Naples, Italy

I land in Naples – Napoli – before midday and get a cab from the airport to my hotel to make the most of my brief time here. My hotel, San Francesco al monte, turns out to be a good choice, located on the top of a hill. The room is nice, old-fashioned but pleasant, with a view of the city below and Mount Vesuvius in the distance.

In hindsight, this was at the beginning of the Corona pandemic, where we were still allowed to travel but recommended not to go to northern Italy. This is southern Italy, and there’s no sign of the pandemic yet. Whether it’s because I’m travelling out of tourist season, or the creeping, sneaking coming of the pandemic spreading, I can’t be sure, but I do appear to be the only guest at the hotel where I’m staying.

Leaving the hotel, I walk down a steep flight of stairs leading to one of many narrow veins that pulsate down towards the heart of Napoli. I go with the flow and soon find myself in the city centre, which bustles with noisy liveliness. I consider going on a tour of underground Naples late in the afternoon, but since I have very little time in the city, I prefer to stay overground and walk around to get a feel of the place. And get a pizza, of course. Napoli is the home of pizzas, after all.

I get a seafood pizza at Pizzeria Brandi, which has excellent reviews on Tripadvisor. The pizza is decent, but I’m not convinced I couldn’t have gotten better and cheaper elsewhere. Well, at least now I’ve had pizza in the town where this dish originated.

Back outside, I walk around the Spanish Quarter, a colourful and gritty neighbourhood with trash thrown in the streets left to rot on the ground and laundry hung to dry in the air. The grid of narrow streets and steep stairways is an enchanting place to get lost in, and I catch myself wondering on several occasions how someone managed to park their car in such a small space, as is often the case around here. 

Down by the seafront, the fabulous view of Mount Vesuvius is breathtaking – even more impressive than the birdseye view from the hotel. It’s so much closer to the volcano down here, where angry waves attack the rocks on the shore and paint a dramatic scenery, which adds to the enjoyment of the view.

I sit down at Gran Caffe Gambrinus. I’ve chosen this cafe because it’s where the underground tour starts at 5 pm and I’m still considering whether to join the guided tour or not. I order an espresso, a Negroni and a small cake, but I also get crisps, another cake, focaccia, and olives. When I point out I didn’t order these extras, the waiter says, ‘That’s fine.’ But it’s not ‘fine.’ My table looks ridiculous with all those little appetisers on it, and I soon realise I’ll have to pay for them. This is a lesson in how you can be conned even when trying to avert the situation. I wonder if it happens more often to solo-travellers and even more so to solo-female-travellers. I have to grin it and bear it, making a vow to myself never to return to this cafe and under no circumstances leaving a tip – my silent revenge. Va fa Napoli, indeed.

There is a cemetery with thousands of skulls in the northern part of the city, the Cimitero Delle Fontanelle a Napoli. It’s free to get in but not within walking distance from where I am. I take a cab up there, which seems to take ages. I’m glad I didn’t attempt to walk – I can’t always tell from Google Maps how far it is, and have in the past thought somewhere looked close enough to walk when it wasn’t. 

I walk around in the impressive caves full of skulls and bones for about 20 minutes before getting another cab going back into town. I ask to be let off at Piazza Municipio, where there’s an installation of 100 iron-statues of wolves by Chinese artist Liu Ruowang. It’s impressive to see all the wolves in the same space, but the novelty wears off pretty quickly.

I’ve seen signs of Granite di Limone throughout the day, and I suddenly get a hankering for one, so when I walk past Monidee Cafe, where I see they make them, I go inside and order one. The ice-cold taste of lemon cleanses and refreshes.

Soon enough, I’m back in the backstreets of central Napoli and find the Diego Maradona mural I’ve read about. I spend a few minutes looking at all the pictures, graffiti and artefacts of the controversial but much loved and universally esteemed football legend who was such a popular fixture in this town in the 1980s. Then I continue up the steep stairs to my hotel’s street.

I walk around the hotel, an old monastery, and the remainders of the convent show when I go on a walkabout trying to find the hotel restaurant. I don’t see one other person on any floor other than the receptionist on the ground floor. At first, I can’t even find the restaurant. My search leads me down several empty hallways and lonely staircases, leading to nooks and crannies, several rooms with exhibitions of artworks, and a basement with what looks like a conference room but might just as well be a ballroom. The emptiness makes the place seem perfect for making a horror film. A Neapolitan version of The Shining, perhaps? I’m relieved when I find the restaurant without encountering two twins in the hallway.

