A Week of Festivals with Italy’s Premiere Hard Rock Band
Go Down Records
by Todd K Smith
Bubbling under the surface of Europe’s slogging pop trend is a thriving hotbed of high-octane rock ‘n roll. No other place is more prominent than Italy’s northern region, stretching from Milan to the coastal town of Rimini. Here, they take their rock very seriously hosting a number of regional festivals that showcase vibrant talent and turn parking lots, local parks and old town-squares into frenzied concert halls. The Italian underbelly has given birth to several big names lapping at American shores including Lacuna Coil, Rhapsody and Zucchero, as well as a long legacy of progressive-rock reaching back to the seventies. With an uncanny appreciation for classic American, Aussie and British rock, many Italian bands worship at the alters of Lynyrd Skynyrd, AC/DC and Black Sabbath with plenty of Thin Lizzy tossed in. Bulging with exuberance they sacrifice it all to play a mixed bag of guitar-fueled, punchy rock that reverberates with an earthquake-like rumble. Among the most exciting names on the Italian circuit are the Small Jackets, Electric 69, Los Fuocos, Thee S.T.P. and old school titans, Bullfrog.
Most of Europe is off the month of August, so it makes for a perfect time to get out and see some talent. The Small Jackets were brought to our attention by Robert “Strings” Dahlquist of the Hellacopters. On his recommendation we tracked down their first disc Play at High Level (2004) and were pleasantly surprised by their generous offering of Montrose meets Grand Funk Railroad. The band was formed in 2000 by sledgehammer drummer, Danny Savanas (Paul Chain Band) and local garage rock legend, Lu Silver (Thee Hairy Fairies) on vocal and rhythm guitar. Savanas grew up on a steady diet of John Bonham and Ian Paice while Silver raided his dad’s country collection picking out Charlie Daniels and Waylon Jennings before nestling in with The Rolling Stones. The two made a formidable pack with lead guitarist David Piatto and bassist Roby Nobody signed to Go Down records, a passionate independent label that built their foundation and banked their reputation around the Jackets.
The Second record, Walking The Boogie (2006) saw the departure of Piatto who was replaced by his student protégé Fabio Gardini (aka Eddy Current). The change brought a more mature sound and attracted the attention of the elite Scandinavia rock scene. Both Nicke “Royale” Anderson and Robert “Strings” Dahlquist” of the Hellacopters guested on the album bringing international attention to the power-chord four-piece. The disc boasted several breakthrough tracks including the bass-driven “My Surprise,” the massively hooky “Leave Me Alone” and the Ted Nugent injected “Born To Die.” By this time Go Down Records was in full stride releasing several quality discs a year including OJM’s classic Under The Thunder, Fuel From Hell’s Fill You Up With Five Star Gasoline and the garage punk icons Not Moving retrospective Live in the 80’s. The Jackets were poised for the next big step, with solid backing and a flourishing fan base.
In 2008 they relocated to Gothenburg, Sweden for a ten day stint to work with famed producer Chips K (The Nomads, Sator) on their third opus Cheap Tequila. Bassist Mark Oak replaced Roby Nobody adding a boost to their vocal layering. The crafted tunes showed the team of Silver and Gardini hitting their stride as songwriters. More color and texture including Hammond, piano, harp, violin and saxophone flushing their sound with sophisticated arrangements. The leap forward was measurable, specifically in the rhythm section as Savanas and Oak powered the machine from the belly of the beast. Sonic drums locked down a fat groove with a thumping bass that’s one part funk and another rhythm and blues. Suddenly “Listen To The Rock” and “Let Me Be Your Man” were hits on YouTube and the band moved to headline status.
Frogstock in the lush countryside Riolo Terme was the perfect place to check out the gritty foursome on a big stage with pro lighting. Though Jethro Tull was the main attraction, Go Down Records had their own night and featured Les Bondage, Electric 69 and banner act Small Jackets. Les Bondage is an adrenaline charged four-piece cut from the same cloth as the Fuzztones and New York Dolls with a bit of surf tossed in. Solid and tasteful, their set had just enough reckless edge to make them prime CBGB’s material. Electric 69 rock with a swagger that echoes Long Island legends The Good Rats in their prime. Maybe it’s lead singer Maury Wood’s bearded face or the way he tosses his head back and triumphantly raises his guitar, but the sheer confidence of this band is well beyond their years.
