Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba

This mysterious Napoleonic palindrome


This mysterious Napoleonic palindrome rattles around my head as I gaze out from the terrace over looking the harbour of Portoferraio. Jutting out into the bay is the castle where we will play our concert, and behind me is the Teatro di Vigilante, in which my new band GIZMO will be rehearsing for the next ten days. When Napoleon was first defeated and given this Mediterranean island in exchange for Europe, he noisily put down roots and engaged in public works, giving every impression that he intended to retire here. Secretly he was plotting his escape. He built this jewel of an opera theatre, in which Vittorio and I are plotting Gizmo. 

It is a tiny dollhouse opera theatre in the classic horseshoe form, with about a hundred seats on the floor and three stories of ornate boxes around the rim. Our gear is nested on the stage. From my drums I can look straight through the theatre, out the front door, across the piazza and over the terrace to the bay, where fishing and pleasure craft are wafting past. 

It’s just another fine mess that my friend Titti Santini has landed me in. Titti is the impresario who first brought me to Italy four years ago. He’s rare among southern Europeans for his brisk organization and rare among promoters for his zeal for unusual music. This time he has hired me some very slick musicians to create a new band called GIZMO. 

The band has not all arrived at once, so Day One of rehearsals starts with just keyboards, guitar and me. In the absence of bass, percussion and vocals, the most logical place to start turns out to be the Klark Kent songs that I will be singing – which takes us straight to the most intriguing plot point of the project. I have almost never done this before. I conquered the world riding my drums, but as a singing guitarist at the front of the stage, I’m just about to open the first door, as a rank amateur.

Leaving aside that I forgot to bring my instrument (verry professional) the first challenge is that I have to walk up to the microphone with (borrowed) guitar loaded, in front of the crew, local promoter and some serious pro musicians; and sing. Showing them the parts and groove are easy – I’ve been playing guitar all my life – but approaching the mic is like walking up to the precipice and thoughtlessly leaping into the void. 

So I start singing, and my dull baritone reverberates around the hall. In fact, it sounds magnificent! Every utterance into the mic sounds grand and important. It’s not a hard tune to carry, so pretty soon I’m channelling Elvis and putting full attitude into the song. I always suspected that the singing thing would be easy, and it is! Fun too. Problem is, my guitar chops have disappeared completely. Guitar, vocal, and vibe – I get two out of three. I can play the guitar and sing while staring at my fingers, or play the guitar and dance around without singing, or sing and dance around while pretending to play the guitar. Clearly the latter course is the only way forward. It’s odd that, after all these years, my big guitar hero moment is subsumed by the supremacy of the song. Like I tell all of the youngsters: everybody is working for the singer. Even when the guitarist is the singer. 

Is my enthusiastic debut as cool as it feels, or does it suck? There is an absence of comment from band and crew. If it weren’t my band, this would have been a debut swan song. But it is my band, so even if it does suck, we’re doing it. It’s in the show. With practice, I’ll get better at it. 

The next issue is the matter of the extra bass player. I have managed to entice my old friend, the legendary Armand Sabal Lecco, Prince of the Deep, to join me on this tour, but there are a few dates that he will have to miss, due to prior commitments. Fortunately there is an eager sub, by the name of Max Gazze, Prince of Italian Pop. From his ivory palazzo in Rome, Max has heard rumours of Gizmo and has instructed his agents and managers to offer his services. Although known mostly as the singer of a substantial string of hits, he’s actually a pretty slick bass player. He is excited to be “just the bass player” on this tour and go nowhere near the mic. The plan is for Max to attend the last couple of days of rehearsal, once we have the material worked out, and then Armand will show him the parts. 
But Max can’t wait. He bursts into the theatre on day one, having learned all the parts from the CD that I had sent to all the players. He is completely prepared, and with not only the bass parts. He can sing the guitar solos too. Since Armand hasn’t arrived yet, Max gets to work with a zeal that is infectious. 

