Interview with Italian Roots Rock & Blues band of RGBand - combining experiences with personal sound

"I learn everyday it ain't always easy, so here it comes the Blues. To get you through on bad times and to let you enjoy even better good times. And to do this...you have to be true at heart."

RG Band: Ciao Italian Blues

Blending evocative arrangements of Roots-Rock and Blues along with unreleased songs, RG Band has created a fresh, to the bone, feel. Supporting Riccardo Grosso’s “black” voice and a stand-out form of Blues influenced harmonica, RGBand includes guitarist Stefano Pagotto, Massimo Fantinelli on bass and drummer Marco Manassero. Venturing to explore a unique music mix of Latin Groove, Tex-Mex sounds and Modern New Orleans music is what started the RGBand project. For this reason Riccardo – from 2008 to 2010 – has been very pro-active in New Orleans. Touring from 2008 when he played with Jumpin Johnny Sansone (something became a stable partnership on 2009 and on 2010, when Riccardo lived in town Big Easy), to move to California then to his friend and inspirator Charlie Musselwhite (thanks to Musselwhite Riccardo was the only Italian invited to SPAH Convention in St. Louis that year). On 2010 Riccardo was one of the guest stars at the “Annual Jumpin’ Johnny’s Big Blues Harmonica Show” with Adam Gussow, Andy J. Forest, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes.

Stefano Pagotto with “I Belli di Waikiki” - a Tiki Rock Band which toured half of Europe and USA, additionally being hired as a studio band member for Italian TV Show “I Solati”, a parody of “L’isola Dei Famosi” (Italian version of “Survivor”) with Max Giusti and guested at TV Show “Più Siamo Meglio Stiamo” with Renzo Arbore on RAI. Massimo Fantinelli is part of Italian Blues history. Among playing in the 80′s with Tolo Marton touring Italy and Europe, Massimo played in the Guido Toffoletti’s Blues Society being guest at the most important music TV Show of the times: “DOC” by and with Renzo Arbore, other guests of that show were names like Robben Ford, Joe Cocker and other big names of international music and toured with international recognized artists like Paul Jones, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Alexis Korner and has been in the opening act for John Mayall several times. Marco Manassero has “cut his teeth” and became a very rispected drummer working with artists like Greg Izor and Sean Carney. Combining these experiences and mixing them with a Roots-Rock inspired personal sound creates the perfect dimension for RGBand’s expression. Today, along with Riccardo Grosso and trusted musicians Stefano Pagotto on guitar and Massimo Fantinelli on bass, RG Band starring – on drums – Andrea De Marchi (Roger Glover, Dan Airey) bringing in the band even more energy on the groove. After “Right Now” release – in 2014, an original album collecting success RG Band started to get recognition even beyond the Italian borders, the band released the “21.12 – Live at Teatro Del Pane” (2015) recorded live in Treviso, Italy.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos by Paola Viola & Diego Feltrin

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

Riccardo: To me Blues means to be true at heart. To be honest about who you are, what you think and to put love on EVERYTHING you do. I learn everyday it ain't always easy, so here it comes the Blues. To get you through on bad times and to let you enjoy even better good times. And to do this...you have to be true at heart. 

Massimo: Blues Music taught me I have to be myself, just myself. So my way to be and to think became my way to play. It's a kind of new and old feeling, but every time I play Blues I feel it's the best way to express myself from my hearth.

Stefano: Let me make a brief introduction: I do not think to myself as a blues musician, probably not even as a musician in the classic definition of the term, definitely a music enthusiast, especially of music produced between '50s and '70s. So if I have to recognize one thing to music in general, beyond just blues music, is when you're on stage playing' with happiness - and with your fears - you got to learn to rely on yourself, on your instrument, but especially on the feeling you create with other people in the band. Blues music probably gives you more freedom to interact with others and - when it happens - it's great.

