Franco Battiato at Cesena

Franco Battiato is an elder statesman of Italian popular music with a distinguished career spanning more than four decades. His standing and popularity remain high in spite of, or perhaps because of,  remaining slightly aloof from popular trends.

Many of his songs are commercial enough to appeal readily to mainstream tastes yet he always manages to be one step removed from the brash commercialism of pop or rock marketing.

This was the first time I had seen him in concert and while he has an image of being a serious even remote figure, on stage he exudes a warmth and refreshing lack of pretentiousness.

Battiato has the look of a priest although not one of the hellfire breed as he’s more likely to preach on the healing power of love than to lecture us about the sins of the flesh.

Italians call him ‘il Maestro’ (the teacher) reflecting the strong element of didacticism in songs which are steeped in the kind of mystic imagery of the kind you’d expect to find in spiritual texts.

Now nearing 70, the received wisdom has it that Battiato is an avant-garde artist who went soft after 1975. In 1984, he even represented Italy at the Eurovision Song Contest with the song ‘I Treni di Tozeur’ accompanied by longterm partner Alice Viscotti.

Yet, while his more recent works are less challenging than his first two albums (Fetus and Pollution) he is still an artist who follows his own path rather than pandering to popular taste. A recent collaboration with Antony Hegarty is indicative of the high respect he commands within and beyond the borders of Italy.

Although Battiato has gone on record as saying that he is not interested in playing and performing simply to please his fans, for this show he was at pains to reassure the audience that the “pesante” (heavy) opening section would last around 45 minutes and would be followed by material that was more “gradevole” (agreeable).

Battiato with Joe Patti’s Experimental Group at Cesena

This ‘difficult’ first half comprised material from his new album released under the name: Joe Patti’s Experimental Group. The real Joe Patti is nowhere to be found on this record. He is Battiato’s uncle, the brother of his mother, and the name was chosen simply because he liked the way it sounded.

Aside from Battiato on record, and on stage, this group comprises Pino Pischetola (live electronics) and Carlo Guaitoli (piano). The trio’s music falls somewhere between new age ambient and upbeat electronica. It is primarily instrumental although is interspersed some lyrical profundities that might have been lifted from personal growth manuals. For instance, in Leoncavallo we are asked to visualise “i colori del buoi” (the colors of the dark).

Battiato plays an impressive looking VCS3 (Voltage Controlled Studio), the type of analog synthesizer favoured by many a Progressive Rock band in the 1970s; think of the chugging rhythms of Pink Floyd’s ‘One Of These Days’ from Meddle to get an idea of what it sounds like. It has to be said that, sitting in front of this instrument wearing headphones, Battiato looks more like a switchboard operator than a musician.

For the second half of the show Pischetola and Guaitoli remained as the backing band but the mood shifted as Battiato cherry picked songs from his impressive back catalogue. Highlights of these were La Cura, Prospettiva Nevskji, L’Oceano Di Silenzio and Te Lo Leggo Negli Occhi. The latter shows that while Battiato’s songwriting speciality is abstract and poetic he is not averse to writing straightforward love songs where the profundity lies in the simplicity and directness of the words.

For the encore he discarded his seat for a crowd-pleasing rendition of  Voglio Verderti Danzare (I want to see you dance) concluding by high-fiving members of the audience who had flocked to the front of the stage (a concession allowed by security only for encores!).

Somewhat perversely Battiato then returned to his seat and closed the show with Proprietà Proibita a trancey Krautrock style tune that is also the closing track on Joe Patti’s Experimental Group album. His message seemed to be, I’ll go my own way – follow me if you want.

I will follow.

Franco Battiato’s Official Website
Te Lo Leggo Negli Occhi (You Tube Video)