Prog in the Eternal City
By ProgBlog, Oct 16 2017 04:17PM
This blog has been delayed due to work, family and even more gigs. After returning from Rome I’ve taken in two other gigs, most recently Dweezil Zappa performing 50 years of Frank at the Royal Festival Hall last Tuesday and, within 72 hours of landing back in the UK after the excursion to the Eternal City, Tubular Bells for Two at the Union Chapel, Islington. I found the Zappa show a little disappointing because they didn’t play anything I was really familiar with (read Hot Rats) though I did recognise snatches which I couldn’t name. Most of the material seemed blues-based and a bit formulaic but I do recall parts of Inca Roads which was one of the more complex pieces showcased that evening. I certainly can’t criticise the musicianship and I shouldn’t have been surprised by anything on the set list because the tour is advertised as Dweezil ‘plays whatever the F@%k he wants!’
The last time I was in the RFH was to see Chick Corea and the Elektric Band on some date lost in the mists of time and it’s a really good venue; the Union Chapel is equally good for different reasons. It may only have a seating capacity of a fifth of that of the RFH but it boasts a beautiful architectural space with a very special atmosphere. The performance by Daniel Holdsworth and Tom Bamford is frenetic and may involve the odd missing effect as they continuously grapple with pedals, leads and an array of instruments and though there were a couple of minor glitches on the night, it was a amazing spectacle carried off quite brilliantly.
I’ve recently spent far more time than I’m used to in and under churches. I acted as an informal tour guide around 1066 Country on my days off last week and my duties included the ruins of Battle Abbey, founded where Harold was killed by a Norman arrow and later destroyed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution in 1538; the first morning of the Rome adventure was devoted to a three and a half hour mainly archaeological tour of three early churches: San Clemente was founded in the 4th Century but Luca, our tour guide and one of the archaeologists who had worked on the site explained how the original building was contemporary with the Colosseum nearby and had served as the Roman imperial mint, before being converted to a residence with a pagan temple in the basement and then a place of clandestine Christian worship in the first century AD; the second stop was the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, another 4th Century church built over houses where roman soldiers John and Paul were martyred during the rule of Emperor Julian and hidden beneath the stairs. Underneath the basilica which was damaged during the Visigoth sack of Rome, damaged by earthquake and sacked again by the Normans, there are a series of decorated rooms (now the Case Romane del Celio museum) which comprise one of the best preserved Roman-era housing complexes. Originally a variety of building types from different periods, including an apartment block for artisans (an insula) and the dwelling of a wealthy individual which was subsequently converted into an early Christian church, the different buildings were combined sometime during the third century AD to form one elegant pagan house where it’s possible to identify the staircase where the bodies of the two soldiers were hidden after their murder; the third stop was a church founded in the sixth century, San Nicola in Carcere, which is interesting because of its former pagan history. There is evidence of utilising the existing temples on either side of the site and other repurposed building material to form the church. These layers of history can be seen by descending a set of stairs from the main body of the church, giving access to the excavation of the temple remains.
The archaeological and architectural delights visited over six days were actually secondary to the other purpose of the visit: prog. We arrived in Rome at around lunchtime and between checking in at the NH Leonardo da Vinci and eating supper at the Caffetteria Gracchi (where the televised Champions League game between Qarabağ FK and Roma was being shown), we managed to visit the Excellent Elastic Rock record shop where I bought four classic progressivo Italiano LPs and a Steve Hackett Genesis Revisited CD. Though an important detour, I’d really gone to see the 25th Progressivamente Free Festival at the Jailbreak Club, enticed by a string of excellent progressivo Italiano bands. An evening-only affair over five nights between Wednesday 27th September and Sunday 1st October, I could hardly believe that it was a free event. As is the way with progressive rock in general, the audience, musicians and organisers were friendly and helpful.
I was experimenting with public transport times and arrived early for the first show featuring La Bocca della Verità and Ingranaggi della Valle so I had time to grab a beer, chat to Ingranaggi della Valle keyboard player Mattia Liberati (who promised something special in their set after I’d compared the band to the Mahavishnu Orchestra), buy their debut IdV CD In Hoc Signo (2013) and the LBDV CD Avenoth (2016) from the joint merchandise stand, and claim one of the tables set out in front of the stage. The other seat at my table was taken by Vincenzo Praturlon who, despite protestations that his English was poor, was quite happy to engage in conversation about prog in general and RPI in particular. A veteran of previous Progressivamente festivals held at the Planet Live Club and Veruno’s 2 Days of Prog + 1, Vincenzo would later inform me that the ‘something special’ were a couple of tributes to the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa – I’d had to leave early, after only one song from Ingranaggi della Valle, to ensure that I caught the Metro all the way back to the hotel because my journey required a change of lines at Termini and the network begins to close down at 11.30pm on Sundays through to Thursdays.
The evening was introduced by Guido Bellachioma, the director of Prog Italia magazine, co-director at Italian hi-fi magazine Suono and art director at the Planet Live Club, who reminded us of what constituted prog and paid tribute to the artists, international and Italian who had died over the last year, before calling La Bocca della Verità to the stage. They didn’t disappoint, playing a good selection from the Avenoth suite which though at times sounded neo-prog or even modern, it had a very strong footing in the Italian symphonic prog tradition and ticked all the right boxes for me.