Marco: I'm on my way about the Blues. Blues is the soulful music I love! I think we can recognize a lot of different meanings in the word "Blues": Blues is MUSIC, maybe the first ever composed and recorder with a high content of human expression. Blues is HISTORY, through music telling one of the most important centuries of the human race. Blues is RESEARCH, along the tradition and the artists they made it popular. Blues is innovation, too. Along the years it gave inspiration for a lot of modern music and still does it nowadays.

How do you describe your sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

Riccardo: I've started out without really knowing what Blues was about but I've been really lucky: my father used to play bass in a kind of Beat-Rhythm and Blues small band when he was a kid, my mother is a blues lover, so Blues music records (together with Soul and Rhythm and Blues) been around my house since I was a little child. So I've started with harmonica at age of 16 trying to imitate Cotton, Wells and everything containing a harmonica I could find. Actually I could describe myself as New Orleans influenced, with some Chicago Blues and “other stuff” inside. I don't see myself as a Blues man. I love to try to put different “spices” into my recipe, if you know what I mean. I think there's nothing wrong about that, it's like saying something with your own words.

Massimo: Every single note and every single empty space have enormous importance. Groove is the goal. It's more grooving not playing any note sometimes, instead of too many. My work on the band is to build a strong basement where harp and guitar feel at home.

Stefano: When I play I try to translate in sound every feel I get from a song, from some lyrics or a certain situation. I'm always trying to use language I know and shape it around to what I want to express.

Marco: I love the Old Style Blues and I inspired my drumming style to the old Blues and Jazz Band. My references are people like Ted Harvey, Fred Below, Will "Big Eyes" Smith, and the modern "Big" Joe Maher, Richard Innes and Steve Jordan. I love to mess around with grooves but I always care for the right thing to make music intense and powerful! I love simplicity: "Simplicity is not stupidity", just like Steve Jordan said!

What's been your experience from your trip to New Orleans and California?

Riccardo: Both of them left something in my heart of course. In California I had the chance to spend few days with Charlie Musselwhite and Henrietta, his wife. They are two of the nicest people you could ever meet into this World. Sitting in Charlie's office, while talking about harmonica and amps and he was asking my opinion. I was like... “are you kidding me?! YOU are Charlie Musselwhite, I should just shut up and listen to you”. That amazed me. All this down to ground approach. It was really nice hanging out with his band and see the “behind the scene” and figuring out what I felt it was a real community, you feel like there's some kind of family around this. I still about the tune “Feel It In Your Heart” - I've recorded in “Right Now” new album by RGBand – when I've asked him about that particular harmonica part – sitting at a table at Charlie's home – he took his harmonica case and played the part for me and, then,with me. That was a REAL harmonica lesson.

New Orleans is really a town I miss a lot. Hanging out with Johnny Sansone and playing' with him taught me a lot, both as person and as musician. Just being in town is an experience: there's a lot of different kind of music, people, colors and atmospheres that can change your view of the World. And believe me, it did it to me. There is where I've opened my musical approach, probably. Opening it to new influences. It happens very often in town that you play a gig in a ragtime trio as harmonica player from 3pm to 5pm at 6pm you're playing next door on Frenchmen Street with a Blues act and you end up at a jam session where you get into a straight rock or funk band. You have to learn to move through these situations when you live in New Orleans and what I've figured out is that the best way to do it, for me, was to find my very own style and voice.                                                       Photo by Henrietta Musselwhite

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Riccardo: Could be for really different reasons, but trying to figure out some of the main ones, hopefully, I think it's because it's really something that give you a vibe. Touches you in some way. For example some lyrics may hit you at some point of your life and you feel like: “At least somebody in this World, at some point, felt like I'm feeling now and sang about it”. You don't feel alone, and you're hooked. Another reason it's the beat, the groove...something that's really in us, in our heart. And there's energy at the concerts. I had the chance to be at the Jazz Fest in New Orleans in 2010 and see some bands that really hit you hard no matter what. You are there and you can't leave. Simply there's something holding you there and you want to know what it is. Once it happens...you gotta follow it!

Massimo: Blues Music is the frame, the backbone of modern music. To appreciate it all you have to do is relax and let the music involve yourself. Simple as that.

