Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Heart In Winter

My desk in our little apartment.
Snow, blizzards & stuck indoors at 600 metres altitude puts a dent in the mood of a slightly stir-crazy Jonnie Falafel.

The thick duvet of snow laid over the landscape doesn't help my natural tendency to indolence! I want to stay holed up in this cosy apartment - tiny enough to be heated in it's entirety by a single wood burner – doing very little save concocting vast vats of soup from scrapings from the dwindling larder. Dried mushrooms, a few jars of sugo, some bottled vegetables, sprouting potatoes and gradually dehydrating zucchini. An adorable friend Filippo came to lunch on Sunday bringing a huge bouquet of ornamental cabbages. Two more days of this and we may have to soup them. No benevolent soul could get here to dine today.

The wind whines and complains around the chimney cowels and the sharp edges of the roof, but the snow tamps everything else. The valleys – giant echo bowls – normally amplify the sound of planes 7,000 mts above, but even that's muffled now. There are bats hanging under the loggia day and night, and little yellow finches pressing themselves into the gaps between the wall and the drainpipes beneath the roof over-hang. Sudden gusts of wind ruffle their feathers. Preoccupied with survival, they have nothing to sing about now. In the eerie silence one is acutely aware of the dull crunch of snow underfoot when venturing out to replenish the logs. Am I being followed? Stop. The footsteps stop. Look. Nothing. One set of steps traced through the powder white.

Cabbage Bouquet
The fluorescent-tube harshness of the light lends a drab hue to the stone houses. Those seduced here by the summer sun wouldn't recognise them. They felt these same stones exude heat on summer nights, they've witnessed the swift amber dawns, lazed in the syrupy late afternoon light or dined under a moon bloodied and pink. You wouldn't believe the moon now, with it's frosty unwelcoming stare.

Indolence indulges melancholy. Or is it the other way round? I don't want to read, I don't want to watch DVDs. I don't really feel inspired to do much of anything except stick close to the stove and brood. I might want to listen to the Tiger Lillies to ramp up the mood but instead listen to the churning mind raking over the coals to rekindle the embers of uncomfortable memories – disappointments, losses, former friends, mistakes and every rueful morsel of disgraceful behaviour gets chewed over. Parades of faces from another lifetime. What finally happened to her? What must they have thought of me? Why did I do nothing? It's too late to say.....

It's not like I don't have plenty to think about. I should be focused on our reboot of the mission next season which involves some big changes at Tenuta Savorgnano. We're off to England in just over a week and I should be planning for that, but I can't think about it today, when the mood colours everything. It just leads me to sour assessments of the impending consumer orgy we call Christmas. Did anyone read George Monbiot's recent article which mentioned gifts such as wi-fi controlled electric kettles, mahogany skateboards, souped-up cuckoo clocks and specially packaged balls of garden twine at £16 a piece!! And don't get me started on the mad economic system sustained only by spending on fripperies. It conjures the image of bored zombies plodding towards eco-doom.

Snow hits the hills
Paul says I should ring the Samaritans to whinge about my two houses in Tuscany. A friend says when life offers you lemons, make lemonade. I can laugh at the irony of the former but the latter riles me. It just sounds too off pat 'self-helpish' Straight from one of those books with strident covers pedalling mendacious pseudo-psychology. Think of opportunities and not obstacles. Oh purleeese! Pass the sick bag Alice.

I was the kind of kid who moped over moons and sat on the doorstep swathed in an old Naval overcoat to watch the rain detach bits of rough-cast from the house. I was given to wandering around the local cemetery to ensure the equitable distribution of flowers and almost weeping when I encountered a child's grave at the awful unfairness of it all. Children got slightly more than their due shares. Melancholy is my friend I don't want ironing out of my character. It's a masochistic disposition, a sweet malady, an exquisite pain. It's natural, it's not depression, doesn't require Prozac and is written through my soul like a stick of Blackpool rock.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Brief Encounter - Bob Dylan in Milan

For this month long jaunt through Europe Dylan has changed his modus operandi. He's eschewing the big barns in favour of a series of mini residencies in more intimate venues. This is the final night of a three night stand in Milans 2,340 capacity Teatro degli Arcimboldi in the University district.

Milan Duomo
I can appreciate that Dylan anoraks like me love it when he plays wildly varying sets each night, but this time around the advance web chatter is all about static set lists. In truth however, despite the well-earned reputation for winging it, the set lists have been more fixed for a few years now. Some miss the frisson of "anything could happen" extemporisation, but in compensation Dylan has been turning in solidly professional shows like this one for some time now.