Then Armand arrives. After our exuberant African greeting with hugs and elaborate handshakes, I pull him aside and explain what’s up with the unexpected early arrival of the other bass player. Musicians can be touchy about these things. From the inky blackness that is Armand, there is a brilliant flash of his smile, fully six inches wide and three inches deep. Benignly, he draws his bass and plugs in. He hasn’t done any homework because he just Knows What To Play. 

Max is unsinkable. Over dinner we are entertained by his quick-fire zany humour and for the rest of the week, he is into everything. He plugs earphones into his amp rig and learns his parts silently. Then he’s into the percussion, then some backing vocals (very careful to not step on Rais’ turf) then he’s fussing over the monitors, then the then the lights. With his restless energy, he’s into every possible thing that can advance the cause of Gizmo. A man after my own heart. 

Our lead singer is Rais (aka Rino Della Volpe), who I met in Melpignano back at the Tarantula festival. He has an underground following that he built up with his ex band Almamegretta, singing and rapping in a strange Napolitan patois. With his big stage presence, he has just what it takes to stay in front of an aggressive band like Gizmo. Off-stage and in rehearsals, Rino is quiet and bookish but when he hits the stage, some kind of monster takes over and a strange exaggerated character emerges. He’s not just a singer singing the tune. He’s a story.

Vittorio Cosma, another Tarantula alumnus is our keyboard player and MD. As music director he has analysed all of the material, figured out the parts and form of each song, and is ready to direct the rehearsals for efficient assimilation by the players. Having written the material, I can now just play my drums while Vittorio runs the band. 

Joining us on guitar is Dave “Fuze” Fiuczynski from New York. Back home he has a solid life as a teacher at the Berkeley School of Music and has a raging fusion band on the side called the Headless Torsos. He happens to have just finished a M’shell Ndegeocelo tour, that has conveniently dropped him off here in Italy. 

For a bit of extra rhythm, we have Mauro Refosco from Brazil on percussion and mallets. Mauro is so laid back with the Brazilian vibe that he makes the Italians look like Germans. You may wonder, considering the racket that I produce unassisted, why I would need more banging and clattering in the group. Guitarists usually grump about six-stringed competition, but in the world of groove, particularly in the hot zone, more is more.

We have ten days to get our act together.

We have ten days to get our act together. At first it seems like plenty of time, even allowing for island excursions with Fiona and the girls, who are holed up in an exotic beachfront hotel nearby. But it turns out that the band process becomes so obsessive that the girls spend the entire period frolicking in the Mediterranean, un-doted on by their father. 
Inside the toy theatre, under the watchful eye of Derek Power (my manager from Los Angeles), we are conjuring up a storm that keeps us busy every day until late evening. My old buddy Sergio Fanton has put his business on hold to run the back line for us (drums, amps and keyboards) and Matteo Dolla runs the monitors. Mauro Colombo also, has again taken time off from his career as a film director for a month of tour managing. Capturing every move with camera and video, are Giovanni Pollastri and Eugenio Brambilla, who run my website. 

I’m amazed by Vitto’s flying fingers. With the Tarantula ensemble he mostly directs the twenty players to play the parts, but in Gizmo he’s doing it all. He immediately bonds with Armand. Rino sits on a chair at the front of the stage, intently organizing a plethora of lyrics. He keeps another chair nearby, which he occasionally trashes, when the word/rhyme/tune puzzles tax him too severely. Fuze is the master minister of the chart. While the rest of us thrash and weave, he meticulously notates every wrinkle of the arrangement. Four bars of this, two bars of that, guitar tune, then break down until signal from Rino, and so on. At least someone knows what happens next at any given moment, in any given song. Over on the percussion rack, Refosco doesn’t need much organization for his parts. He just grooves. 
Right next door to our lair is Marco’s little café where we refresh, eat and plot. For lunch, we lean over there and Fuze heads off for a sea plunge. Refosco climbs on to his rented Vespa and grooves off into the town. The rest of us languorously lunch and lounge, while taking in the view and general Italian vibe. Sometimes, the ladies join us. The little girls run around the theatre balconies while Fiona, Lian Fiuczynski and Txell Sust (Armand’s girlfriend) regale us with the splendours of Elba that we are missing. 