Stefano: Because Blues music is instinct, it's raw and primitive if you want, but at the same time - due to its simple chord progression – you can interpret it, bring in new contamination, make it elegant and sophisticated if you wish. Maybe Blues music is one of the languages that are closest to life itself for all the nuances it can take – both life and Blues music.

Marco: Just because the Blues is the forefather of all the modern music and all the different style of music we play today! People who want to spend some time to study in deep modern music and search for the roots will get in touch with Blues music at some point and could be caught by the Blues. Blues is the end and the beginning.

What were the reasons that an Italian musician started the Blues searches and experiments?

Riccardo: What were the reasons that an Italian musician started the Blues searches and experiments?I’m always intrigued by music with some thrill. With something to say, and somehow I can relate to. Blues is filled with all of this and what I’ve figured out during these years is that everyone I was listening to, from the 50’s Blues to something more contemporary and was Blues influenced somehow, where moving me because of their own way to approach to it. From Robert Johnson to Muddy Waters, from Paul Butterfield to Tom Waits they had a meaning behind it. And a personal way to say it keeping that Blues feeling more or less hidden behind something. That’s what make me started to experimenting moving from “standard Blues” to something wider that’s including Swamp, Jazz, Roots Rock and even Latin feels. And – of course – I wanted to express it doing it paying my dues to the Old Master but trying to adding my own voice to it.

Massimo: You approach the blues if you're a sensitive musician, if you like the strict order but at the same time the freedom of musical expression, improvisation, beginning a song without knowing where you'll end up tonight because every time you take a different road, and this is  always exciting for you.

Are there any memories from the gig at Teatro Del Pane where recorded the album which you’d like to share with us?

Riccardo: It was really fun because we had some new songs we were playing for the first time while recording, with no idea of where we could go when playing them. We just let it flow at some point and the connection with the people was real. Everybody was listening everybody. Musicians and listeners. There was really something going on at Teatro Del Pane. Simone Chivilò was smart to catch all this in the right way.

Massimo: 21/12 is a special album for us because Simone Chivilò simply recorded the evening, with an 8-tracks, on the fly, without noticing us the thing. So this was the right approach, the fact that we played for the audience and for ourselves without realizing that someone was recording the musical interplay that can be heard in many parts of the album, is due to this reason mainly.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?

Riccardo: There are regular jams at Cafe Negril in New Orleans. Every time I'm in town I try to get there. It's not strictly a blues jam, it gets somewhere else during the night, that's why I like to hang there. One night I saw these four old gentlemen getting on stage. They started to play some really hot New Orleans rhythm and blues song. Turned out guitar player was Irving Bannister who recorded “Jack-O-Mo” the first version of “Iko Iko” with James “Sugar Boy” Crawford. Can you imagine that? History was there!

Massimo: I remember with a particular emotion and love the gigs I did with Alexis Korner. He was a real maestro with such a charisma and a real human feeling.

Which memory from Paul Jones, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Alexis Korner and John Mayall makes you smile?

Massimo: With Paul Jones and Guido Toffoletti we recorded a live concert in Naples (“Live at City Hall Cafe”), seven days playing every single night in the club with a mobile studio recording the concerts. Paul is a very British man: precise, self-controlled. Every morning he used to go to the church. It's the right way to be a professional. Working with music is no different from any other job. John Mayall - on the other hand – arrived to play at a show he had in Cittadella (near Padua, Italy) one hour later, because of a too young girlfriend. She was 20 years old or something. When we started to play people were throwing a lot cans and stuff to us. We were like shooting targets!

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had? Which memory makes you smile?

Riccardo: The first one comes into my mind is the 2010 Jumpin' Johnny Sansone's Harmonica Blowout held at Chickie Wah Wah in New Orleans. I was on stage with Johnny, Adam Gussow and Andy J. Forest to name few playing harmonica. They are some of the guys I've learned from listening to their music! Then what comes to my mind making me smile is people dancing. It's something I've seen in New Orleans first and never seen in Italy, but from some years to now this thing is happening in my country too. When you're playing and you see people dancing and having a great time? You are really full of joy.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Riccardo: Jumping Johnny Sansone taught me a lot. I tell you. One night we were hanging out together and talking and he told this to me: “You have to be both a good musician and a good person to play music. You can't be just one of them”. This leaves something in you, doesn't it?