Not surprisingly, I’m the only person in the restaurant. A waiter emerges from nowhere, and I order what sounds like a good meal; chestnut and red prawn pasta. Unfortunately, the pasta is too al dente by about 30 seconds, and it’s way too salty. I eat it without complaint, but this is a stark reminder that it’s usually not good to eat at the hotel and better to go out and find something in a restaurant or a stall in the street. Anyway, I’m done with this day. After my salty meal, I go outside and inhale the salty air from the sea instead. I sit on the vast, empty terrace on the top floor for a while, watching Napoli at night from above and the backdrop of Mount Vesuvius towering over it all.

Many people go to Napoli specifically because they want to visit Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii, but Napoli itself is definitely worth visiting. Since I was only there on a layover for just about 20 hours – before continuing to Palermo the next day – I didn’t have time to travel out of town. My brief stay has made me realise that the hard city with the tough reputation has many endearing attributes worth returning for.

Population, Italy: 60,000,000
Population, Naples: 2,187,000
Currency: Euro
Warmest month: July (average 24.5C)
Coldest month: January (average 9C)

The Felice Brothers, Islington Assembly Hall

The Felice Brothers, Islington Assembly Hall, London, February 1, 2020

This is North London. But tonight, it might as well be the Catskills in upstate New York from which the two original members of The Felice Brothers, James and Ian, originate. After a string of different lineups over the years, the latest band members, Jesske Humme on bass and Will Lawrence on drums, join the two brothers and together they play us through an affecting and lively collection of folk-roots-rock-style compositions. 

There is something endearing about a band of musicians who seem like they came straight from the lumberyard and will be going back home to their porch for a brew rather than gulping champagne at a fancy party at a private members’ club. Hardworking, blue-collar people who happen to play music in their spare time; that’s the refreshing vibe spreading from the stage to all of us assembled tonight in the modest hall.

James sits behind his keyboard for most of the songs while Ian sings lead positioned in the middle of the stage, but James almost steals the show with his delightful honey-voice and every time he stands up and showcases his very mobile accordion playing.

The most moving moment of the evening is also the shortest song of the night, Nail It On the First Try, sung by James accompanying himself on the accordion while Ian plays keyboards. The song is a change in gear from the rest of the set’s tunes, and it makes me wish the song was longer. Such simple beauty. Such haunting lyrics: ‘I’ve never been so scared in my life, but then again, I’ve never died, I think I’m gonna nail it on the first try.’ Maybe it’s a good thing after all that the song is short. Who wants their death to be drawn out too long?!

The raucous and lively Penn Station makes for a great showstopper – an ultimate sing/shout-along anthem, the perfect soundscape for those revellers at the late-night bar ignoring the ‘last orders’.

Luckily it’s not time for the last orders yet. Ian comes out for an encore, alone at first, singing the excellent Ballad of Lou the Welterweight before the rest of the band join him for the last song, White Limo, which makes for the perfect anarchic, chaotic ending to a wondrous concert.

The Felice Brothers is a fabulous band. I never got to see them in their original lineup, but I hope there’ll be another chance to see them again somewhere down the gravelly, rocking road.

The Felice Brothers setlist
1. Holy Weight Camp
2. Jack at the Asylum
3. Aerosol Ball
4. Let Me Come Home
5. Wonderful Life
6. Salvation Army Girl
7. Whiskey in My Whiskey
8. The Kid
9. Nail It on the First Try
10. Special Announcement
11. Love Me Tenderly
12. Days of the Years
13. Plunder
14. Silver in the Shadow
15. Rockerfeller Druglaw Blues
16. Lincoln Continental
17. Frankie’s Gun
18. Penn Station
19. Ballad of Lou the Welterweight
20. White Limo

Brothers Moving, The Islington

Brothers Moving, The Islington, London, January 21, 2020

It’s hot in the tiny backroom of this Islington pub conveniently called The Islington. The concert is sold out due to the fifty or sixty people in attendance. It’s bitterly cold outside. But inside the red-clad room, there’s warmth and no sign of bitterness. This gig is a party that could have taken place on a summery beach at sunset, Union Square in New York on a cloudy autumn day or a field full of blooming flowers in spring.

