I didn’t realize just how long I’d been away until I returned. It’s been almost a month since I left London and now that I’m back, everything seems a little less familiar. I wonder how it must feel to be on tour for months on end, or to rephrase that, I can’t wait to find out. It has been two weeks since I returned from my first shows in Italy. Indeed, it was very unlike me not to write blog posts from the road, but I just couldn’t bring myself to sacrifice time experiencing for reporting, so I hope you’ll excuse the ‘ramblings from the road’ post tour.
Firstly, that’s right, road, no rails – this was the first tour I embarked on via car and I have to say, it was awesome. Trains are great, but just having the freedom to leave, stop and sing out loud to playlists when you want to is just so much better (not that I haven’t done the latter on trains, but in a car less people stare at you..). So, dear Google, please hurry up with those driverless cars so I don’t need to bribe the optician to give me a licence. Thank you.
Every show has numerous variables that make the night impossible to predict. When you’re playing in a new country and don’t speak the language, the anticipation and anxiety is tenfold. With so many unknowns, the best thing you can do is hope for the best and have as much fun as possible along the way and if you’re lucky, the reality surpasses what you imagined a best case scenario – and on this Italy tour I was very lucky indeed.
Good Omens, unlikely places and shooting stars
It started with two gigs in one day. The first show was an afternoon gig at a place called Santeria in Milan. The music venue / art space / shop / restaurant felt like a little hidden gem in the east part of town. I perused the clothes, books and records in the little shop that was part of Santeria before the stage time and the first vinyl I picked up out of the bunch was The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. If ever there was a good omen, surely this was one. At first I honestly thought I may be playing for no one (to squeeze in another Beatles reference), or at best, be background music for the afternoon diners, but slowly the venue started filling up and I was amazed at the lovely reaction. Several people had actually travelled to Milan from out of town to come see me play, having read about the gig online. So began a week’s worth of wonderful shows to wonderful people – I really couldn’t have chosen a better place to start.
I must admit that for much of the Italy trip I had the super mario theme tune (both gameboy and Nintendo 64) on repeat in my mind. This was probably caused by the many wondrous Castles and Nintendo shaped trees…. I constantly had to resist the urge to jump into them to see whether gold coins would come out. I’d also catch myself again and again with a sinking feeling of disbelief, peering down streets and questioning the map: “Well, this is just SO beautiful, but where the hell is there supposed to be a music venue here? Are we in the right town?”. Castiglione was definitely one of those places. It just seemed too far removed from what I knew, something out of a different time or universe. Luckily, my mistrusting eyes were proven wrong each time. Arci Dallo is a community run venue situated right in the heart of this stunning town. The stage is outside in a courtyard, set against an amazing stone-ruin.
Serendipity knocked as on both shows a huge party followed my every move. In Milan, the entire town was celebrating live music on that very day – there were shows on everywhere; I got some lovely press and was even mentioned in the same tweet as Arcade Fire (huzzah!). Castiglione happens to be the birthplace of the red cross institution and on the eve of my show, there was a parade through the town and the entire square was full of people partying. A shooting star of good mood throughout Italy on that day, and I got to ride along on the tail of it.
The long way down and how down is sometimes up
Most people thought it crazy to schedule a show in Foggia after a Castiglione. Yep, that’s pretty much the entire length of Italy, sort of like driving from Glasgow to Devon. Freed up from train times and tracks, I thought it wouldn’t be a problem… and it wasn’t, really. Sure, it was exhausting, but the day passed without any issues or accidents and even a drive along the motorway is a joy in a country where rolling hills grow into mountains and calm back down into smooth, golden coasts. The destination, however, was far from beautiful. The roads leading to Foggia were strewn with roadkill (and, bizarrely, one lonely man BBQ-ing at the side of the desert-like road). The town itself was full of abandoned apartment blocks and unhappy people seeking their fortunes at every red light amongst the many rusty and dented vehicles.
How the hell did I get to any of the gigs on time without a sat nav? On numerous occasions we relied heavily on the kindness of strangers to point us in the right direction, to look up addresses on their phones and to, on some occasions, give up trying to explain the way in Italian and actually drive us there. This was the case in Foggia and, honestly, there’s no way I would have ever found Tolleranza Zero any other way. As the man in the big truck waved goodbye, reversing out of the square and back down the road whence he came, I was overjoyed to see the little moustached logo after a very long day of travelling. It felt like weary travellers arriving at the inn.
Sure enough, the greeting was a lovely one, with coffee and pizza (yes, a lot of pizza was consumed in this week). Davide and Marta of Tolleranze Zero, which is a book store and live music space dedicated to LGBT equality, were such wonderful hosts and they’ve done an amazing job in growing a community around their venue. I was still exhausted, but the audience piled in and soon the room was full to the point where people were cramming in, sitting on the floor right in front of me and leaning against the walls at the back.
