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Live review: Neon Neon resurrect an icon of Italian Communism

After the release of Neon Neon‘s first album, Gruff Rhys said that a second was unlikely… but thankfully the band found inspiration in the life of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian Communist who was integral to spreading the ideologies and ideas of revolutionaries such as Fidel Castro. For some lucky fans, they got to see his story come to life when the Welsh prog-rockers took their new LP, Praxis Makes Perfect, on the road.

Here, Ben Scales relives his night at London’s Village Underground, a concert which he discovered was impossible to summarise – much like the left wing muses of Feltrinelli himself.

I am going to be honest and admit that when I listened to Neon Neon’s latest album, Praxis Makes Perfect, I was only mildly interested to hear that it was a biographical album of some guy I’d never heard of, a rich, dead publisher called Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.  With my instant-messaging-frazzled, borderline-ADHD cerebrum I was more interested in the immediate audio gratification of listening to some good tunes.  And again I’ll have to be honest and say that just listening to the album without fully appreciating the incredible story expertly weaved into its fabric, is not an overwhelming experience.

But, from the moment we got in to Village Underground it was obvious we were in for something special.  Walking into the venue was more like walking on to a theatre set than a gig.  The main 45-foot long stage was set out like a cross section of what looked like a Soviet-era office, with two platforms above the main performance stage decked out with old books, office lamps, a transistor radio and other clutter, and on the main stage there were filing cabinets (which later doubled up as massive disco traffic lights) and a large desk cabinet at one end where Gruff Rhys’ synth and other hardware was all set up.

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Beyond Gruff Ryhs’ end of the stage, there was a whole separate platform made of huge over-sized Soviet-style filing cabinets, and another separate stage area in the middle of the room featuring a 12-foot desk lamp and two chairs. Oh, and did I mention the KGB stewards ushering everyone in, and the polling station asking everyone whether they would abolish the British royal family?

At the start of the gig before the music started, Gruff Rhys sat on one of these satellite stages typing something out on an old typewriter while a narrative was beamed up on screens around the venue, setting the scene as being the beginning of the Cold War in the 1950′s. The audience were shown how the CIA and NATO sponsored sleeper cells of spy networks across Europe, with particular attention focused on Italy, and how their spy network was activated and then set about its pesky business of political provocation, disinformation and a tiny bit of assassination.  I do love a cheery opening gambit.

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Once the intro had finished, the band kicked in with a chugging rendition of Praxis Makes Perfect and the whole 2000 square foot room seemed to come to life with some element of the show. The Soviet cabinets became portals to a bygone age, acting as the entry points for a bespectacled Feltrinelli and ten other actors – including Gruff Rhys – who acted out dramatisations of the left-wing hero’s life.

Over the space of an hour and a quarter, the whole of Village Underground became possessed by the story of the Italian’s life, and what a story it was. Feltrinelli accidentally came across the script of Russian dissident Boris Pasternak’s classic novel, Dr. Zhivago, and immediately recognized its potential and importance as a fictional documentation of the rise of the Russian Communist Party and the autocratic machinations of the Soviet government. Feltrinelli had to smuggle the manuscript out of Russia despite a KGB raid, which he then published to become an international best-seller.  He then got married and went through a pretty wild time in the 60s (or so the naked lady getting painted on and the writhing orgy of people on one of the stages would have me believe), flirted with consumerism and self-interest, then went on a worldwide tour networking with revolutionary leaders in the third world including Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

After those highs came the lows, he was interrogated and tortured by the CIA, accused of a terrorist bombing back in Italy, went underground as a fugitive and became a paranoid wreck, before finally being found dead in very suspicious circumstances by an electricity pylon. To represent his huge funeral (attended by approx 8,000 people in real life) he was carried through the audience on a stretcher out of the main room.

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For me, it’s difficult to find fault with the show. It gave the album new depth and meaning – the different moods, styles and lyrics fitted perfectly with the different stages of Feltrinelli’s story that it set out to document in musical form. The band were tight. There was an inspiring but quite tragic story of resistance and intrigue. There was a wonderful balance of thought provoking content, and more fun points where the actors were just dancing to the music and the story relented for a short time.

The way the audience reacted to the speech Feltrinelli gave as the band wrapped up performing Dr. Zhivago (“books are knowledge, and knowledge is freedom!”) was intense, while the basketball match between Fidel Castro and Feltrinelli, and Gruff Rhys manoeuvering round the crowd in a cherry picker holding up various signs such as ‘Resist Soviet Occupation’ and ‘Go Ape Sh*t!’ brought the show to life.

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What struck me most, is that it was so refreshing to go to a gig with such high minded content. If you tried to create a visual show from the content of a lot of current alternative pop/indie/electronic bands, it would largely be a pretty bland depiction of previous/troubled/amazing relationships, getting on it, or just getting laid.

Gruff Rhys is a freewheeling, colourful and passionate musical pioneer and you would have to be pretty dead inside not to have loved the Neon Neon show. It was possibly the best gig I’ve ever been to. My only problem now is that any future gig with a ‘normal’ set up of just a band on a stage, rocking out and doing their thing, can only disappoint after seeing Neon Neon.

- Words and pictures Ben Scales

For more Neon Neon, pay a visit to their Tumblr.



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