Brothers Moving are no slouches. They have perfected the art of playing on streets and town squares, on mountain tops, at festivals or, like tonight, in a small pub venue in North London – any type of location imaginable. Their music is straightforward, on the verge of being predictable sometimes. Simple chords. A bit of rock and roll. A bit of blues. A bit of reggae. Finally, adding a sea shanty-vibe, with vocals reminiscent of Louis Armstrong or Dr John. It’s a charming blend brimming with life, straightforwardness and extroversion.

The band consists of two brothers (I think there used to be a third brother in the group at one point): Aske (vocals, lead- and rhythm guitar) and Esben (vocals, rhythm guitar, kazoo) Knoblauch. Further members of the band are Nils Sørensen (bass, mouth-organ, backing vocals) and most recent member Leonard Kiel (drums), who is so new that tonight’s gig is his first with the band.

It’s also the band’s first-ever gig in London. In the beginning, they mainly busked in San Francisco and later New York but have since expanded to playing in Russia, at the Grand Canyon, and now also a pub gig in London.

The set consists of acoustic compositions of hard strumming and coarse singing. The band also plays a handful of cover songs, some of which I’m not sure whether they were on the original setlist or not. For instance, when one of Esben’s guitar string breaks and while a roadie (or friend?) restrings it, the band plays what seems like an impromptu version of With a Little Help From My Friends (more Joe Cocker than The Beatles) before Esben gets his guitar back and they can start playing the next song as planned.

The guitar still needs a bit of fine-tuning though. While Aske plays a solo on his guitar, Esben’s tuning adds a few off-notes that give the music a hint of avant-garde jazz for a moment, until Esben is back in tune and the four musicians ease into the song as it should be played. It’s a great moment and an excellent example of what a tight band can do. Instead of taking a break while waiting to fix the problem, they play through it while simultaneously sorting it out, making the ‘problem’ a part of the performance. It’s endearing and the way it should be.

They hammer this point home a few songs later when it’s Aske’s turn to break a string. Conveniently enough, it breaks towards the end of the song, Can’t Deny, in which the lyrics go, ‘You can’t deny what’s happening here is so sad, so sad… It’s so sad what’s happening here’ – which he turns into a joke about feeling sad about the broken string. Aske strings the guitar himself while the others continue showing they’re a bunch of musicians used to playing in the street and dealing with whatever technical issues you might face while keeping on going on. There’s no time to take a break in the street ‘cos you’ll lose your audience, so why not keep the music going while restringing and tuning back up?

Esben gets his kazoo out (this is not a euphemism) several times to great effect. The innate noise that a kazoo makes could get tiring, but he somehow pulls it off, partly ‘cos the music lends itself to that particular sound, as does his silly, madman personality. A touch of a ragged jazz show tune, Cab Calloway style, is part of this band’s musical uniform.

As I only know one of their songs in advance, the last one, Sorte sigøjner (one of the few songs that they sing in Danish), the only other songs I’m familiar with are the cover songs: Minnie the MoocherWith a Little Help From My FriendsOne NightRoxanne and Satisfaction. All of them get the crowd singing along in perfect call-response style. But to be fair, most of their original songs also get the crowd singing. I seem to be the only one here who doesn’t know most of the tunes in advance.

All the covers are great, except Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones). I don’t think the band manage (or maybe don’t even want) to capture the raw, sexual energy that someone like Mick Jagger can bring to a song. The original song is very sexualised, and Esben doesn’t add the sexuality to the song that it needs to thrive. They somehow make a sexual piece asexual, almost comical, and that treatment of this particular song doesn’t work for me. Brothers Moving are at their best when they can be a little bit silly and goofy – the life and soul of the party complete with costume changes, as illustrated by Esben changing his sweat-soaked t-shirt after a few songs. However, it doesn’t make much difference, as the second t-shirt gets soaked with sweat within a few more songs.

And this is symptomatic of the whole performance. No one can accuse Brothers Moving of being afraid to sweat and getting their hands dirty. There’s barely a moment of standing still, especially Aske, and Esben look exhausted when the concert ends. It has been not only a concert but also an athletic effort. It’s a band with undeniable energy and thirst for life, eager to share their positive vibes with anyone coming their way.

