Thursday, June 29, 2023

Nine Below Zero - Piazza Molinari, Fiorenzuola d'Arda, 23 June 2023

While hordes of intrepid festival goers were traipsing around the vast Glastonbury playground on Friday, I was sitting in the bijou Piazza Molinari, in the northern Italian town of Fiorenzuola d’Arda.  I’d had me a good dinner and a couple of glasses of wine, and I was waiting to see Nine Below Zero do a show under the banner of the Festival Dal Mississippi Al Po – an annual series of blues gigs taking part in the area.  This is, you might say, la dolce vita.  You might also say that with Nine Below Zero on stage tonight should have been billed From The Thames To The Po, but let’s not complicate matters.
Don't point your finger, Dennis!
On the other hand, let’s.  Because this isn’t yer typical NBZ show.  Whereas I’ve seen them in their 8-piece mode a few times, their Italian agent has teamed Dennis Greaves and Mark Feltham up with a guitar and drums duo from Brescia called Superdownhome for a few gigs, including this one.  Which is intriguing, because when Superdownhome buddies Henry Sauda and Beppe Facchetti come on stage to warm things up with a few tunes of their own, it’s clear that they inhabit a rather different wing of the blues mansion.
The pair cook up an eerie intro with European-sounding influences, before igniting a back-to-basics blend of resonator twang and whipcracking drums on ’24 Days’.  Bequiffed guitarist Sauda starts off sitting on a drum stool, but as they embark on a driving descendant of ‘Got My Mojo Working’ he discovers enough ants in his pants to jump to his feet and start some eager shape-throwing.  Meanwhile the bewhiskered, bowler-hatted, waistcoated Facchetti sits erect at his kit, knocking out a snappy rhythm like Jeeves revealing himself as a drum savant.
Among the albums they’ve released is one titled Blues Pyromaniacs, which is a reasonable description for their fiery approach, without being as iconoclastic as a Jack White, fr’instance.  Sauda swaps his resonator for a 3-stringed contraption combining a cigar box body and a broom handle neck for a bout of serious swing and groove, before getting well bendy on another song, and at one stage throwing something like an early U2 vibe (I’m talking 1980 here) into the mix.
At which point Dennis Greaves and Mark Feltham enter the fray and introduce Motown into the equation, combining with the Superdownhomers on the Four Tops’ ‘I Can’t Help Myself’.  The Nine Below Zero fellas were pretty hard-hitting themselves in their early days of course, but in recent years their soul’n’Mod influences have become more apparent and less angular.  So the
"Help, Dennis!  Someone's superglued my mic!"
juxtaposition with the thistly groove laid down by Sauda and Facchetti is interesting as they rattle through ‘Watch Yourself’ and the train-clacking ‘Riding On The L&N’, with Feltham on vocals and knocking out some wonderful harp that’s a foretaste of more to come.
It's a set that gives a new spin to some old classics, but in balanced, varied fashion.  There’s a wonderful, soulful take on Ry Cooder’s ‘Why Don’t You Try Me Tonight’, and later the Willy Deville-inspired ‘Carmelita’, which evokes Jimmy Buffett’s laid-back ‘Margarita Time’. And further in the soulful vein there’s a great reading of ‘Bring It On Home To Me’, flitting from a sweetly marvellous Feltham harp solo to a wildly discordant Sauda break.
But there’s also rock’n’roll in the shape of ‘Woolly Bully’, chugging NBZ fave ‘Homework’, and Chuck Berry’s ‘Move It’, which comes with a ‘Peter Gunn’ undertow and typically evocative Chuck imagery.  And there’s classic blues too, with a bubbling ‘Ice Cream Man’, a very much down’n’dirty ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ with the Superdownhomers to the fore, and a guttural, ‘gertcha’ gut-punch of ‘Stop Breaking Down Blues’.  And on a tasty encore centred on ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ Sauda cuts loose with a bonkers falsetto vocal.
It's not a desperate clash of styles between the two outfits, but I sense it took a fair bit of focus to hold it together and keep it tight, so kudos to both parties for making it work.  It was great to catch up with the inimitable Greaves’n’Feltham combo in a different setting, and an encouraging intro to Superdownhome too.  “Tutto a posto,” as they say in these parts!

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