When I wrote about the only other Italian artist to have appeared on liveon35mm so far, Vinicio Capossela, I had been so stunned by a Neil Young concert that, incapable to talk about contemporary rock music, I moved to something a bit different.
Curiously enough, just few days before I was leaving to Nepal to follow one of my “photo reporter dreams”, Franco Battiato, another Italian artist was playing a London date at Koko.
Now, just back, to write about Brit pop or alternative rock after experiencing Nepal, believe me, it is a very hard task. Thus, instead of waiting for a new inspiration I am going to introduce you to Franco Battiato, something quite different from the usual liveon35mm.com stuff.
It is quite fashionable for Italian musicians, usually followed mainly by Italian fans, to play London (or Paris or New York). Fact is that nowadays these cities have more Italian residents than an average Italian town. Famous artists, such as Battiato, Capossela and many more quite easy can fill up venues with Italian migrants.
A night abroad surely has a different feeling from playing home and, as a plus, add a couple of lines on their CV. A London sold-out looks quite appealing.
Some of these artists, as Umberto Tozzi, Zucchero “Sugar” Fornaciari or Eros Ramazzotti, have spent a big part of their promotions strategies seeking to be considered in a more valuable “artistic facet”, definitely more than they deserve, “simulating” a worldwide success.
Umberto Tozzi started this trend 20 years ago booking the prestigious Royal Albert Hall to record and publish a live album easily titled: The Royal Albert Hall aiming to build up credibility at home. I have no idea if it worked.
Zucchero did worse.
He came out with a Live at the Kremlin album, a location cleverly selected a year after the fall of the Berlin wall and the Soviet bloc.
He also spent most of his budget throughout the years (I have to admit cashed on a couple of derivative but good LPs at his beginning) paying prestigious artists to collaborate with him. I remember attending a Zucchero concert in the early nineties with Eric Clapton appearing on stage in the mid of a song to play a 2 minute guitar solo and then walk away. The likes of Bono, Brian May, Sting, Joe Cocker, B.B. King, Solomon Burke and even Miles Davis duetted with him.
It paid off, unfortunately he is one of the few Italians pop musicians known beyond the Alps.
Eros Ramazzotti -a good reason to be ashamed to be Italian- nevertheless the most successful Italian artist abroad, has produced two live albums recorded outside Italy (no one will ever specify “in front of Italian audiences”). They contain collaborations with the usual “buyable” people: Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Luciano Pavarotti. He even managed to book Paco de Lucia and Jon Spencer (YES, him, Jon Spencer of the Blues Explosion) to play on some of his songs.
There is nothing money can’t buy.
Such a long intro to say that Franco Battiato at least is different. As Vinicio Capossela, he would deserve more attention. He neither has sold his soul to the market nor cares of using tricks to boost his popularity.
Born and proud Sicilian (you can say he is from Catania just looking at his face!) he is a clever example of how the Italian melodic tradition can mix up with Mediterranean influences and classical heritage to revise popular music and develop it into something different.
It hasn’t always worked, and this was quite clear throughout the London show, but some of his best music has nothing to envy to the kind of stuff that made Peter Gabriel famous.
Spanning his entire career in a greatest hits set (during which I was wondering how happened that I knew so many tunes having never been too much into his music) the concert had some highs and lows.
It began with some technical nuisance; Battiato couldn’t listen to his band (!) due to problems at the mixer. He was quite pissed off, but the sound engineer, Pino, a name and a face that speaks Sicily in a wink, “quickly” solved the situation …erm, well…let’s say… after about 5 songs into the set, not too bad after all. Italians are not famous at engineering, are we?
Problems solved, the gig managed to have a proper take off. Battiato finally relaxed, started enjoying the night. He played his famous cover of the Stones’ Ruby Tuesday arranged with strings and orchestral sound. He finally stopped speaking English probably someone told him that the only English people in the venue was Koko’s security.
Battiato characteristic is that he can play any musical genre, and he did. From Opera to electro pop, from Italian song-writing to political statements, from hermetic lyrics to a sort of Arabic influenced world music he is able to do that maintaining a very recognizable style.
As any attempt to “I-know-it-all-ism” some of his things are disappointing and some surprising.
When he introduces and sings quite frankly Povera Patria (translatable somewhere around “Poor Country” a text referring to Italian corrupted politicians) I feel a mixed emotion of happiness (of being away from Italy) and anger (of not really having the power to change it from here).
Try to imagine having your prime minister greeting Obama election with a comment that went something as “He is young and tanned I can give him many suggestions” and you would know what I mean.
When Battiato adventures in his odd, hermetic (untranslatable) lyrics I am perplexed. He gives the idea of using an obscure language to give himself a sort of literate, intellectual, erudite look more than really believing what he sings. Questioning contemporary poetry is hard, when we enter the field of pop music lyrics becomes impossible. Anyone is free to believe if that he is “the real thing” or just a cleverly hidden semantic exercise.
When after 2 hours of music we got out of Koko to realize that the first snow of the year whitened Camden high street, I must admit my mind was only looking forward to leaving this country to Nepal blue skies.
Now, back to rainy, grey, cold English (almost) winter I have a nice memory of that evening spent among Italians listening to one of the few examples of good Italian music.
There is one thing that you can spot from the moment a concert begins: whether the artist likes photographers or not. You understand it from body language and stage presence.
Franco Battiato clearly doesn’t like cameras.
For the first three songs when we were allowed to stay in the pit, he did spend his time sitting on the back, headphones in his head, a music stand in front of him and being quite annoyed anytime he sees us shooting him.
Sitting performers are the most difficult to portray. They are static and most of the images are likely to look similar. You have to count on unusual shooting angles, interesting face expressions, any particular (Battiato as any Italian gesticulates and uses a lot his hands) that is a variation of a monotone theme.
Interferences are indeed another hassle: microphone poles hiding the face, the chair, the background staying the same and in this case even a pair of bloody headphones that were not working!
With a sitting performer is almost impossible to include other musicians or the band in the shots.
With a sitting performer most of the dynamism is lost.
For all these reasons, best suggestion is to go for a telephoto. It cuts out disturbing interferences, blurs the background and can give interesting close-ups.
There are also positive things, in fact. Usually there is a clear spotlight pointed onto your subject that lit him up enough to minimize problems with darkness. Being sit, your man doesn’t have a lot of room to move, dance or jump around. The two things combined, good light and immobility, work synergistic with the telephoto which requires a quick shutter speeds and has short depth of field.
From a lover of wide-angle lenses and blurred moving images, trust me, If you are in front of a sitting artist time has come to pull out that 80-200mm from your bag. Good luck.