Brothers Moving setlist
Not available

Easy Life, Rough Trade East

Êasy Life, Rough Trade East, London, January 16, 2020

It’s time for another Rough Trade East gig – a 1 pm lunchtime gig (‘the earliest Easy Life gig ever’) with quirky Leicester five-piece Easy Life, followed by a signing of their album, Junk Food

They are playing again this evening so they could take the easy way out and treat this afternoon show as a rehearsal for the concert they’ll be playing in about six hours. But it certainly doesn’t feel like it. The band treats us to 11 songs played with great spirit and full engagement by the band members, not least of all frontman Murray Matravers, who has dressed like a hotdog for the occasion.

I don’t know any of the songs, so everything is new to me. I certainly didn’t expect to witness a hotdog singing a song about how we misuse the natural resources of our planet (Earth) but what I soon find out is that an hour in the company of Easy Life is an entirely positive and life-affirming experience.

They play a set of catchy songs with entertaining lyrics, and they sound great – a mix of hip hop, r&b and indie-synth. Some of the songs remind me of Rex Orange County and that’s not a bad thing. But more than anything, they’ve latched on to their unique tiny island, and their warm and sunny disposition betray their Midlands roots. No sign of rain or grey skies around this band.

Many of the songs have dark themes lyrically, but the music’s lightness balances out the darkness of the words. The audience is on point as backing vocalists on most songs, and the festive atmosphere increases whenever Matravers picks up a trumpet and joins in with keyboard player Sam Hewitt, who doubles on saxophone. These brief horn-section passages bring a jazzy feel to the set, and it would suit the band if they did that even more. The very mobile drummer, Oliver ‘Cass’ Cassidy, uses every opportunity he gets to walk to the front of the stage to survey the audience. He also goes behind the keyboard for one song while Sam is on saxophone duty.

Easy Life looks like a band with an overload of ‘pinch me to check if it’s just a dream’ moments. Towards the end of the set, Matravers exclaims proudly, and a little bit confused, ‘Junk Food is in the fucking top ten – how did that happen?’ The band finishes the set with their debut song, Pockets, which features the line, ‘I’m tryna to unlock doors with these musical keys.’ The answer to Matravers’ question is clear, this band’s ‘musical keys’ are opening doors all over the place, and their audience is receptive with open arms.

Easy Life setlist
1. Earth
2. Sunday
3. 7 Magpies
4. Nice Guys
5. Sangria
6. Temporary Love Part 2
8. Dead Celebrities
9. Spiders
10. Nightmares
11. Pockets

Patrick Wolf, St Pancras Old Church

Patrick Wolf, St Pancras Old Church, London, January 16, 2020

Patrick Wolf is a sick man. Braving the flu and a fever sweating through his pores, it’s a wonder he’s even here tonight. Employees have called in sick for less. But here he is, intent on getting on with the show – after all, as he says, the only gig he has ever called off was once, when a cancelled plane prevented him from travelling.

We arrive early, as we know from a previous gig at this venue (with Erland Cooper) that the venue is small and there’ll only be seats for the first-comers. We wait in the rain for 30 minutes; then, we sit in our seats for about an hour before the gig begins. I prefer concerts with numbered seats to avoid these kinds of queuing-waiting situations, but sometimes a concert-goer must grin it and bear it.

It’s not only the performer on stage who’s ill tonight. So is one of his audience members. Me. I am at the tail-end of a cold from hell and luckily the cough I’ve endured in the last few days has magically gone away in time for the concert and at this point, I’m just completely exhausted. Illness aside, this turns out to be a great concert. This is the fourth time I’ve seen Wolf live and the first time since 2012 at the Old Vic.

Has anything changed since then? Well, his physical appearance is different. I used to think of him as lean and lanky, but he’s beefed up since I last saw a picture of him. His hair hangs down like straggly threads that he repeatedly curls and pulls at during the concert. He’s dressed in a dark, kind-of-toga outfit, and his appearance instantly makes me think of Anhoni (formerly Antony of Antony and the Johnsons) – the resemblance, at least from the fifth row, is uncanny.

