Ben Neill's XIX
Sangiorgi Theatre, Catania, Italy
Jan. 27, 2007

Though a few bad experiences I've had sometimes make me think about changing my attitude, I have to admit that - time and money permitting - attending concerts is one thing I still like quite a lot; and if it's a group/artist I don't know much about that's playing, well... provided one doesn't necessarily ask for "having a good time" there's always something to be learned. So I buy a ticket to the Ben Neill concert with no hesitation.

I don't have any clear memory of Ben Neill's music. Above all, I remember him as the inventor of a strange instrument, the "mutant-trumpet", hooked up to synthesizers and sampler, more or less at the end of the 80s (a time when quite a few musicians - whom I mostly remember as coming from the States and Holland - appeared to be trying to expand the boundaries of what was possible; hey, what happened to them? were they really all swept away by the laptop avalanche?). Tonight Neill will present "exclusively for EtnaFest" (ouch!) a new work called XIX, which makes use of samples of music from the XIX century. "A pupil of LaMonte Young, an instrumentalist celebrated all over the world"... how could it be bad?

It is. To use a quick concept, it's stuff with no originality nor ambition that would be perfect for a club where "indie rock" is played, be it in New York or Catania, but not at a Festival that is said to offer quality and innovation. With video images as its backdrop (what the concert program calls "fascinating interactive electronic elaborations created by well-known video-artist Bill Jones"), the music Neill plays comes for the most part from his laptop, sounds and repetitions included; once in a while he plays something generic (like a Miles-light, or a Dave Douglas in his fusion moments, or a less techno, more funky Nils Potter Molvær) backed by heavy hitter Jim Mussen on drums, and John Conte, on a heavily compressed Rickenbacker 4001 electric bass.

After a few numbers singer Mimi Goese comes onstage, a presence that's half-way between cabaret and "art song". We hear some ancient-sounding melodies, but the mixture sounds quite banal, with the sum of disparate elements (old melodies + funky rhythms) bringing to my mind some kind of "modern new age", à la Enya. Nothing really wrong with this, obviously: in a different framework (a bar, a pub, a car, a massage parlour) this music would be perfect. The concert ends in just an hour, though the audience asks for an encore ("we don't have any more pieces") clapping loudly (the Sangiorgi theatre is sold out, i.e. about 450 people): those who didn't even bother investigating what they were about to see spent a pleasant night listening to something modern.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2007 | Feb. 12, 2007