The difference this time around that he's largely ditched the greatest hits. For me this is good news, for the casual fan it might be irksome. Anyone hoping for Like A Rolling Stone or Knocking on Heaven's Door will be sorely disappointed. Not content to coast on the 1960's legacy the bias is very firmly on more recent material. There's even a most unDylanesque plug for his latest album Tempest with no less than five of the nineteen songs drawn from that album alone.

The proceedings began abruptly almost bang on time. Suddenly the lights were out, no ceremony no intro. A few chords from rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball and out moseyed the maestro behind his band to a thunderous almost ecstatic welcome. A mixture of young and old, this might be the most enthusiastic crowd I've witnessed at a Dylan gig for many moons. Dylan stood for a few seconds at the central mic scratching his head and the band launched into a country-rockabilly Things Have Changed. He opened with this the last time I saw him two years ago in Firenze. The difference this time: he didn't mangle it. Vocally he was on focused and on form with not a single lyric flub and clear enunciation. The seal barking of the openers of the last ten years nowhere in evidence.

She Belongs To Me was up next. Set to the beat of a martial drum and with some melifluous guitar from Charlie Sexton this was gorgeous. Dylans vocal floated atop a cloud of rhythm and he played an understated and melodic harmonica solo that brought rapturous applause. Unencumbered by any other instrument Dylan really can concentrate on wringing musicality out of his delightfully eccentric harmonica style. I'm sorry if you miss his guitar. I prefer it this way.

Moving to the grand piano for a calypso inflected Beyond Here Lies Nothing, Bob wriggled and wiggled as he stood to play - it was that funky. The arrangement elevated a fairly pedestrian string of cliches into something worth listening to. I shuffled a bit in appreciation. Remaining at the piano for What Good Am I? (a worthy song that's been gathering dust twenty years until brought out for this tour) it suddenly struck me that this was the quietest Dylan gig I've ever witnessed... on stage I mean. The melody was carried by the band on this one with Dylan playing a counterpoint on piano: most accomplished.

Inside the plush Teatro degli Arcimboldi
I could've lived without Duquesne Whistle. The weakest song on Tempest, it's monotonous riff is interminable. Quite why he exhumed the minor country waltz Waiting For You (written for a film soundtrack) remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. With their 1940's feel, maybe these songs were channelling radio programmes of his boyhood? Maybe it's the legendary perversity? I admire the chutzpah, but there was a definite drop in energy levels. This wasn't remedied by Pay In Blood an excellent song in it's lilting Tempest arrangement which was delivered here as a quieter number with a crescendo at the end of each verse that abruptly drops off the cliff. It just didn't work. It's an angry song, "Another politician pumping out the piss", but Dylan demurred from, "You bastards! I'm supposed to respect you?", with a lyric change "My conscience is clear, what about yours?". It's horses for courses. Tangled Up In Blue was notable for a new set of lyrics and for Dylan's piano playing which was the dominant instrument on this one. A very strong Lovesick with flawless harmonica work redeemed the the first set. Dylan spoke for the only time of the evening to tell us there would be a break.

He returned with High Water (for Charlie Patton) which began with some banjo plucking and got progressively heavier. A simply stunning piano driven Simple Twist of Fate followed. Musically this was the business. And then a clutch of recent songs sealed this as one of the best Dylan concerts I've seen in years. The rueful Forgetful Heart underscored by a bowed double bass and with some plaintive harmonica work was spare and intense. He reproduced the Tempest version of Scarlet Town perfectly. This sinister little number was enhanced by a great baritone and a vocal dexterity he hasn't mustered in years. Ditto Soon After Midnight where I swear he banged out Blueberry Hill on the piano during the middle eight! Finally the closer Long and Wasted Years is without exaggeration the best and most dramatic single performance in my 35 years of Dylan watching. Exhilarating! The encores All Along The Watchtower (complete with jazz piano interlude) and Blowing In The Wind were crowd pleasers that should be dispensed with and I thought of leaving then but I hung back....

Because earlier I had a close encounter with genius. Bob and I made the same mistake in trying to see Leonardo's The Last Supper during closing hours. There he was ouside the church of Santa Maria della Gracia.

"Bob, do you think you could play It's All Over Now Baby Blue on Monday night?"
"Mmm. I'll see what I can do."

What he actually did was a mighty fine Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall in the middle of the second set. Most unexpected. Okay Bob, I'll settle for that.