He pulls at his long, wiry hair throughout the concert. I usually wouldn’t write a whole paragraph about someone’s hair, but it gets to a point where I wish he would brush it behind his ears and just be done with it. It gets distracting after a while and makes you wonder if it’s all a studied pose or just hair hanging down inconveniently. Maybe it’s a nervous tick or some kind of ‘good luck’ ritual, like tennis player Rafael Nadal, who adjusts his hair before every ball of tennis he plays. But enough about hair.

My friend and I sit behind what we believe to be members of Patrick Wolf’s family, which results in him looking in our direction several times as if he’s singing to and smiling at us. Though it’s obviously his family members he’s looking at, it adds an extra sense of intimacy to some of the songs that he sings them seemingly aimed at us.

The concert begins with the overwhelming sound of a church organ playing on the level above and behind us. Everyone turns towards the sound, and moments later, Patrick Wolf enters the church from the entrance through which we all entered the venue earlier – let’s call it fashionably late. He walks towards the stage and sings with his dramatic baritone voice. Once safely on stage, he picks up his viola and starts playing and plucking away.

Despite a few technical problems here and there, some instruments that need tuning, and Wolf leaving the stage for ten minutes because he’s unwell, he sings and plays like a trouper. He’s so talented that a few hiccups won’t present too much of an obstacle. Though some songs sound unfocused, Wolf’s singing is mostly brilliant, and he plays his chosen instruments (guitar, autoharp, viola, piano) splendidly. It also seems to help him that his sidekick, Jack, is there. Aside from playing the piano, bass and organ, his mere presence seems to support Wolf enough to get him through the show.

Since Wolf doesn’t have a new album to promote, the gig is a hearty blend of old(er) songs. Tristan is played early in the set, but it isn’t the best version I’ve heard of this song, just played on viola. I think this song works best with the strong backbeat that tonight’s version lacks and not just plucking away on a stringed instrument. Having said that, I understand a musician’s urge to experiment with different ways of performing their songs.

Other songs, like Bluebells and Bermondsey Street (one of my favourites), are spot on in their beautiful execution. Wolf plays a moving and fragile Pigeon Song with romantic lines about going alone to the cinema and stealing food from Electric Avenue (in Brixton, South London).

Wolf gets emotional when he introduces a song that he associates with his mother, who passed away not so long ago. He strums the chords of a song by Sandy Denny, Who Knows Where the Time Goes?, and manages to sing a couple of verses before he stops himself. At first, it looks like the song is too emotional for him to sing, but he says he’ll have to leave the stage for a few minutes because he’s unwell and will be back to play some more songs. No one could fault him for stopping the concert at this time. Still, about ten minutes later, Jack returns to the stage and starts playing an introductory piano piece before announcing Patrick Wolf back to the stage to very appreciative applause. 

The duo plays a few more songs, including one with Jack back on the organ. Patrick plays the last couple of songs solo on his viola. An alternative version of one of his dancier, more commercial songs, The Magic Position. This is not a song I like very much in the recorded version, but stripped down like this, the song has more depth. The clapping along from the audience doesn’t add much value to this song, but if clapping along feels supportive for the performer on stage, who am I to complain? The fact that Wolf’s voice has gotten croakier during the concert adds to the song’s urgency. After finishing The Magic Position, Wolf tells us, ‘That’s what that song sounds like when you have the flu.’ 

I don’t know how Patrick Wolf felt about tonight’s gig. It can’t be fun singing and playing and performing while ill. Maybe he got through on adrenaline (and Lucozade). Perhaps his love of playing music and being on stage is a comforting remedy in itself. Regardless, by the look of it, St Pancras Old Church was full of satisfied customers after tonight’s concert.

Patrick Wolf setlist
(Note: This is the setlist as intended but some of the songs were played in a different order and a couple may not have been played)
1. Ghost Song 
2. Teignmouth
3. Tristan
4. Jacob’s Ladder
5. Watcher
6. Blackdown
7. Hard Times
8. Bluebells
9. Bermondsey Street
10. The Days
11. Wind in the Wires
12. Damaris
13. Paris
14. Who Knows Where the Time Goes? (Sandy Denny cover – incomplete)
15. Theseus
16. Wolf Song
17. The Sun is Often Out
18. Augustine
19. The Magic Position