A banner at the stage rear is emblazoned with skull, crossbones and the legend ‘Rock n Roll is a Hard Life’. Zucchero Fornaciari has come a long way from the rural family roots of a small village in northern Italy to play on the Kunst!Rasen stage in Bonn this evening. He’s long since evolved from village kid to Italian musical legend. He was awarded the Italian Order of Merit in 2016 and has long been unofficially known as ‘The Father of Italian Blues’. In three decades he’s sold over 60 million records as well as sharing stages and recording time with a large and impressive smattering of music legends: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Brian May, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, B. B. King, Sting, Bono, Paul Young, Peter Gabriel, Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli… but – if you’re English or American you possibly won’t have heard his name at all, simply because he doesn’t generally sing in English. Sad but true, and if you have heard the name Zucchero it’s most likely because of his 1990 hit ‘Senza una donna’ (Without a Woman) sung with Paul Young. That English language connection again.
The English speaking music world has been missing out. It’s befitting his name perhaps, but rather a pity all the same, that the sugary ballads seem to have stuck with much of the non-Italian speaking world. It’s a compromise that the man himself aknowledges: “When I do the English version of a song, I lose something I would like to find a way to translate my songs from Italian to English better, because my lyrics are very personal and I use a lot of slang, the typical Italian way to say something. When they translate this, you lose the sarcasm or irony” he once conceded.
In his enjoyable autobiography ‘The Sound of Sundays’ Zucchero recalls getting a call from Brian May to accompny Queen for a tribute Wembley show in 1992. There are videos of him playing onstage with Eric Clapton too. Audinces in the high thousands. But tonight in Bonn there is a modest crowd of some 4000 people to enjoy this stage of the ‘Black Cat’ Tour that runs aroud the globe until October.
I should mention that there is another legendary figure onstage too for those of a ‘certain age’ who appreciate the pioneers of British Rock music: He may be the oldest man onstage but Brian Auger is also the first as he takes his familiar seat behind the keyboards. Auger is now in his 70’s but his musical CV reads as impressively as that of the main man this evening. He is a co-grounder of Rod Stewart’s first band ‘Steampacket’. Jimi Hendrix, Sonny Boy Williamson and Led Zeppelin have all found a place for the Hammond organ of Brian Auger. His regular smiles throughout the show are clear indicators of a man who loves playing as much as he ever did.
To say Auger is a part of Zucchero’s ‘band’ is an understatement, with around a dozen people onstage it seems more like an orchestra than a band. They need to be on their toes too because it’s a long show over two hours and whilst the main man takes a short break midway they have to ‘fill in’ (no intermission break for ice creams or beer re-fills in rock n roll!) . Fortunately they are a great band too, but despite not looking like a rock hero Zucchero has an undeniable charisma – he’s Italian of course, which helps. Without understanding the lyrics there is a strong sexuality, physicality, poetic, air to his voice. A voice that, together with the Italian style waving of arms makes comparisons to Joe Cocker inevitable.
The set opens, as does the new disc ‘Black Cat’, with the jangly piano intro of ‘Partigiano Reggiano’ and continues with ‘Buone Ragioni’. Much of the first section is from the new CD in fact, including ‘Ci Si Arrende’. No Mark Knopfler on National guitar for Bonn, but the Dire Straits legends presence on the CD version is a mark of the respect given to Zucchero. It’s an enjoyable start yes, but the evening hasn’t really taken off. ‘Hey Lord’ with it’s Gospel intro catches the ear but it’s not until Zucchero announces “And now we go back. I want to see you dancing” that things seem to shift up a gear with ‘Il Volo’.
The english language ballads may be a little sugary but they are delivered superbly. ‘Never is a moment’ for example:
“In the vastness of this world,
baby you are so unique.
In the sadness of this life,
you bring happiness to me”
Simple but powerful stuff. The old Creedence song ‘Long as I can see the light’ really does have me rememberinga Museumsplatz show with Joe Cocker several years ago too, but Zucchero is much, much, more than the Cocker clone that english ballads often make him appear. I love the rocking ‘Diavolo in Me’ for example.
The evenings high point though has to be an appearance of Luciano Pavoretti on the giant screen to ‘share’ vocals on ‘Miserere’. You can only gasp to imagine seeing them both actually on a stage together for this one – it must have been an unforgettable experience.
Darkness is just starting to descend on the Kunst!Rasen as the band come back onstage for a third time to encore, and it can only be one song really, the one everyone seems to know – ‘Senza una donna (without a woman)’. Again it’s a famous duet sung alone, this time with no partner, onscreen or otherwise, but it’s a grand number of course and one you can imagine in the darkness of some giant Italian arena somewhere where the darkness has indeed descended and the only light is the hundreds of candles held aloft (and no, despite what Jean-Michel Jarre said the evening before, cellphone light won’t do!).
There were ‘only’ some 4000 fans at Kunst!Rasen to see this true Italian world star who not so long ago played five gigs in a row at the Arena di Verona. What happened Bonn? You missed a wonderful show if you decided to stay at home and Bonn will miss wonderful shows in future if you continue to stay there. We can still enjoy World Class music here – it is indeed a hard life sometimes, but musical evenings like this one from Zucchero make it a rewarding one.
And finally, the video with Pavarotti of Miserere…