Friday, July 10, 2015

As Lucca would have it: Paolo Nutini and Alabama Shakes

© Simon Poulter 2015

During the sweltering daytime, the labyrinth of narrow streets enclosed within Lucca's imposing ramparts throng with tourists being led in long, wilting crocodiles by tour guides waving numbered ping-pong bats.

To a party - which appear mostly to be American (indicated by the fact many are reading loudly from guide books as they trudge along) - there are sprightly pensioners mixed in with insolent-looking teenagers truculently looking at their iPhones, only just avoiding the handlebars of bicycle-riding locals doing the same in the opposite direction.

In the heat of the day, Lucca's maze of tiny, high-sided thoroughfares provides some respite from the relentless summer temperatures. During the sweltering evening, however, these same streets act like the sound ducts of expensive high-end loudspeakers, piping music from the annual Lucca Summer Festival, which, most July nights, sweatily crams 3,000 people into the Tuscan town's Piazza Napoleone.

Lucca has long been one of the best-kept secrets amongst European festivals, but being in close logistical and calendar proximity to others like Montreux, it has consistently attracted on-tour big names. Bob Dylan was Lucca's inaugural attraction, in 1998, and he was back here last week. Since that first show the festival has expanded considerably to occupy much of July. Elton John will headline here on Saturday night, Mark Knopfler, Robbie Williams, Lenny Kravitz and, bizarrely, a double-header featuring Snoop Dogg and jazz bassist Marcus Miller to come before the month is out - all drawn to the unparalleled charm of playing to such an intimate and immediate setting.

© Simon Poulter 2015

In past years Montreux itself has drawn WWDBD? for its summer music fix, but this year it was swung by the prospect of Paolo Nutini supported by Alabama Shakes...with the headliner merely a bonus.

There have been very few debuts quite like that which introduced the world to the band from Athens,  Alabama. Their Dan Auerbach-produced Boys & Girls landed like a prizefighter's sucker punch in 2012, unleashing a searing form of swamp R'n'B fronted by the huge, Joplin-like vocals of Brittany Howard.

If the album was one thing, live performances were something else, generating a must-see reputation that manifested itself at 2012’s SXSW, a show captured by podcast on America's NPR radio network, and which is probably now one of my favourite live recordings ever. This, however, meant there was a high risk that seeing them in the flesh for the first time might disappoint. Last night, after just the second song, I not only knew that wouldn't be the case, but that I was experiencing one of the best gigs ever. I exaggerate not.

These things are, of course, highly subjective. There were plenty in the stifling heat around me who were plainly more interested in catching a gust of air than the raw southern soul that poured off the stage before them. As for me, I was in my element. Sometimes you attend a show that for even the tiniest reason will live with you forever. My previous was just last year at Montreux, where Laura Mvula charmed the pants off everyone with endearing enchantment. This had a more visceral appeal, one that made concerns about expiring in the Tuscan humidity a waste of time. Alabama Shakes were still, in principle, just the warm-up act, a redundant task given that it was still north of 30 degrees by 9.30pm when Howard, Zac Cockrell, Heath Fogg, Ben Tanner and Steve Johnson strolled on stage.

© Simon Poulter

Perhaps it was the temperature, or perhaps it was for effect, but the opening choice of Dunes lulled the crowd into the set, with its woozyslow-tempo, before hitting them with the utterly joyous, Creedence-like Hang Loose, with its gearing rhythm guitar and an early showcase for Howard's remarkable vocal scope.

© Simon Poulter
As I’ve alluded, she has endured inevitable comparison to Janis Joplin, but her extraordinary range - given full vent on Rise To The Sun - is something to behold: Memphis one minute, Muscle Shoals the next.

It isn’t all about Howard, of course, and indeed throughout the ten-song set it’s clear how much of perfect equilibrium the five-piece are in, bridging soul and R'n'B vintage (Always Alright had a delightful Stax vibe to it) while also touching on the brand of southern grunge Kings of Leon started out doing.

But, with Nutini’s 10.30 stage time approaching, the Shakes started to build towards an epic end to their 45-minute set, with Gimme All Your Love alternating Saturday night drive-in doo-wop with a slamming chorus before closing with a flourish of southern Baptist communion.

To close, Don’t Wanna Fight, erupted like a summer storm that comes out of nowhere, the gentleness of its pizzicato opening contrasted by the body of a song which, cliche though it is, can only be described as being one of raw emotion, draining every last drop with a thunderous coda that closed the set.

I could have easily returned to my hotel then, a musically nourished and happy individual. But that would have involved fighting my way through 3,000 hot and seemingly soldered together people, who, in the traditions of outdoor concert protocol, were unwilling to concede so much as a square inch of concrete to anyone else for fear of giving up optimum line-of-sight (which these days means cutting through the forest of smartphones and selfie-sticks).

And so, Part 2: Paolo Nutini. The headliner. Accompanied by a huge band (a significant upgrade from the time I saw him six years ago in Amsterdam's tiny Paradiso), for more than an hour and half that took the show well beyond midnight (take note, Hyde Park and Westminster Council), Nutini delivered by the truckload. Let’s even convolute the metaphor by talking about a convoy of trucks - like the procession of big dumpers that the scenery-chewing Jeremy Irons had stealing bullion in Die Hard: With A Vengeance.

