CHRIS ECKMAN – Piazza Saffi, Forlì 9th May 2014

Chris Eckman (left) onstage in Forlì with Paul Austin.

One of the best things about living in Italy is that outdoor concerts and other open air events rarely need to be cancelled due to bad weather.

In the UK, washouts are frequent and music festivals often turn into mud baths.

This free show by Chris Eckman took place in the main square of Forlì in Emilia-Romagna on a pleasantly cool, clear evening. It marked the start of a new season of concerts organised by Strade Blu who in recent years have brought quality artists like Devendra Banhart, Steve Earle, Lambchop and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy to the region. The focus is mainly on folk or alt.country.

When he’s not playing solo, Eckman is part of The Walkabouts from Seattle and he was joined on stage by Paul Austin of that band. Austin played electric guitar backing to the Eckman’s earthy vocals and crisp acoustic guitar.

A quarter of the songs were from Harney County, Eckman’s moody album of dusty, travelling tunes inspired by the landscape of Southeastern Oregon. On his website, Eckman says that he wanted to convey a sense of both rawness and restraint.

The events and characters of his story songs are fictional but the settings are real. Written around the same time as the Walkabouts record ‘Travels In The Dustland, they are vaguely reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska without being so bleak or minimalist.

On stage Eckman was a well-groomed, serious yet courteous host. He seemed to be making the set list up as he went along, giving titles of each tune to Austin who merely nodded impassively.

Although Eckman described Raise Them Hands as “a political song for troubled times”, protest tunes are not the main thrust of his material. Mostly, the songs are like the soundtrack for a modern western where individuals are not pitched against the system but against the windy mountains or harsh flatlands and where, to use his own words for Harney County, “humans are small and ineffectual”.

It all seems a long way from an elegant piazza in Northern Italy.

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