Armand is usually the life of the party, but periodically he goes dark. For several hours, as the lava flows, the tour managers and stage crew keep their distance - in fear for their lives. I have learned to not even inquire as to the cause of any eruption. Whatever it is, it always blows over and soon the big grin is back, and soon the crew emerge from their boltholes. Everyone has learned to keep his helmet ready.

At around seven in the evening, I run out of gas and head for the shower. As I soak away the day’s exertions I can hear the band continue to jam. During rehearsals, anything that sounds like jazz receives a curt reprimand from me, but as soon as I leave the room, the players degrade into those fetid figures of harmonic Hades. Fact is, virtuosity is fun, and jazz, a music that elevates dexterity over spirit, is an evil temptation that lurks around the highest calibre players. My immunity to the stuff comes from a childhood immersion in it. My daddy raised and trained me to be a jazz musician, which is why it holds no mystery for me. Professor Fuze likes to rattle my cage by pointing out jazz chords in my music, but no one would mistake my stuff for jazz. Well, maybe some would, but that’s just because it ain’t exactly rock music either. 

All to soon, our idyll is interrupted by work. It’s time for our first show. We have been given full accommodation and the use of the theatre by the city of Portoferraio in return for one concert, to be played in the castle that sits at the mouth of the harbour. It’s an unbelievably atmospheric venue for a show, even though it’s a tad on the small side, with a capacity for just five hundred seated people. We have been hiding out here on Elba, but now the press arrive with their cameras and microphones. We now have to explain what we are up to, and why. 

So, while Sergio and Matteo break down and shift the gear, we have the day to spend with the microphones, concocting a verbal logic for our endeavour. We also have to line up against the wall to have our picture taken as a band. It’s actually the first time we get a look at ourselves. None of these players were chosen for their pretty faces but, if I say so myself, it’s a cool looking group. We are Gizmo.

Where’s the band?

Where’s the band? I’m pacing around a very cool circular dressing room, occupying one floor of the fat defensive tower of this castle, in the lee of which we are going to play for our supper. It’s the first Gizmo gig and I’m alone in the dressing room. There are drinks, couches, garment rails and towels, but no band. Colombo comes in and gives me the nod. It’s show time and the band are down there, ready to go. I come down from the tower and out into the starry night. I get a glimpse of the audience sitting primly in their seats as I head for the side passage that takes me backstage 
When I get there, the lads are mooching around behind the stage waiting for me. “There’s a dressing room?” Armand is asking as we walk on. 

I mount the stage, stride to the front, grab the mic, and enthusiastically shout to the people of Portoferraio: “Ciao Porto Ferino!.....” 
I have completely mispronounced the name of the town. It’s a classic “Hello Cleveland” There is a weak ripple from the sophisticated looking crowd. To the drums I march, count in the band, and we’re on. 

Immediately, there are two problems. One of them is serious. For the first time since my high school band, the bass drum beater is stuck inside my trouser leg. I can shake it loose, but it immediately gets caught again. My war chariot is severely hobbled. I’m blazing away with my top kit, trying to drive the pulse, while shaking my pant leg. Right about now the sweatband across my brow starts to creep up my forehead. It’s creeping up the back of my head too and soon I will have a hairdo. 

With an imperious rake of my left hand, I yank the headband free, without losing a beat. Problem is, my microphone headset is tangled with the headband and now it’s stuck hanging off the side of my head. I’m not fully into the music at this point. With a wave, Vittorio conducts the band into that section of the song in which I’m supposed to explode with drum fireworks. It’s my name on the ticket and this is where I’m supposed to show ‘em what they paid for. 

One hand drumming furiously is what they get, until I can get myself untangled. There is a break in the music where the rhythm stops and Fuzy wafts into space with some sprangly guitar effects. Pretty quickly I recover the headset, jam my trouser leg into my sock, cyclist style and peer out of the foxhole. Vittorio looks like he’s watching a funeral. I kick back in, fully operational. But there is still something wrong. The sound on stage (now that I can think about it) is thin and unimportant. It’s a mid-range clatter with no warmth. The drums go “bink” not “BOOM”. Even Armand sounds muffled and indistinct. His grin is down to four inches. At the front of the stage, Rais is in his own private spot lit hell. The band sound has too much volume and not enough power. He’s screaming into the mic to fill the void. In the same fashion, I’m trying to get more sound out of my drums by killing them – which makes them sound even thinner. 