© Simon Poulter 2015

From the moment he shuffled on stage - like a cross between James Brown and Hugh Laurie's Dr. House - walking in front of the band spanning the stage's entire width, the audience was exclusively Nutini's. Not that there was ever going to be a chance that it wouldn't be.

© Simon Poulter 2015
Many had come for his roguish, stoner charm, and others for a voice that dares comparison with the greatest soul singers. And then there was, too, his ‘local appeal' - Nutini's father Alfredo comes from the commune of Barga, less than 40 kilometres due north of Lucca.

Perhaps with such overwhelming support from the crowd Nutini didn't have to indulge in any chattiness. He is known for spending most of a show with his eyes closed, but even allowing for such intensity, crowd engagement was sparing to say the least.

No one seemed to be bothered: he only had to utter “buonasera” to send the audience nuts. All this adulation aside, underpinning of Nutini's appeal is his possession of the finest white soul voice since Joe Cocker, one that encompasses the best of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. As Daily Telegraph  music critic Neil McCormick wrote in January, following Nutini's show at London’s O2 Arena, “the best British soul singer this century”. Few could disagree.

When he first appeared in 2006 with the album These Streets and a frilly hit single (Jenny Don’t Be Hasty), the then-19 year-old Nutini looked like he was threatening the sort of housewives’ appeal of a Jamie Cullum or Michael Bubl√©. I know that’s a casually sexist thing to say, there can be no ignoring the fact that was from where his fanbase was built, despite his roguish stoner image (and more than a hint of fondness for herbal refreshment didn’t seem to harm, either).

On Wednesday night's evidence, however, and a third album, Caustic Love released last year, Nutini has added so much more to his repertoire. It’s opening track, Scream (Funk My Life Up), was the logical choice to get things going in Lucca, instigating a mass, cramp-defying frug amongst the crowd, many of whom had started to fade in the interval between sets.

From there, Nutini rattled through an hour and a half of accomplished brilliance, drawing on temperature-appropriate hints of reggae with Let Me Down Easy, the plaintive Alloway Grove, and then giving that first hit, Jenny Don’t Be Hasty, a slowed-down, psychedelic groove, with wigged out swirly projections on the main screen, before segwaying into an infectious few bars of his other early bouncy early hit, New Shoes.

© Simon Poulter 2015

Better Man, about his mother, induced a mass swoon amongst the more sentimental audience members, prompting a rare lighters-aloft moment in modern concertgoing (yep, outdoors, smoking permitted). Shorn of his band, with just an acoustic guitar to accompany him, it brought out the light and shade of Nutini's vocal texture.

Paolo Giovanni Nutini may have an Italian name and an Italian father, but he grew up in Paisley, just outside of Glasgow. Which until this point in the evening had not really been apparent, such is his lack of conversational interaction with the audience. But for These Streets he adopted a notable Scottish accent, not quite Kenneth McKellar but not far off, to tell the story of hometown life “...wandering around with a half pack of cigarettes, searching for the change that I've lost somehow.”

Diana came next, a big stadium number almost incongruous to the small medieval square it was being performed in, before drifting into the old-style soul review of One Day. With the crowd now fully pumped up, Nutini unleashed his biggest gun yet, Cherry Blossom, a full-on stomp that made use of just about every member of the band on stage and the palette they had spread across its width.

© Simon Poulter 2015

With Iron Sky drawing on old cinema sound clips and footage of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, the set appeared to drift to a slowburn close. But this was just a tease: “One more”, the singer breathed, and the crowd went nuts again for Tricks Of The Trade, prompting a very un-self conscious audience clap-along. At this point, Nutini could do no wrong, which is why he crooned Guarda Che Luna, an apparently old Italian love song (Fred Buscaglione, anyone?) replete with Godfather-like trumpet accompaniment.

"Italiano?" asked a middle-aged gent near me, clearly not expecting a song in his own language. When a fellow local affirmed that it was, he looked genuinely impressed. It may have been pandering, but the nods of approval and coos of "bellissima" around me said otherwise.

Nutini could have brought on the Pope at this stage and not elevated his regard in the Piazza Napoleone any higher. "The charm of Paolo Nutini stokes the summer crowd" wrote the local newspaper, La Gazzetta della Lucca, clearly proud of "the handsome Scot who has origins not very far from the stage on which he performed", adding "un bel regalo" - a beautiful gift - of his Italian performance.

There was time for just one more, Candy, with Nutini strumming his acoustic guitar, and intoning, saucily, "lay down beside me". The predominantly female half of the audience gladly would at that stage, but it being ten past midnight, a warm but simple "Grazie" followed by "thank you" brings down the curtain, proverbially speaking, on an extraordinary evening.

The crowd attempt to draw Nutini back out by chanting "ole, ole-ole-ole, Paolo" football style, but he has gone. The end of a glorious evening of street theatre on a grand scale, a summer music event mercifully bereft of craft beer and veggie food concessions. Just as simple and as in-your-face intimate as Italy gets.

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