Music is just such a wonderful thing. Older than language itself, it connects us all on a fundamental level. The fact that people were laughing, smiling, clapping and singing along to songs they could not understand the words to was amazing. In my opinion a great gig is when you leave feeling you’ve made friends and at Tolleranza Zero, this was definitely the case. Thank you for making me feel so welcome and a special thank you to Marie Angela, who painted this amazing picture of the show:
Davide had helped me arrange the next show, which was for cultural organisation TESLA in Molfetta, only a short trip further south. My question, “is there anything we should see in Foggia before we move on?”, was answered with a shotgun “no”, and so we moved on, back past the roadkill and into the next adventure…
Only two weeks have passed since I played in Molfetta, but the memory has already been dipped into liquid gold and taken centre stage on the “ones to remember forever” shelf. I’m not sure what it is – but can only hazard a guess that the magic lay somewhere in the combination of unexpected beauty, the hospitality of the people, the enchanting old town with its city walls, surrounded by that intense turquoise Adriatic sea, the love amongst the audience and the most amazing vegetable lasagne I’ve ever tasted. It was the fact that TESLA is a group of young people trying to make their particular corner of the world a better place, the same thing that had moved me about Davide and Marta the night before. It’s the stranger who gives you their home for the night and the little girl who asks you for a picture and an autograph and the boy who says he’s started writing songs too and gives you a handmade CD. There were several moments during this trip where I just stared out onto the view ahead of me and thought to myself: “how did I get here?”, honestly in awe of the beauty in the random pattern that shapes our lives, all those little ideas we have, those we act upon and those we don’t. Isn’t it just all too much to take sometimes to think about the impact of our every move? Especially when they lead you to places like this?
I’m glad I ended up in Foggia and Molfetta and feel very lucky to have met all these wonderful people. The story really should end here, but it can’t because there are two more shows to tell you about. It’s not that they weren’t great shows in their own right, but for some reason those couple of days in South Italy formed a peak in the bell graph that was my first Italy tour. They hold a special place in my mind and nothing could have topped them. Thinking about it, this tour really did have a perfect progression, for what goes up, must come down, and sometimes back up again… we were headed for the mountains:
The foothills to the headlands and then up some more
Touring on the level that I do is like diving into other peoples worlds every day. It’s like getting a crash course in people’s lives, you meet their friends and stay in their homes and then you move on the next morning. It’s an odd existence. After a while I just start dreaming of faces and names, my subconscious trying to catch up with all the new impressions. I could of easily stayed in the universe of Molfetta for another day or two, but I had another show to play, so back to the autostrada (that’s Italian for motorway, you know), and up to Tuscany. There comes the point on every particular trip where you just stop worrying and get into the rhythm of not knowing, feeling at ease, that it will be fine. The drive was easy and we arrived in perfect time for soundcheck at Aurora Notte in a beautiful town square in Arezzo. The venue was an old 1960’s hippy hang out, Arezzo being a strong hold of liberalism, so I’m told! Apt that John Lennon should have guided us into town, ‘watching the wheels’ charming through the radio waves as we drove into the heart of Arezzo.
This is what the venue used to look like:
Diego, the host, was great. His grandma had even cooked food for us. The show was much fun, especially as the entire square, so even those who weren’t originally intending to come see the gig, stumbled upon it and stayed – waving lighters and cheering from the far corners of the piazza.
…and this guy!
Guess what? I’m afraid of heights! In fact, I think it must be specific to sitting on the passenger side with the ridiculous drop next to the winding serpentine road imminently to my right. This drive to the final show the following morning was the most beautiful, even a wrong turning was rewarded by views so like a painting, I just had to stop and play a song. I couldn’t think what tune would equal the beauty of the setting, so I went for Judee Sill’s ‘loping along through the cosmos’, my favourite of hers. The wind was a howlin’ through the trees and around the camera phone, so please excuse the bad sonic tone, but I thought I’d share it with you nonetheless.
Further up the mountains and further up some more, the clouds grew darker and the horizon more menacing. The rain came thundering down and shards of lightning ripped the sky in two. Rain turned into hail, so that the poor windscreen wipers could not keep up and we could see no more, slowing down as much as possible on the motorway, seeking occasional refuge within the mountain whenever a tunnel permitted shelter. Further up the mountain until I started to wonder… where the hell is this gig? Every now and then little glimmer of white indicated a small village on the very peaks of the mountains… surely not, I thought… ‘Twas so, as the mountain came to top and the rain finally eased back into manageable droplets, I was glad not to have slipped down the slopes of Tuscany. I got out of the car to ask for directions and noticed I was actually shaking. Up a final corner and I see waving arms from the window of a what looked like a castle. Elaine, hostess of the last show, and what a grand finale it was, came down to provide shelter from the storm (to switch from Beatles to Dylan references).
The juxtaposition was uncanny, almost as if I had fallen down the slippery slope and awoken in a place made of dreams. The venue was a manor house, originally built for a rich eccentric around the turn of the last century and I walked through the place in disbelief all evening, a strange mix of awe, exhaustion and exhilaration. Yeah, I’m really struggling to find words that do the views and sentiments justice in this post… it’s certainly not often I can’t find the right ones.
The show itself was slightly different to the others, the audience was lovely and very attentive, but far more reserved and also a little smaller in number, perhaps everyone felt humbled by the serene beauty of the surroundings, It felt a little like the grandest of living room gigs with a great PA, cushions on the floor in the front row and amazing food. The night ended with an unplugged Bob Dylan sing along (everyone knows his words, in every corner of the world, it’s a sure thing and there’s no thing quite like the thing that happens when strangers sing together) and thus ended a week’s worth of wonderful shows to wonderful people – I really couldn’t have chosen a better place for it to come to an end.
Thank you to everyone who hosted a show, everyone who helped, especially all those strangers who pointed me in the right direction and whom I shall probably never cross paths with again in this life time but who’s faces I won’t forget, everyone who came to see me play in Italy and everyone who made it through the longest blog post ever – I hope you enjoyed the read (or at least the pictures)! I’m only in London for a couple of days before the next adventure begins…