Some stages are like that. They just reverberate all the wrong frequencies so that the sound is a jumble. After all, this castle was built for war, not music. For the band it’s the Alamo. We are cut off from each other by the noise. Fuze is hitting the power chords but his amp just squeaks. Most of the band have their heads down, working to find the pocket, but Refosco the Brazilian looks like he’s sun bathing. He’s grooving. 

As we work our way down the set, the audience is slowly picking up momentum. After a few songs, we are all professional enough to pull ourselves together and play the arrangements that we have worked out. All the parts that sounded magnificent in our little theatre sound small and dumb on this stage but we just have to trust that Taketo Gohara, our front-house-mixer, is delivering something better to the audience than what we are hearing. 

So we’re slogging through the set, slowly working up the crowd but there are still glitches. We get to one of the new songs that I’m supposed to kick off. But my mind is blank and I have no recollection of the tune. I just have to start playing something and see what the band comes up with. The carefully worked out song-endings (very important for sparking crowd response) are hit and miss. Even when we do all end together, we can’t help looking sheepishly relieved, when we’re supposed to look triumphant. The songs that I count in are too fast and the ones that Vitto starts are too slow. But ever so gradually, things are improving. Every now and then are moments of actual music. 

We get to a Rais song that he does alone, accompanied only by some guitar waftage. He’s so relieved for the clattering to have stopped that he really wails into the song. It really is beautiful. The night seems to come down from the sky and blow through us. Then Armand and I do our improvised duet thing. This is always an easy score. Our entire preparation for this moment in the set was comprised of a few words over dinner: 
“Will you be releasing upon our grateful listeners, the blessing of your bass solo, Armand?” “If you desire it.” “Let the people hear ALL the music.” 

So Armand starts off softly and tunefully and pretty soon has the crowd enthralled by some serious African magic. I start stabbing him with little flashes and bursts from my toms. He responds with sharp ripostes, and then we are blazing, hurling insults with our drums and bass. It doesn’t really matter what we play, as long as there is lots of it. After about a minute of raw, random, raging, aggression, we suddenly stop. The crowd goes bananas. They always do. Armand and I have been doing this for years, and even before that Stanley Clarke and I were doing it in the Animal Logic days. Easiest score in show business. Of course it only works with towering bass players. 
By the end of the show, the crowd is actually sounding pretty enthusiastic. We put on a brave face as we take our bows and limp off the stage. The people are still howling as I sprint along the side passage, across the courtyard and over to an administrative building that has a shower. My dry clothes are already there. The shower is problematic but I cast off my soaking wet gear and slump under the cool water. This is the signal for the endorphins to kick in with a sudden burst. My day’s work is done, and it’s all good…

Or would be, if the audience would stop howling. I can still hear them. The time-honoured signal to the crowd that Elvis has left the building is for the house lights to come up and the DJ starts spinning tunes. But this hasn’t happened, and the folks out there are still yelling for more. When they have worked this hard they should get more. But Elvis is in the shower. It’s great to leave people wanting more but it’s a drag to leave them pissed off about it. I add this to page thirteen of my things-to-fix list and turn the water to maximum cold as the yelling petulantly dies off. 

I haven’t talked to the band since dinner when I burst into the dressing room. My shower has cheered me up terrifically and I’m ready to hit them with a jocular “Well that wasn’t so bad…” But the dressing room is still deserted. Where the hell is the Fucking band? 
I quickly roll up my soggy jeans, shirt, socks, boxers, belt, sweat band and sneakers. I gather up my earplugs, headset, gloves and show glasses (wire rimed, light and bomb proof). With a last glance around the room for forgotten articles, I’m out of there and heading back to the stage. I’m now suffering from band separation anxiety.

When I come out of the tower, the well-wishers are waiting but I brush past them. The bandsters are where I last saw them, mooching around behind the stage. Everybody has his own litany of miseries to share. Pretty soon we are chuckling over it all. It’s only a show, and nobody died (physically).