Small Jackets took the stage in a cloud of smoke and colored spotlights with a fine-tuned, leather-tight set that easily fills the vacancy left by the disbanded Hellacopters. Silver and Gardini face off in a dynamic duel, cutting heads and igniting the midnight air with one memorable lick after another. As a frontman, the bandana-crowned Silver has a Mark Farner-like vocal style and Alvin Lee delivery that conjures up the early-seventies in a majestic renewal of taste and sophistication. With the lights glistening off his skull ring, Silver leaped into the crowd wailing away on his big red Gibson ES-335 hollow body. Gardini lives up to his pseudonym Eddy Current sending shards of electrifying riffs from his ‘70 SG through a stack of well-aged Marshalls that strike like blazing arrows. Musically schooled in his father’s record store, Gardini combines a lethal cocktail of Ronnie Montrose, Gary Rossington and Ted Nugent into his playing. Breathless and sweat-stained, the band closed their ninety-minute set like medieval warriors, a product of endless touring and tough work ethic.
“We like our music very physical” says Gardini after the band’s punchy set. “If the audience feels what we feel on stage, we are communicating on the same level.” His English is surprisingly good and he takes over as interpreter for the rest of the group. Savanas joins in, “Our music is very dynamic, the drums, guitar and bass are all energetic and that’s what is so important to the foundation of this band.” As seen in Savanas’ popular YouTube video, the physical nature of his playing is key to the group’s retro groove. Silver’s father, who had stood next to the stage watching his son, agreed that the success of the band was in their attention to the classic era of ‘70s hard rock. Bassist Mark Oak adds, “the bass copies the guitar riff giving the song that much more, but we also leave room in the song for the notes to breathe.”
The next night, sluggish from little to no sleep, the Jackets tumbled out of their transit van with their name topping the bill at Monte Rocka in Caldiero, a 16 km jaunt outside Juliet’s Verona. Poised on a pine-covered hillside, the three-day festival combines several genres ranging from rockabilly and alternative rock to Brit pop. This night had the glam punk idols Brokendolls illuminating the stage in a heated frenzy. Boasting a V8 Wankers t-shirt, singer Ros the Bos possessed the charisma and twisted antics of Iggy Pop as a series of frantic AC/DC riffs surge from his bandmates. The eclectic crowd appreciated their efforts but turned up the volume when the Small Jackets stepped under the lights. An obvious favorite, songs like the bass-fueled “Out The Rain Cries” and “Dancing with the Monster” felt like vintage-era Aerosmith. Silver whipped the crowd into a froth with the extended “We Are Boozer” and even the honky-tonk “Sweet Lady” became a twin-guitar Southern classic with shades of Marshall Tucker and Wet Willie.
The band’s home region of Emilia-Romagna was the site for Freak At Town, the third festival of the week. Held in the mountain town of Roncofreddo, it filled the old city courtyard with a 300-year old church as backdrop. “I used the ringing of that bell as the intro to an old Sabbath song when I played here with my last band,” says Savanas who explained his former band, led by guitarist Paul Chain were mercenaries for occult-like distractions. “The music he plays now is more about the groin,” laughs Gardini. Singer Lu Silver joins the comedy, “Good rock ‘n roll is where the groin and the soul meet.” A truthful observation has never been more appropriately coined. The Jackets wear that banner proudly packing a sex-charged swagger in the form of a pumping groove and electrifying solos. Even the name Small Jackets is slang for condom. During soundcheck, bassist Marchello (Mark) shouts from the stage, “Lances up?” as a doubled-meaning challenge. When the group mount the stage later that evening they meet the challenge with a most urgent, cocksure, kickass parade.
Website: Small Jackets, Go Down Records
Very special thanks to Mirk for band photos. Credit©2009: Mirk_ONE - www.mirkone.it