By ProgBlog, May 22 2018 06:20PM
With an ever expanding selection of progressivo Italiano on vinyl and CD (vinyl, either new or second hand being my preferred choice) and a library of Prog Italia magazines plus a set of Italian texts on progressive rock, I seem to have found my niche obsessive compulsive disorder. The listening and reading material is sourced on the family trips to Italy, which means I’ve also amassed a substantial digital image collection taken at all the stops I’ve ever made around the country; the Trenitalia app is one of the most used apps I have on my phone. It gets worse: I’ve even imported coffee beans from a small artisan roaster in Venice, Torrefaziano Cannaregio, which I’d recommend to any coffee drinker who finds themselves in the city. Perhaps I’m subconsciously working towards citizenship for when the UK plunges out of the EU...
I was aware of a ‘Little Venice’ region of London, so-called because it’s centred on the conjunction of the Grand Union and Regent’s canals, having started a year-long post-graduate course in Biomedical Sciences immediately after commencing work at the South London Blood Transfusion Centre. One day each week I’d travel from Streatham up through central London, by bicycle in good weather, to Paddington College, an establishment close to the canals and waterways of Little Venice that taught the mysteries of hospital laboratory science. However, it wasn’t until very recently that I discovered London’s Little Italy, on a family outing to the Postal Museum, recently shortlisted for the Art Fund Museum of the Year award – the museum opened the former Mail Rail 610mm narrow gauge railway system to the public last summer.
Desperate for a decent coffee on a cold Easter Sunday, by chance we came upon Terroni of Clerkenwell, which turned out to be the oldest Italian delicatessen in England, not just London, having been established by Luigi Terroni in 1878. Before the influx of (mostly) southern Italians the area bounded by Clerkenwell Road, Farringdon Road and Rosebery Avenue was known as Saffron Hill but subsequently became Italian Hill or the Italian Quarter, before Italians from the north of the country migrated to England and settled in Soho. Terroni’s was busy but we were still able to get a seat at a table, then shortly after our coffees and selection of cannoli had arrived, a huge queue formed at the counter as families poured out of the church next door, the grade II* listed St Peter of all Nations - conceived in 1845 by St Vincent Pallotti, designed by Irish architect Sir John Miller-Bryson modelled on the Basilica of San Crisogonoin in the Trastevere district of Rome, and consecrated in 1863.
Little Italy was transplanted to Islington last week, as Italy’s best-known progressive rock export checked in to play one night at the O2 Academy. It was suggested by Peter Sinfield, who provided the first English lyrics for the band and produced Photos of Ghosts (1973), that non-native Italians wouldn’t understand the group’s name Premiata Forneria Marconi (the first-class Marconi bakery, where the band rehearsed) and that they should call themselves PFM. Drummer Franz di Cioccio explained to Will Romano (in Mountains Come Out of the Sky, Backbeat Books, 2010) that this didn’t really work out at the time because the band members became a bit tired of everyone asking what the initials P.F.M. stood for! It’s interesting that the band name on releases after their signing to Manticore/Asylum Records are a bit schizophrenic: the cover of Photos of Ghosts includes both the full name on the front and the acronym in the form of a recognisable logo on the back but both 1974’s L’Isola di Niente and English version The World Became the World use the band’s full name; Live in U.S.A. (Italian release) uses only the band’s full name whereas Cook (UK/US release) uses PFM; the Italian version of Chocolate Kings (1975) has a large ‘PFM’ at the top and ‘Premiata Forneria Marconi’ in small font at the bottom of the front cover but the chocolate bar pop art of the UK/US release only uses PFM; my Manticore printed Jet Lag LP uses PFM but my Italian CD (on Sony) with its subtly different paper aeroplane cover, has PFM and includes the full name in small text. Even the releases from 2013’s In Classic onwards vary in their use of their full title; this was the first album to feature a consistent logo, utilised through the ‘re-imagined’ albums up to and including last year’s Emotional Tattoos.