Massimo: I've played with all those great musicians thanks to Guido Toffoletti. He was a Blues pioneer in Italy. A guy with a huge love for Blues music and a strong enthusiasm. I've learned if you want to be a professional you can't play just for yourself. Interplay is the key.

Stefano: More than just one meeting, I would say it was very important to go through a lot of different musical experiences, from a whole big band to a quartet. This way you're able to understand the role of your instrument when you're building up the sound of the band.

Marco: I'm lucky to have the chance to work with many Blues artists form US and I think that, especially in the South US, they have a funny way to play the Blues; indeed they always put a lot of soulful energy in their performance just to reach the audience with a genuine and powerful pulsing sound. I really love that way to play the Blues!

The best advice I got we must go back to 2011... I was touring with a guy from Pontotoc (MS) named Terry "Harmonica" Bean: an original ambassador of the rural Mississippi Old School Blues! It was the first gig of the whole tour and the first time we met. We didn't have any time to rehearsal together and I was kinda nervous about what I was supposed to play with him one hour later. So I ask him: "Terry, what are we going to play tonight???" He answers me: "Hey buddy, just USE YOUR EARS!"

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Riccardo: I think the willing to try something new. Something different. I love when I listen to band and musicians that have something to say or say something with their own voice and ideas. I love the old Blues cause you hear that. You hear they wanted to give a personal feeling on it.

I'm hoping people would get involved in Blues music more and more, and I'm kinda seeing things changing a little in favor of Blues. That's really good. You see young people at concerts now, having a good time, knowing who Blues masters are and they love it. We are having some good young musicians starting to get on the scene too so I'm really hopeful for the future.

Massimo: During the Eighties Blues music was very very popular in Italy. We used to play from North to South of our country and that feeling was tremendous! Big festivals, small clubs, big clubs, Italian National television (RAI). Blues was really everywhere. Today it became less popular and it's harder to play live. But our mission, now, is to bring those times back. “Right Now” - our new CD – gives us a firm belief we are in the right way. People need more feeling, and Blues is the right drug for that.

Stefano: I have no particular regrets or fears for the future. There will always be someone who can interpret the past and make it easy to understand for whose coming after. Blues music will always be expression of times we are living. The only thing is making me a little sad is an increasingly lacks curiosity: especially the one that pushes us to stop and listen.

Marco: One of the things I miss from the Blues of the past is that kind of universal language musicians used to have between them! It's a kind of unwritten code you can recognize in all the Old Style Blues stuff. It's not a matter of rehearsal between musicians or some written parts. It is just some common way to play together the Blues. I'm scared about this language could be lost forever...

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Folk and continue to Jazz and Latin music?

Riccardo: When I listen to the music, the meaning behind it, stories it tells and emotion it gives I can find some kind of link. New Orleans is the right city to find that answer. You can melt them together cause music comes from the same impulse. And for the need to get together and share something even if you don't even speak the same language.

Make an account of the case of the blues in Italy. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

Riccardo: There's Blues around pretty much around the whole year. There's some very nice club, but you have to drive for kilometers sometimes. Festivals take place during summer for the most part. We have some really good band, The Headhunters from Treviso got a very personal sound and they're really cool. Marco Corrao from Capo D'Orlando is another artist I like, and Marcello Milanese - his project MRB Trio is really something you should listen to.

Massimo: The Eighties. There were so many festivals in Italy. Every small town or big city held one and we were always playing with artists like Fabio Treves, Andy J. Forest, Ernesto Binini, Tolo Marton, Roberto Ciotti, Herbie Goins, Paolo Bonfanti. The feeling between us and with the audience was so good! Now it's time – in my opinion – to spread Blues music everywhere. We need more simple things in these troublesome times. We need feeling and love. Blues is the right answer.