Thursday began with the underground tour of the churches and as we needed to get up early to get to the first site it proved sensible to have left early the night before. It wouldn’t be unfair to label Ingranaggi della Valle as a prog/jazz rock outfit and that evening’s performance continued the jazz rock theme with Accordo dei Contrari. They played a brand of tight-knit riff-based fusion interspersed with more abstract sections and, despite the abundance of electric piano and some great moog creating some memorable tones, I found some of the material quite challenging and not a particularly easy listen. I’d worked out that I could leave the club later and still use public transport to get back to Lepanto but having been on the go constantly from very early on Wednesday morning, I decided to give Slivovitz a miss and caught the same time metro train as I did on Wednesday.
The hospitality of the city went a little too far on Friday, attempting to make us feel more at home with industrial action on the Metro. This turned out to be only minor disruption because we simply meandered slowly from the hotel to Termini on foot and by the time we’d had a coffee (the Chef Express opposite platform 20 does a very good espresso) and a bite to eat, the strike had finished and we were able to visit Ostia Antica. This rather interesting diversion meant that we ate fairly late and I got to Jailbreak a couple of minutes before the first band, Flea on the Etna was due on stage. The club was busier than on the two previous nights and I couldn’t find an empty table, so I sat on one of the stools along the raised platform used by the groups to access the stage which provided a decent view of the proceedings. Flea on the Etna played a short set of good, straightforward jazz-rock with a hint of a Mediterranean influence. With original bassist Elio Volpini on guitar, two of the three tracks were from their self-titled album Etna (1975).
Consorzio Acqua Potabile (CAP) was next on the bill and I recognised most of the music from their set, a collection of lively, 70’s inspired prog and, like when I saw them in Genova in 2014, they were joined onstage by Alvaro Fella. When Jumbo ended the evening they were augmented by CAP members drummer Maurizio Mussolin and guitarist Massimo Gorlezza and they played a short set which included Suite per il Sig. K from DNA (1972). Fella’s voice has been reported as an ‘acquired taste’ but it remains strong and somehow very much fits the music of Jumbo and perhaps surprisingly well with CAP. I had the benefit of being able to enjoy the whole evening of music because the metro runs until 01.30 in the morning on Fridays and Saturdays.
The club was absolutely crowded on Saturday. I saw Vincenzo at the bar and he advised me to find somewhere to watch the performances as soon as possible before it became impossible to move, so I took up a standing position at the top of the steps leading to the stage access platform where I’d managed to get a stool on Friday. Standing next to me was the cousin of Semiramis bassist Ivo Mileto, come to lend support. She couldn’t tell me which group he played for but said she did like their music (Mileto replaced original bassist Marcello Reddavide.) Though Saturday evening began with ‘Italia 70’, a roundup some the best RPI committed to record, with guest appearances from Jenny Sorrenti and Gianni Nocenzi and including PFM’s Chocolate Kings and encore of E’ Festa, Banco’s 750,000 Anni fa l'Amore... and R.I.P. Jenny Sorrenti sang brother Alan’s Vorrei Incontrarti from Aria (1972.)
Before Saturday night was rounded off with Semiramis, Guido Bellachioma chatted with Gianni Nocenzi about BMS and their debut album which was just being re-released on 180g vinyl as part of a DeAgostini publishing deal along with 59 other important Prog Rock Italiano albums in monthly installments. Then Semiramis performed a poignant rendition of their Frazz album dedicated to the memory of keyboard player Maurizio Zarrillo who died on the 7th July this year. Each track was presaged with a short narration, accompanied by a projection of the song title, the music itself was extended and I thought that the whole live presentation felt more coherent than simply listening to the album. By coincidence I’d received a message from Massimo Gasperini from Black Widow Records that afternoon, and he informed me his BWR partner Pino Pintabona would be attending to sell the Semiramis Frazz Live DVD recorded at La Claque in Genova in April this year. I said ‘ciao’ to Pino and bought the DVD.
Jailbreak was also pretty full when I got there on the Sunday and I just had time to get a beer and buy the 2015 La Coscienza di Zeno album La Notte Anche di Giorno on limited edition vinyl plus the Biglietto per l’Inferno LP Vivi. Lotta. Pensa (2015) from the merchandise desk before taking up a standing position by the steps leading from the table area to the bar. Biglietto per l’Inferno began the evening and I have to admit being quite taken aback - I had expected heavy prog but didn’t imagine an octet playing prog-folk. It was strange but when I’d adjusted to the shock it was still good. Two original members remain, Giuseppe Cossa on keyboards and accordion and drummer Mauro Gnecchi, and they have reworked old material, including 1974’s L’Amico Suicida to fit in with the concept of their latest release.
Sadly, it being Sunday, the metro service reverted back to ending early and I missed the chance to see La Coscienza di Zeno, though I have seen them before. I have to say that putting on five nights of high quality music, gratis, covering a range of prog and mixing established names with more recent acts, was an amazing feat. Congratulations and thanks have to go to Guido Bellachioma, to all the artists and to the Jailbreak Club for hosting the event at short notice and it was a nice touch to dedicate the event to members of the prog world who are no longer with us. I’d personally like to thank everyone who made my stay an unforgettable experience, agreeing to chat to me in English and sharing wonderful progressivo Italiano. Hope to see you next year!