There is a solemn absence of comment from Titti and Colombo. Derek has a sage look that says “We’ll talk about this in the morning”. The journalist from the Italian Rolling Stone is looking blank. Even Giovanni and Eugenio are looking mournful. We can hardly hear Taketo telling us that the front sound was actually pretty good. 

Well, we needed waking up after our all too idyllic sojourn on Mount Olympus. Now we are in Valhalla (where the fallen heroes rise again).

Rome is a whole nuther deal.

Rome is a whole nuther deal. We are playing on an island at the centre of an ornamental lake, at the centre of a giant villa estate. Crammed onto the island with us are 4,000 music lovers. Across the water are another 4,000 or so souls, spreading over the park. It’s a beautiful evening and the air is thick with anticipation for our show. Since I first came here a few years ago with Orchestralli, playing for 800 people, I have been back a few times, with different ensembles, each time playing to bigger crowds. This is going to be great. 
In my trailer, I’m twirling my drumsticks and tweaking my rattameques on a practice pad as the girls flirt coyly with Max’ suave Italian progeny. Armand is in Barcelona so tonight we have Max on bass. We are all straining at the leash, waiting for the nod. Over the PA there is an announcement requesting that the seats not be trashed. The crowd roars as we get the nod, climb the steps up to the big stage and hit the lights with horse foot and cannon. 

“Ciao Roma!” I pronounce correctly into the mic, and the din surges. “One! TWO!…” BOOM! The band sounds huge. I love these big outdoor stages. All the right frequencies resonate perfectly. We are laughing as we rage through the first few bars. Everything sounds great. We are locked together in rhythm. Then, with a crack of the whip, we cut down to an underlying groove and Rais takes over. And Rino is hot tonight. He soars, he roars. He cajoles, consoles, and controls. Max seems to be enjoying watching another singer work while he pumps the bass. Fuze is leaning into it and Vitto’s face is all crinkled up with joy. Refosco still looks like he’s sunbathing. He’s just grooving. 

All of our cool points of music are working out just like we planned, only with that extra drama that you get from a hot crowd. When we get to my guitar/singing moment, I feel like I’ve been doing it for years. We rip through “Strange Things Happen”. I manage to fit “Roma” into the lyric and the folks lap it up. Tonight I’m channelling James Brown as I improvise a sobbing dramatic conclusion to the song. The folks go wild. Then, after rising up and taking a bow, I’m backing away towards my drums, and suddenly I’m up ended! I have been tripped by a monitor cabinet and, mid-triumph, am flying backward into the percussion riser. I hit the deck with an impressively amplified crunch from the guitar that I’m clutching, and the crowd goes even wilder. Somewhat dazed, I crawl to my feet, recover my poise and with guitar held aloft stride up to the mic. “I Rise Again!” And a great time is had by all. 

All too soon the music is over and Colombo is manoeuvring me through the backstage throng to a car, which is going to take me to my shower in a hotel nearby. As the car threads its way out of the park through the departing revellers there is a real crackle in the air. The punters are buzzing as they leave the show. But they’re not as exited as I am. This is going to be a fun tour. 
The next few dates pass by very quickly. After a night of self-congratulatory celebration in Rome, Max and I pile into a car with Vitto and drag ourselves up to Urbania for a show that has had to move indoors because of adverse weather reports. It’s a little town up in the forested hills of Umbria, twinkie beyond all getout. Each of the surrounding mountaintops has a castle or monastery. They hang up into the sky like earrings. 

The show is a more sedate affair than Rome was, and I make the discovery that the band sounds better when I’m dog tired. Could relaxing on stage a little bit actually be a good thing? I’m never too old to learn. After the show we walk across the piazza to a little restaurant for some midnight dinner, and the mayor is waiting there for us. He looks about twelve years old and he makes a solemn speech welcoming us to his city. Ignoring Vittorio, Refosco and Fuze, he presents Rais, Max and me with some ceramic plates. Perhaps they are local produce. Clutching my new plate to my breast, I thank the mayor on behalf the warm-hearted people of Salento (my adopted Italian tribe) and convey greetings from Sergio Blazi, our mayor of Melpignano. And then we sit down and the pasta flows like wine. 

