Fiddle Guitar Vocal duo the Summer Januaries– Sean Michael Robinson and Rachel Erin Robinson

Three Gigs and a Whole Lot of Walking

We had been asked by a local pub owner to play an informal gig on our last day in Leno, at a bar called Cosmopolitan. Other than that, we planned on taking the day easy and getting in some relaxation and packing. Twas not to be, though, as at the last minute we added another small performance, at a local Leno Christian Youth Center. They were having a charity breakfast that morning to bring awareness to free trade practices and goods, and they wanted to know if we were up for playing a little bit? Sounded good to us.

But before we could play that morning, we got another last minute invitation, from Renzo, the doctor we met the previous two days. He wanted to know if we would be interested to eat with his family that evening?

So we spent our last day in the area in Leno and then Brescia and then Leno again, three performances of varying levels of informality.


Just a regular morning at the Leno Youth Center.

The Youth Center is a really interesting place, with a snack bar in the front and a large yard in the back for games or gathering. The breakfast was delicious, and like most of the breakfasts we had so far in Italy, consisted mostly of pastry and cafe (cappuccino) and juice. After a while, we pulled out our instruments and played a 25 minute set, aided by Bruno, our friend and impromptu translator/emcee, who helped us pimp our CDs and the gig that evening.

This is one of the best features of being a duo, particularly a duo that’s as loud as we are– we can enter a new situation, and after a little bit of time to size up the location and the environmental noise, we’re ready to go. No mess, no long set-up or sound check, just unpack the instruments and play.

After the gig we rode into Lunch at Renzo’s apartment was a blast as well. It turned out he lives in a villa right off of the street where we had seen him in his car the day before. He introduced us to his wife, his daughter, and his daughter’s friend, and told us that other friends would be arriving soon. The later arrivals included Ugo, an avid record collector who had housed Bob Dylan for a few days on his last trip through the area, and two siblings who were the children of one of Renzo’s friends. It so happened that the last two had spent their last year of high school in a foreign exchange program in Puyallup, a town not too far outside of Seattle. We had a leisurely lunch, and great conversations about recording, favorite albums, and the legality of busking in the area.

It turns out that the busking we had been doing in downtown Brescia was not actually legal, as the new government had passed a law outlawing, not specifically music in public, but solicitations for money for playing. Which went a long way to explaining the other two buskers we had seen, one who seemed to be collecting solicitations in his hat, and the other in a tiny plastic cup perched atop her accordion as she played. It seemed we had just been lucky enough, or friendly enough, or good enough, or possibly even novel enough, not to get hassled.

And why did Renzo and his wife have such a clear idea of the busking laws? It turns out his wife is a well-known local politician, who had been the head of the city council for over a decade.

In the midst of such interesting company we gave an impromptu performance, playing “I Shall Be Released” because of Ugo’s Bob Dylan connection and because of the beautiful acoustics of the kitchen, and following it up with Renzo’s favorites from the CD. (“Back Up and Push”, of course, and “Ashokan Farewell,” and “Whirlpool.”) In between we jammed a little bit with the other guests on some Johnny Cash songs.

At six (or 18:00, Italian time) Renzo drove us back to Leno for our last gig of the night. His car was very interesting to us, as it was the largest car we had ridden in since arriving in Italy. I was impressed with the doors, which hinged from the center as well as the front when they opened. Rachel was more interested in the dual sun roofs—one for the front of the car, one for the back. After a relaxing ride and more great conversation, we arrived, about half an hour before the performance. We took our time setting up and pacing the floor a little bit to get comfortable with the location before we’d have to play. Many of Giacomo and Gwen’s friends were already hanging out, and at a little after seven we launched into our new good-luck charm, “Back Up and Push,” to announce our arrival.

It was one of the most exciting shows I’ve ever played. The acoustics of the room were perfect—we could fill the space without any amplification and without straining too much, and every stomp was like a thunderclap. Unlike the street crowds in Bresca the two previous days, these people wanted their songs loud, and fast, and joined in with clapping, stomping, and drumming on the tables. So, we did our best to give them what they wanted.


A portion of the incredible audience of the Cosmopolitan.

Halfway through our set, I felt a strange feeling, one of profound dislocation. We were in the middle of singing a song—I don’t remember which one, only that it was one Rachel and I have performed a hundred times—and I looked around the room at the faces of the people watching us, and I thought to myself, “I have no fear. No fear at all.” Me, a person who used to have panic attacks in public, who couldn’t eat the day of my water polo games for fear I would vomit from anxiety. I was standing in front of a large crowd, of mostly people with whom I don’t share a common language or even in many ways a common culture, singing and performing and making eye contact, with no barriers or no restrictions at all. And this observation came to me in the middle of this song, in mid-phrase, and it suddenly seemed that I had traveled an incredible distance over the past few weeks, over the past few years.

They were very kind to us, applauding loudly and buying several CDs at the end of our set. We had a long discussion with several local musicians who wanted to know about our busking experiences, and were in the midst of planning a busking tour of their own of the United States. The guitar player of the group, David, was especially helpful in giving us more information about Italian cities we might enjoy busking.


The next morning we set out early for Firenze, all of our bags in tow. How do you pack for a nine month trip? We had gone back and forth about what we really needed several times before leaving Seattle, but it wasn’t until we were on the three trains it took to reach Firenze that it really became clear to me how much we had over-packed. Some of the extras are things we’ll end up using as we go (shampoo, gummy vitamins, first aid supplies, etc), other things will end up traveling with for the duration of the trip, unless we decide to ditch them (winter clothes, summer clothes, too many damn clothes, at least, that’s how it seems right now). Every time I had to lift one of the mammoth suit cases onto a high rack, I thought it just might be the last time I’d manage it.

But manage we did, if just barely. Surprisingly, we were joined on the second train by our new friend David, the guitar player from the night before. He kindly spent his train ride giving us remedial Italian pronunciation lessons, and also played us a song from one of his bands, an up-tempo ska band called Lemon Squeezer, which featured a tight horn section and dog howling from the lead vocalist. Great stuff.

By the time we actually arrived in Firenze, any plans we had other than finding our hostel and collapsing were abandoned due to physical exhaustion. “Damned clothes,” I thought to myself every time I lifted the bags. I found a new thing to curse when we arrived at the door to the hostel, only to find out that the owner wouldn’t be back until 8 PM. We would have to occupy ourselves for the next five hours.

We dragged our suitcases up the tremendous flight of stairs and, after a quick check for valuables, dumped them in the hallway outside of the hostel bathrooms. We dragged the rest of our belongings back out into the street and all around the portions of the city nearest to the hostel.

Firenze is no place for visitors with too many bags and too little money. We wandered awhile in search of affordable food, and a place to relax. Instead we found exorbitant prices, hostile local buskers, and stern, intimidating buildings at every turn. By the time it was eight, we were wiped out in every way—physically exhausted, demoralized by this strange, tourist-riddled city.

NEXT: Can we play?

Also–who would take in strays like us? You can find out at the blog of Laura Castelletti, Renzo’s wonderful wife, who wrote about our visit here. Also included–some video of us playing in their lovely kitchen.

  1. Mara Lewis Wednesday, October 10th 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Love love love this Blog!


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