Stefano: Everything regarding all "non-commercial" music is - unfortunately – in the shadows and much of the blame belongs to those who do not know – and don't care - how to listen at all.

Marco: My opinion about it is that the most interesting period in the Italian Blues scene is now and ever! Every week I can listen to a lot of great Blues music played by Italian musicians and I'm so proud to be part of it. Maybe in the '80s and '90s the situation for the live music was plentiful and now is not so easy to work with your own music; but I'm sure here in Italy we have a lot of Blues lovers who are not going leave music die.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local blues circuits?

Riccardo: I was approached by a guy who was around twenty years old and he said he had seen RG Band live some months before and he really enjoy the show, cause he was like listening to real good music and real good Blues. That really touched me! I didn’t know what to say. And I was really happy, laughing with him at some point and I’ve liked the fact the music we make is reaching younger audience. Somehow we are getting to the point where we are contaminating the Blues audience too pleasing the new generation of possible listeners as well.

Massimo: The excitement of the first local blues in the 80s, when playing there meant to play at your best to say something properly. You were facing a public that was asking for quality music. The excitement of the first big festival blues like Pistoia Blues where you were playing and share dinner with the musicians of BB KING...

Stefano: What really makes me laugh are the ones who act as a great music expert like “I know EVERYTHING!” and I am really touched to see young bands playing really good blues thankfully!

Marco: One of things that makes me laugh in the Italian Blues circuits is the range of the Blues band we got here and diversity of the style they play. Here in Italy (just like in the whole world, I think...) we got a huge offer of Blues band, but maybe only the 5% of this Band can really play some Blues music! People pick up a guitar and think they can play the Blues!!! By the way we have great artists who better like to export their music abroad in Europe and USA to find a better music scene.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Riccardo: We need more real music. Just people who want to make music, not just “be there to showing off”. There are good musicians around but I’d love to have even more. Create more and try to imitate a little less. I’d love to hear some evolution on Blues music. I’m sure we can find forms and languages making it more fresh, without losing it. It’s kinda happening, but I’d love to see this around a lot more.

Massimo: If I could I would eliminate stereotypes from the music scene, in particular from the blues scene. As you notice most blues festivals offer very often bands playing the usual standard equally, respecting the tradition of the genre, and I’m not excited by that. Blues is not just playing in the the 12-bar form or just playing like the old bluesmen, that was your wonderful school, but evolution is needed and is not harmful.

What is the relationship between of Blues culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications in Europe?

Riccardo: Blues is a common language, as we all know at this point. It can be used as common ground but you need to use a language people can relate to. You need to relate to each other to communicate. More it is influenced more it gets a wider common language, from one generation to another, from a country to another. Blues tells stories. But stories need to be real. We can’t turn our backs to that. Blues – when speak about something real and present – is the common language. Everywhere on the map. No matter where you come from. You somehow can understand that. Probably even for its origins and it’s sound. Even about sound: more it gets influenced keep the feeling, more it become easier to communicate it globally.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Riccardo: When they had the idea of building Pyramids. I just want to figure out why and how.

Massimo: I would like to redo the gigs with Alexis Korner or the live album in Naples with Paul Jones when I was playing with the Guido Toffoletti's Blues Society. I was too young then to understand the artistic greatness and the extraordinary professionalism as musician coming from them. They were those kind of meetings where you are enriched in a huge way, much of yourself as musician, as someone playing music, comes from this.

Stefano: Well, I'd say January 14, 1973, in Honolulu, while Elvis were broadcasting live on satellite: Aloha from Hawaii. Mai Tai and Wahine.

Marco: For sure back to the '60s! So I could hear to artists like T-Bone, Muddy Waters, The Aces, Pee Wee Crayton, Big Walter Horton, Gatemouth Brown, Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter and all the others great musician of that age with my own ear. I'm an "Old Fashion Blues Lover", Man!!!

RG Band - Official website

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