Next day, at our picturesque rural lodging, it’s a crisp mountain morning as Max and I pile into Vitto’s car for a ride over to Asti. As we wind down out of the mountains and across the Italian heartland, we are serenaded by Max’ new Greatest Hits CD. Actually it’s a double CD. Vittorio grips the wheel and drives like the wind. 

Along the way, I learn a new Italian expression. An expression of such power that it will make the most decadent Italian recoil in horrified hilarity. It doesn’t sound like much when given in English but observant Catholics please skip the next sentence because I am going to translate. “Pig God.” There, that ain’t so bad is it? In English, it doesn’t sound like much at all. This term is most effective when used utterly gratuitously, as in, “Where is the post office?... PIG GOD!” 

My first opportunity to deploy this monstrosity comes after the Asti show. Emerging from a blissful post-show shower I remark to Colombo: “Ahh that was great…PIG GOD!” He almost jumps out of his skin. This hardened tour manager is suddenly hyperventilating, sweating profusely, and then falls to the floor laughing hysterically. We sadly lack any such expression in English. Our term for the act of love, most frequently used to celebrate sudden adversity, has nothing like the nuclear effect of this Italian bomb. 

Next day, we have the night off. Rais and I drive over to Milan for lunch at Vittorio’s swank city pad. Then Vitto and I drive on up to Senegalia. We are on our way to two days of rehearsal with the Tarantula ensemble, in preparation for a string of Notte Della Taranta dates. As we drive we are listening to tapes of last year’s show. Listening with mounting dread, to the quantity of parts that the Gizmo guys have to learn. This is a completely different set of material. The horde of Salentini that we will be meeting up with, all know the show, but our guys will be very busy.

Senegalia is a beach town on the Italian east coast.

Senegalia is a beach town on the Italian east coast. The band is staying at a place right on the coastal boulevard. Armand is back! Which poses again the question of too much bass. Armand is Prince of The Deep but Sergio, the Tarantula bass player is the social focal point of the Salentini. Sort of like an informal tribal chieftain. And he knows all the parts. I offer Armand my Fender guitar but there is only a low growling sound from The Deep. 

The rehearsal space is an enormous theatre with a stage that must be half an acre wide. There is enough room for the twenty or so players and then more space around the edges for goofing off. 

And then my brethren arrive! The fathers of Salento, who adopted me as one of their own, have sent their finest sons to perform the brave Pizzica music of their tribe, with your humble correspondent as their Maestro di Concerti, for a short tour of an evening known as: La Notte Della Taranta (in English: The Night of the Tarantula). 

Antonio, Enza, Francesco, they are all here! There are a couple of new singers but it’s good to be back with this familiar posse. The new singer, Clara is causing great excitement amongst the younger players. They are brisk and alert when she is on the mic. She sings like an angel. 

Spread across the stage we have violin, accordion, bouzouki, keyboards, Silvio on bass, as well as a tangle of tambourines and singers. We have Antonio on traps drums and Gian Carlo who plays an inflated sheep. Add a layer of Gizmo and it’s a very busy stage. And then for the really big moments, we have Rais. 

The players are eager to assemble themselves and soon we are blazing through the familiar songs. Piece of cake! The homeboys completely have their parts. With great patience, they indulgently introduce Fuze and Refosco to the mysteries of the Pizzica. There is a lot to learn and the Brazilian ain’t sunbathing now. In fact, he reveals a hitherto undisclosed talent for mallets as he tackles the quite vicious xylophone and marimba parts that Vitto and I have concocted. 

