Assuming there’s no last-minute hitch with flight cancellations or travel restrictions being imposed because the Omicron BA.4, BA.5 and BA.2.75 'Centaurus' variants of Covid 19 are on the rise, I’ll shortly be on my way to the 2022 Porto Antico Prog Fest in Genoa.
It may be the largest seaport in Italy, served by several cruise lines, but Genoa is hardly geared up for tourism and unlikely to feature on many travellers’ lists as a must-see. As much as I love Venice, Rome, Milan, Turin, Bologna or Palermo, Genoa is my favourite Italian city. It’s gritty and unpretentious and though it has some fine buildings and a rich history, it’s hardly beautiful and it’s not been preserved as a museum piece; feelings echoed in the English commentary of stage 12 of the 2022 Giro d’Italia as the leaders of the peloton reached the outskirts of Genoa.
My first visit was in May 2014, specifically for the Riviera Prog Festival, three days of live music appended to the annual Fiera Internazionale della Musica (FIM) musical equipment fair held in Genoa’s exhibition centre, reclaimed from the sea in the 1960s and currently undergoing remodelling and renovation under the supervision of local starchitect Renzo Piano. Not only was I exposed to a startling array of progressivo italiano, during my free hours I explored as much of the city as possible, granted UNESCO World Heritage designation in 2006 for its medieval city centre dating from the late C16 when the Republic of Genoa was at the pinnacle of its financial and seafaring power, including the Strade Nouve and Palazzi dei Rolli. There are also a number of important examples of Rationalist architecture dotted around the city centre, some of which is pleasing and some, like Marcello Piacentini’s Arco della Vittoria (1931), is not. At 108m, the Torre Piacentini on Piazza Dante was the tallest concrete building in Europe at the time and the tallest building in Italy from 1940 to 1954. The Automobile Club di Genova (Camillo Nardi Greco and Lorenzo Castello, 1939) is famous for the futurist frescoes in the waiting room; the neglected Palazzina Labò (Mario Labò, 1935-8), built as the Ristorante San Pietro but partially demolished, like the ACI building, to make way for a ramp for the Sopraelevata Aldo Moro in 1965 is considered one of the finest examples of Italian Rationalism. Then there’s the brutalist Centro dei Liguri (Marco Dasso, 1966-73) which I rather like, but the redevelopment of the Carignano district which was run-down and damaged by bombing during WWII was controversial. The clearing of the old, popular blocks of flats led to the expulsion of the city’s poorer residents, shattering an established social network and in via del Colle, the childhood home of Niccolò Paganini was also destroyed.
The Ligurian coastline doesn’t offer much space for building, so Genoa is a vertical city with some unusual modes of transport. A 100 minute public transport ticket covers the Metro, local train services, buses, a funicular railway and elevators. I was bemused when I first saw ‘ascensore’ marked on a city map but there’s even a Starship Enterprise-like lift that travels horizontally for some distance before ascending, possibly the only example of its kind in the world.
Genova's Rationalist architecture: Chiesa di San Marcellino (Luigi Carlo Danieri & Pier Luigi Nervi, 1933-35)
It seems appropriate that Genoa should host a prog festival based on the city’s historic and current links with the genre. Following WWII, American and British music arrived in Italy through the country’s major ports and with further influx from a mixture of cultures it’s not surprising that Genoa has played an important role in the development of musical styles. The polarisation of political viewpoints in the late 60s and 70s was also a factor in embracing a progressive rock form, where the outward-looking ecological, anti-consumerist and anti-authoritarian ideas key to the formation of the genre fitted neatly with left-leaning political movements and many of the bands deliberately chose to sing in their native language as an expression of their desire to retain some of their own heritage and identity. It could also be argued that the adherence to a ‘romantic style’ helps to explain the attraction of UK progressive rock in Italy.