I finally managed to get to see them at Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa last year and was really pleased that the set was primarily comprised of early material. They’ve been touring ever since and added two UK dates to their itinerary; the London show, and one in Southampton. I’d never been to the O2 Academy Islington before, in any of its former guises, but it’s easily accessed from Angel tube station and there’s a pub selling decent beer and food just over the road, The York. On arrival in the hall, a standing-only venue, the first thing to strike you was the noise from the air conditioning unit, so that when Andy Tillison appeared for his solo support slot, from my position the machinery could be heard above his keyboard and vocals. Though I’ve been following prog for over 45 years and Tillison has been playing prog for around 40 years, I’ve not knowingly come across the music of Parallel or 90 Degrees or The Tangent, though I’ve seen articles about the man himself and The Tangent in Prog magazine. Three of the four songs he played, The Music that Died Alone (a Tangent song from their debut album of the same name in 2003), Blues for Lear (from The Time Capsule by Parallel or 90 Degrees, 1998) and the debut performance of Sanctuary in Music, were primarily blues-jazz but the other song was a very interesting instrumental along the lines of early Tangerine Dream. He didn’t provide us with the title of this piece, explaining that it meant ‘progressive rock’ in German, as though his pronunciation would upset the guests from his German record label. He’s not got a bad voice and his keyboard playing was quite impressive, but what came across most of all was that his heart is in the right place; Sanctuary in Music reflected on religious fanaticism and the prohibition of music. The other nice bit of between-song banter was a tale of buying PFM’s Per un Amico from a record store in Florence when he was 13 or 14 years old, asking for some progressive rock and being told it was the only kind of music they sold! It was quite evident he was really honoured to be the opening act for the Italians.
It’s hardly surprising, this being a continuation of the Emotional Tattoos tour, that the set list was very similar to that I’d seen in Genoa. They began with Il Regno, the opening track from Emotional Tattoos (in Italian) and then performed a string of early classics: Four Holes in the Ground (from The World Became the World); Photos of Ghosts; Il Banchetto (from Per un Amico but which also appears on Photos of Ghosts), then four of the iconic tracks from their debut album Storia di un Minuto (1972): Dove... Quando... part 1 and part 2; La Carrozza di Hans; and Impressioni di Settembre. They returned to Emotional Tattoos with a song that kind of linked to Tillison’s Sanctuary in Music, La Danza degli Specchi and followed that with the instrumental Freedom Square, a song that harks back to the classic period of the band in the mid 70s.
This is where this concert deviated from the material performed on the Italian leg of the tour. There had been an intermission at this point in Genoa, restarting with Quartiere Generale and the little-known in the UK Maestro della Voce from the 1980 album Suonare Suonare; Islington was treated to Promenade the Puzzle (from Photos of Ghosts) and, from an album unrepresented in Genoa, Harlequin from Chocolate Kings. I think the UK got the best deal!
Though Franz Di Cioccio, the only remaining original member of the band, is indisputably the leader of PFM, Patrick Djivas is a long-term member and is put on equal footing to Di Cioccio. It fell to Djivas to point out the importance of classical composers to PFM music and joked that though they didn’t have an orchestra on stage they were still able to play Romeo e Giulietta: Danza dei Cavalieri which had been covered on their 2013 PFM: In Classic album. This neatly set the stage for Mr. Nine Till Five appended with Five Till Nine including their crowd-pleasing interpretation of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. It was no surprise that the encore was Celebration (from Photos of Ghosts) which included a playful drum duel between Di Cioccio and Roberto Gualdi.
One of the other differences from last November’s gig was that Di Cioccio spent more time behind his drum kit and left most of the vocals from early PFM material to Alberto Bravin, though when he did sing he displayed the same level of energy as he had done last year. I was a bit surprised to find the sound at the O2 better balanced than at Carlo Felice with its impeccable acoustics; Alessandro Scaglione’s keyboards were nice and distinct and utilised some authentic-sounding patches and you could hear how good Marco Sfogli’s technique was as you watched his fretwork. The only technical hitch was during Il Regno when Lucio Fabbri couldn’t get his violin amplification to work but one of the roadies eventually did something to an effects pedal and everything was OK for the rest of the performance.
This was probably the gig of the year so far for me, and I enjoyed it more than the Teatro Carlo Felice show. The standing audience and the ability to get close to the stage helped the atmosphere – the boarded-over orchestra pit in Genoa made the septet seem quite far away, even when Di Cioccio ran around in the empty space – but the London set list was better suited to a UK audience and the playing was out of this world. During the show it dawned on me that La Carrozza di Hans strongly reflects the original PFM influences, with fast stop-start breaks reminiscent of 21st Century Schizoid Man, a track they used to play at the beginning of their career, and that the old material was full of counterpoint which is less evident on Emotional Tattoos.
It was good to see a number of Italians in the audience (far more than there were Brits in Genoa!) and with the entire venue filled with appreciation for the band and their music, a small corner of Islington was turned into Little Italy for one night.
(Photo from the Offical PFM Facebook page)
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I was lucky enough to get to see two gigs in Italy last summer while the UK live music industry was halted and unsupported by the government, and the subsequent year-long gap between going to see bands play live has been frustrating - but necessary.
The first weekend in September marked the return of live prog in England, and ProgBlog was there...