At one point Vitto is explaining to the ensemble the required attitude for a certain show moment. His lengthy direction in Italian ends with the recognizable word “atmospheric.” I have sneaked up behind Silvio, and I whisper “Atmospheric…PIG GOD!” Silvio explodes. With a crunch, his bass hits the floor and bedlam breaks out among the Salentini. A good twenty minutes of rehearsal are lost to shocked, guilty hilarity. The women are hiding their blushed faces and their shoulders are quivering. The guys are wide eyed, slack jawed and suddenly unsteady on their feet. The crew is howling like a pack of hyenas. FUCK-DAMN! We need something like this in English! 
After our two days of polish, we play the first concert. This one is a free show, set in a large circular piazza, so there is a very large and cheerful crowd. With the power of the Pizzica it is no problem at all to light the place up. Towards the end of the show, the tambourelli and I are doing a little improvised duelling when there is a dark and mysterious sound, welling up from The Deep. Armand has arrived on the stage like Emperor Bokassa. We do the bass and drum thing but I just hang back and let him duke it out with the three Salento boys and their big war drums. They all break out like the plague and when the band comes back in the piazza is shaking under the stomping feet of what seems like the entire population of Senegalia. This Pizzica music never fails. 

Actually, we do come pretty close to blowing it, the very next day. We have flown over to Sicily to play the WOMAD festival. It’s at the most exotic location imaginable. The ancient amphitheatre at Taormina sits on top of a crag, open to the sky, with an active volcano towering over us on one side, and the storied Mediterranean Sea on the other. 

Un-typically, there are other bands on the bill. This means that our sound check, usually a sprawling lengthy affair, must be completed within a brisk schedule. No way. We are cleared off the stage before we’ve hardly started. So when we get up for the show, the sound is a mess. The arrangements crash and burn but the Pizzica groove keeps us on some kind of track, so it’s not a total wreck. It just feels like a step down from where we were the night before. 

We are back on a plane first thing next morning to get to our show tonight in Milan. This is another big one. Last time we were here with the Tarantulas, it was the hit show of the tour. It also happens to be the hometown of most of the Gizmo crew. Back stage we can feel the buzz. Actually we can hear the buzz of thousands of insects, which have fluttered over from a nearby lake. The chic Milanese are spraying their black Pradas furiously with mosquito repellent. Armand is regaling the Salentini who are hooting and hollering at his unusual Bantu banter. Silvio and Armand are thick as thieves. And once again it’s my birthday, on tour in Italy. Perfect night for a show. 
Oh yes, it really is a show. The sound, the band, the lights blazing, and the crowd surging in response. The stage is heaving before a sea of waving arms. Shows like this, where everything is working and the force is strong, are the meaning of life for musicians. The energy that comes back from the audience electrifies us and propels us into superhuman feats of music. The arrangements are laughably tight. Even the wildest excursions land safely and heroically. As we get down the set, we are all stretching things out because we just don’t want to leave the stage. But finally we come to the last closing crunch of the concert. And that’s it until next year for La Notte Della Taranta. Tomorrow we will be stripping back down to Gizmo for the last leg of the tour. 

A perfect show followed by a perfect shower has me in extremely good cheer as we hit the lakeside restaurant for the post gig dinner and hang. At this late hour we have the place to ourselves. The Salentini have enjoyed their week of music and are returning tomorrow to their lives as farmers, smugglers, postmen and pirates. Long into the night we talk, laugh and sing.

After three straight shows

After three straight shows with the Tarantulas we are pretty beat, so we limp slowly over to Cesena where, after a night off, we have a day of rehearsal to remind ourselves about the Gizmo material. Cesena is a sleepy town, surmounted by a medieval castle up on the hill. Since the castle is the coolest place in town, it is of course where Titti has put our concert. Under the ancient walls and towers we play a great show. Excluding Elba (by now just a faintly forgotten fiasco) this is our first show with Armand as The Bass Player. With unchallenged domination of the low frequencies, he gets us back into the Gizmo groove. Even our hardened crew are impressed. After the show, as we hang out in our backstage trailers, it’s another starry night. We gaze up at the floodlit walls, turrets and crenulations and marvel for the umpteenth time at the joy of touring for fun in Italy. 

I’m making a list of things I like about this country and it’s running many, many pages. Just a few of the things are: the mountaintop earrings, the microscopic espressos (for which the Italians have learned to tune the cosmos for the duration of the two exquisite sips), the habitations that are not blots on the landscape, the absence of plywood, the perfect table settings, the cultural envelope of an ancient and great civilization (no need for plastic patriotism), the un-regimented minds, the optimistic Maybe-Can-Do attitude, the natural inclination towards an aesthetically pleasing world and the impossibility of finishing dinner before 2:00 AM. 