Many of the current crop of Genovese prog bands have a close relationship with Black Widow Records (via del Campo, 8R), a shop and record label overseen by Massimo Gasperini and Pino Pintabona. The shop is one of the best record stores I’ve ever visited. Small in area but filled with vinyl and CDs, both Gasperini and Pintabona are incredibly knowledgeable and also friends with an inordinate number of musicians. They may not have been quite prepared for the Englishman who came into the shop in 2015 where, encouraged by his wife, he began to select a rather large pile of CDs. A must-visit for any music fan, I now ritually visit the store on the day I arrive in the city and it’s a stack of LPs, plus one or two CDs that comprise my selection. On my first expedition to the shop in via del Campo I was both surprised and impressed to see the Marsbéli Krónikák CD by Hungarian symphonic prog band Solaris. Initially released in 1984, this is a highly regarded piece of work and at the time was somewhat difficult or expensive to find in the UK, listed for £43 on Amazon; I bought it in Black Widow for €17. Black Widow specialises in progressive rock, psychedelia, heavy rock, ‘dark’ prog and folk and the reputation of the store within the prog community is really high. The Prog Archives website published an interview with Gasperini in 2010, remarking that he’s a friendly guy, and I concur. I’ve had lengthy chats with both Massimo and Pino and can honestly say that their generosity, knowledge and graciousness are boundless. It’s easy to form a connection when you share a passion for the same kind of music, despite my lack of Italian.
You might wonder why such a small shop has such a big influence but part of the reason is because Genoa is at the heart of the current prog scene in Italy, with the emergence of a number of new bands seeped in the traditions of 70s progressivo italiano plus a renewed interest in the original acts, some of the most influential of which were based in Genoa (New Trolls, Delirium, Latte e Miele, Nuovo Idea, Garybaldi). Genoa’s Pontedecimo district is also home to the Centro Studi per il Progressive Italiano who aim to create a comprehensive archive of material relating to Italian prog and build a complete database of material, but also study the material at a musicological level. The other part of the explanation is that Black Widow plays an important role in the live music scene, an adjunct to its operation as a record label, promoting new talent and where possible, reissuing old classics. It should also be noted that there’s a healthy crossover of musicians between different projects, with Fabio Zuffanti, Alessandro Corvaglia, Martin Grice, Agostino Macor, Edmondo Romano and Paolo Tixi all involved in a number of the same groups. It would also be remiss of me to fail to mention other record stores in the city, though Genova Dischi which had been on Piazza Soziglia and the Taxi Driver record store are now both closed down, while the Taxi Driver label still releases music. This still leaves Disco Club (via San Vicenzo, 20R) which has been a feature of the city since 1965: Ernyaldisko (via Galata, 106) with its impressive range of Italian prog; Record Runners (via Domenico Fiasella 82R); Flamingo Records (Piazza delle Vigne 24R) which I associated with punk when I visited in 2015, though it also advertises metal, doom and stoner and is set on a secluded piazza where you can admire the C10 church of Santa Maria delle Vigne while sipping a coffee; 71 Music Shop di Judica Paolo
(via di Fossatello, 20) which has a vast array of T-shirts and memorabilia; plus a huge selection of music, mostly on CD in La Feltrinelli (via Ceccardo Roccatagliata Ceccardi, 16 -24); and a small selection of second-hand vinyl in Libraccio (via Cairoli, 6R). In addition to these shops there’s an array of book and record stalls around Piazza Banchi, along with a regular book and record fair in Piazza Giacomo Matteotti.
The 2015 visit was the only time I hadn’t planned to see any bands but I kept a keen eye out for suitable gigs as an excuse to return. For whatever reason, after dropping off my bag at the hotel – I’ve always used the NH Genova Centro - and walking down to Porto Antico, I’ve always felt at home, and I always feel a pang of regret as I board the bus from Piazza de Ferrari back to the airport. With my appetite whetted in 2014 by Alphataurus, C.A.P. featuring guest Alvaro Fella and Aldo Tagliapietra from the 70’s and a host of third-wave prog acts including Panther & C., Unreal City, Psycho Praxis, Il Tempio delle Clessidre and La Maschera di Cera, I realised there was a good chance the city would host other events, and looked to combine my appreciation of the music with my admiration for Genoa.
Aldo Tagliapietra, Riviera Prog Fest 2014
My 2016 trip was a little later than planned. I missed the Höstsonaten performance of their new album Symphony N.1 Cupid & Psyche despite looking out for the gig and had to console myself with Fabio Zuffanti’s Event ’16, a tribute to the Area concert released as Event ’76.
