Vinicio Capossela + Piers Faccini & Vincent Segal

LONDON Southbank Centre / Royal Festival Hall
Belvedere Road
London
SE1 8XX

Directions

Described as ‘Italy’s greatest secret’ (Sunday Times), and ‘Italy’s most intriguing musical traveller’ (Mojo), Vinicio Capossela has navigated an inimitable musical path to consistent acclaim during his 20-year career, drawing on a diverse range of influences, from Italian folk to Americana and burlesque.

‘A visionary songwriter. Capossela, one of the cleverest and most eccentric musicians in Italy, spins enigmatic fantasies of both skid row Americana and mythological Italy in a grittily elegant cabaret-jazz style that recalls Tom Waits and Paolo Conte.’  (New York Times)

The concert is opened by the warming guitar/cello duo of Piers Faccini and Vincent Segal, whose new album, Songs of Times Lost, released on No Format got a glowing **** review in The Guardian. 'The balance of tradition and innovation, intimate vocals and plaintive cello is perfect – a splash of wintry sunshine.'

The following articles appeared in The Times on Friday 14 November 2014.

Vinicio Capossela: ‘The principles of anarchy are very relevant’

 

Italy’s answer to Tom Waits is a poet, amateur musicologist and unabashed showman. His conversation, like his songs, has a habit of embarking on epic journeys. One moment Vinicio Capossela, troubadour extraordinaire, is talking about the politics of his native Italy, the next he is reminiscing about a train ride in Inner Mongolia or his fascination with the French novelist Céline, the inspiration for one of his songs.

Always engaging, always curious, he talks of the Ancient Greeks’ theory of drama, the folk tunes played at his parents’ wedding and why he enjoys performing for foreign audiences who may not have much of a clue as to what his lyrics actually mean. One of modern music’s most charismatic performers, he is living proof that great songs and sheer force of character can transcend language barriers. Non-Italians, in fact, have long been among his most devoted followers. “I like playing outside of Italy,” he says. “You’re more free to play music for the love of music. The emotion arrives in a more pure form. In any case, language is not such a great obstacle, because it hasn’t stopped me listening to lots of songs I didn’t understand.”

More thoughts bounce off one another almost at random. He is like a firework that, once lit, never stops fizzing. Occasionally he speaks in English, but mostly he sticks to Italian and I am left hoping that my translator can keep up with the torrent of words.

The setting is as unconventional as the man himself. We are sitting inside a yurt at Womad in bucolic Wiltshire, minutes after the 48-year-old singer-songwriter finished a rollicking set with his group. Mixing folk songs with jaunty versions of his greatest hits, the musicians had instantly connected with an audience that was in the mood to jive. Strumming a guitar, Capossela presided over it all like some genial leader of a Tex-Mex showband. It was back-to-basics fare, with none of his usual metaphysical trimmings. And it was joyous.

Afterwards, once he has taken a breather, he is ready to talk. Outside, on one of the main stages, Salif Keïta’s band, Les Ambassadeurs, are cranking up the volume in their show. West African dance music wraps itself around the yurt, at times threatening to drown out our conversation. Capossela and the translator tend to talk across each other as well. Later, when I listen back to the recording, I realise that my machine has occasionally struggled to make sense of it all. From time to time, all I can hear is a hallucinogenic blur of voices floating above African dance rhythms.

But then Capossela’s concerts are often just as phantasmagorical. He may be known as “the Italian Tom Waits” but he remains very much his own man: poet, amateur musicologist, connoisseur of mythology and unabashed showman. His music blends retro pop with yearning ballads and jaunty backwoods songs. At its most ambitious, his storytelling and extravagant stage props create the atmosphere of a Salvador Dalí painting.

He will bring a welcome touch of theatricality to this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival. If jazz has grown a little staid of late, all too aware of its status as “America’s classical music”, the Italian interloper can be relied on to throw a party. At the Barbican three years ago he staged a mesmerising display, complete with a magician, evoking the atmosphere of a circus sideshow. Not long afterwards he was back to showcase a sprawling double album,Marinai, profeti e balene (Sailors, Prophets and Whales), combining sea shanties, Biblical tales and references to Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, all performed on a stage adorned with a gigantic set of imitation whale ribs.

If that sounds vaguely reminiscent of Spinal Tap at their most grandiose, Capossela’s music is essentially a simple quest for our universal roots. He is out to explore the myths and instincts that hold us together as tribes, villages and nations. It is no coincidence, then, that he is at his most animated when he talks of his own ancestral origins. Though he was raised in the cities of the north — Milan became his home — he still feels an attachment to the area east of Naples, where his parents were born. “I grew up with stories of the region,” he explains. “My mother and father spoke the dialect of the village and in the summertime we went to stay with my grandmother. It was very different down there. It was still an agricultural civilisation. The ladies wore black headscarves, everyone worked on the land and told stories. It sent my mind straight back to Ancient Greece. There was same sense of honour, the same legends and stories.”

Ironically for someone with such a mystical mindset, he was drawn to the study of economics and chemistry before he embarked on a career in music. The turning point came in 1986, when, still a student, he saw Tom Waits perform for the first time. The effect was so overwhelming that Capossela decided, as he puts it, “to become an outsider”. At first, his music-making focused on Americana, absorbing influences that ranged from the Beat poets to Sinatra-style saloon songs. Gradually, though, he became more intrigued by the mythology and history of his own land.

His eyes take on a faraway look as he talks of his idol, the singer-guitarist Matteo Salvatore (“our Robert Johnson”) or the anarchist Enzo Del Re, a singer who, improbably enough, accompanied himself by tapping on a wooden chair or his body, like a Mediterranean Bobby McFerrin. When Del Re died in 2011, Capossela attended the funeral. “His family were Catholics from southern Italy,” he recalls. “They wanted to have the funeral in the church, so all the anarchists stayed outside. When the coffin came out everyone clapped and big pieces of hail fell from the sky. It was June. Very strange.”

The episode sounds as if it could have come straight out of one of Capossela’s songs. Protest is a recurrent theme of his work, even though he avoids soap-box sloganeering. But if he is more interested in channelling the voices of the people at the bottom of the pile than setting out a social agenda, he admits that he is intrigued by anarchists themselves.

“They’ve always had a lot of courage,” he says. “The themes of anarchy have always been the themes of civil life. They’re always relevant. Even with songs written at the end of the 19th century you can see that the lyrics can still be relevant today. [They address] the problems of secularisation, trade unions, religion, war, patriotism. The anarchists were the first anti-militarists.”

So would he call himself an anarchist too? Caposella pauses to reflect. “I like to study,” he says at last. “The principles of anarchy are very relevant if maybe unrealisable. But they are still important for your formation as a person.”

All of a sudden he sounds like a cautious politician. Thankfully, the poet soon takes charge again, and then we are off on another unpredictable ride. A distant horizon beckons.