We have the whole day to drive down the length of the Italian East coast, right to the very bottom of the heel of the boot. Way down south, at the southern end of southern Puglia, we arrive at the Salento region, home of the Pizzica. My country. It has a distinct Grecian culture that predates Italy. The local dialect is pretty unintelligible to most Italians and the music is extremely exotic. 

After six hours in Vittorio’s car we arrive at our hotel in the tiny village of Gagliano del Capo. His Excellency Sergio Blazi is waiting for us, accompanied by three TV crews with lights blazing and cameras turning. We must be looking great on TV as Armand, Vittorio and I unwind ourselves from the car and squint into the lights. With warm embraces and bristly kisses the mayor welcomes us back to Salento. 

We spend the next morning leaping from rocky promontories into the crystal clear Mediterranean Sea before driving over to Casarano for our last show. The stage is set up at one end of a city piazza that is already quite full of people. There is a good local buzz about the show. Folks around here have adopted me as a local hero and they are eager to see this new band. The sound check goes down a storm. 

Around the corner from concert piazza is a little hotel that has given us its patio and adjoining rooms for a backstage area. Several of the Tarantula brethren have arrived and soon a party is in full swing. But Titti has an urgent matter to discuss. We have been offered another show, day after tomorrow in Benevento, just outside of Naples. Suddenly everyone is on the phone, checking flights and itineraries. We were all going home tomorrow and it’s gratifying that everyone is eager to make it work. We’re all enjoying this tour, not just me. 
We’re still working on this when we are called to the stage. It’s quite a procession when we head back to the square, which is now crammed with a human form of dry brushwood. It’s a tinderbox waiting for a match, and Gizmo is a firebrand tonight. It’s a great show even though I get a little carried away with the “Ich bin ein Salentino” crowd schmooze. The arrangements are a little creaky but we are coming up with cool stuff on the fly so who cares. The post-show shower is the best of the tour. 

So next morning, instead of the dawn call to airport-land, we are down to the sea again for a day of summer groove. Colombo leads us from the rocks, across the cove to some mysterious sea caves. We explore these deep watery wonders and then head over to a sandy beach where we do lunch, followed by lolling in the shallows. When life just can’t get any sweeter, we set off for an evening drive to Benevento, about four hours away. 

After checking in to our hotel, we wander over to check out the venue and sit for dinner at a nearby restaurant. As we are laying into our antipastos another band comes in and gets seated at another table. It’s a crooner/ radio personality named Nick the Night Flight with his affluent looking players. They are black clad, medallioned and cool, glowing with post-show endorphins having just played their show at the antique amphitheatre that we’ll be doing tomorrow. Nick strolls over for a chat. Turns out he’s from Scotland. Who could blame him for escaping to a life here as an Italian pop star? When he returns to his band I notice that he takes the same post at table that I do; right at the centre of one side, with the English speakers on the left and Italian speakers on the right. 

It would have been nice to close the tour with a triumphant last show but this is not to be. The venue is a 2nd century amphitheatre with great vibes but we have monitor problems and there is none of the usual pre-show buzz from the crowd. We are, after all, a replacement group for someone who had to cancel suddenly. By the time we finish our act we have managed to close the deal, but it has been mostly work and not much play. After the show we do our only runner of the tour. After blubbering farewells with Sergio, Matteo and Taketo we get into the bus and get out of Denver. We drive through the night up to Rome airport, from whence we will all depart in different directions. 

It has been ten shows on the road. Elba, Taormina and Benevento were lame. Urbania, Asti, Senegalia and Cesena were good satisfying shows. But in Rome, Milan and Casarano we were dancing with the gods. If I can play just three shows like this every year, then I will live for a hundred years. My heart is full of gratitude to my creator (intelligent or otherwise) for giving me this magic fire and to the Italian music lovers for fanning the flames. 


September 15, 2015 STEWART COPELAND