Over my three visits in 2017 I saw a double headline gig by Ancient Veil and Finisterre, attended my first Porto Antico Prog Fest – a two day festival with local bands (Melting Clock, Il Cerchio d’Oro, Panther & C.) and international acts (Delirium, Gens de la Lune, Arabs in Aspic, Nik Turner), and appended a PFM gig to a weekend which had featured a Black Widow-promoted ‘progressive night’ with Ancient Veil, Melting Clock and Phoenix Again.
2018 included another two visits, the first for Melting Clock and Panther & C. in early March and the second for the Porto Antico Prog Fest in August where two well-known cover bands, Over The Wall (Pink Floyd) and Get ‘em Out (Genesis) were the main draws, though I’d gone to see Ancient Veil again and to experience Sophya Baccini’s Aradia.
Melting Clock, Porto Antico Prog Fest 2017
I booked to visit in March 2019 specifically for a Melting Clock gig but this was shifted by a week to accommodate the support band and as I couldn’t change the original dates I went anyway and was treated to a band rehearsal where they ran through the entire concert set, which was really special. I was back again in July for the Prog Fest which had a local flavour, featuring La Storia dei New Trolls and LatteMiele 2.0, the latter launching their new album Paganini Experience, Struttura & Forma who were formed in Genoa in 1972 but didn’t release an album until 2017, and the band of the original PFM bassist Giorgio ‘Fico’ Piazza which featured the outstanding Greg Lake protégée Annie Barbazza. A third trip that year was to see a double-header of Zuffanti projects Höstsonaten and Finisterre, marking Finisterre’s 25th anniversary and the release of a re-worked version of their first album under the title of XXV.
I’d been to Genoa to see Banco del Mutuo Soccorso in February 2020 before the world was turned upside down by Covid. I was actually skiing in Sauze d’Oulx just as the pandemic was taking hold in Italy, but fortunately managed to get to Genoa for the Prog Fest just as travel restrictions were easing in July. Balletto di Bronzo were top of the bill - I was in the Black Widow shop in February when Massimo was on the phone to Gianni Leone to arrange their appearance – with two local bands in support, Il Segno del Comando, who had been the support act for Banco, and Jus Primae Noctis. This being Genoa, it was inevitable that there would be some kind of connection between these two bands: Il Segno del Comando bassist and band leader Diego Banchero appeared on the Jus Primae Noctis album and Beppi Manozzi played keyboards for both groups.
Balletto di Bronzo, Porto Antico Prog Fest 2020
I even managed a third trip, in September, for the Black Widow-organised Rockfest, marking their 30th anniversary, which formed part of the Abracadabra Festival – music to accompany a new age/occult/esoteric fair which was entirely appropriate for Black Widow’s dark prog leanings (the store and label were named after the early English heavy prog band Black Widow who caused something of an outrage with the ‘satanic’ lyrics on their 1970 debut Sacrifice). The main attraction for me was another performance by Melting Clock, but I also got to see neo-prog project The Ikan Method performing their debut release Blue Sun, and Genoa’s Fungus Family, who I’d seen in 2014.
The global pandemic hardly abated throughout 2021 and when Italy was open to tourists the UK had some really strict restrictions so for the first time in eight years, Genoa was off the travel itinerary.
I’ve organised trips to see bands in Bologna, Brescia, Milan and Rome where I’ve ticked off a decent number of re-formed classic acts together with some exciting new musicians, but it’s the friendships I’ve forged in Genoa which help to make it a special place where I feel part of the city’s prog community. Of course music isn’t the only attraction as there are a number of excellent bookstores, including my favourite L’Amico Ritrovato (via Luccoli, 98R) and there’s something interesting around every corner. The public transport links are efficient, although there have been public sector strikes on more than one of my visits which makes me feel even more at home! Each of the stops on the coastal railway line, west or east and south down to La Spezia through the Cinque Terra has its own bit of history and there’s always a piazza somewhere to enjoy an Aperol spritz. I’m happy to chat with the students selling the Communist newspaper outside the university and Genoa’s maritime history chimes with my formative years in a shipbuilding town on the Cumbrian coast, which I suspect is at least partly responsible for why I feel so much at home.
Aperitivo in Rapallo
Quite by chance, Genoa featured in the travel section of The Guardian shortly after my return from the 2015 holiday http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2015/aug/14/italy-genoa-food-drink-chocolate-walking and though it didn’t mention prog, it was as though I was still there.