s a still atmosphere. From the monitor desk I can see that the women are completely enveloped in the music, concentrating intensely. Their voices rise into the night air.
It’s a storybook concert. One of those rare times when the artist, the audience, the venue, the moon and probably some Voodoo all come together. The thrill of a great show is a two way current that energizes an audience but positively electrifies the performers.
It would be interesting to analyze the brain chemistry at such times.
Leaving the stage after a show like this is kind of bitter sweet. It’s the last show of the tour, the last cheer, the last Pizzica groove, and the last event requiring focus, energy or health. No more hand maintenance will be required. No show moments to fix, no point tweaking the kit, it’s over. Burn the stage and everything on it. I probably won’t see my drums again for months.
As I lope from the stage to the palace dressing rooms my heart is full of joy. I’m not very religious but usually the thought in my head is one of gratitude. Thank you Lord for this gift, this body, this life.