How Italian was the crowd at Carmen Consoli's sold-out Regattabar show? The language was everywhere. The couple from Methuen sharing our table were 50 percent, and the Italian husband estimated the room at 90 percent. (I was guessing 85.) The crowd spanned generations, from older women in real fur coats to the hip-looking young guys in front of me in line, in snazzy black zip-up jackets and scarves, who like Consoli are from Sicily, and who assured me that she'd never play a room as small as the Regattabar in Italy, where large theaters are her meat. How Italian was it? When Consoli's set heated up, about three songs in, the well-dressed middle-aged man at the table in front of us (nice suit!), attending with his wife and teenage daughter, didn't loosen his tie, he tightened it. La bella figura!
Consoli, in case you hadn't heard, is a superstar on the Continent. This is her third trip to Boston, following a debut at the MFA and a visit to the Regattabar, both in 2008. Press reports have called her the PJ Harvey of Italy, and that doesn't seem far off. She mixes folk pop and indie rock with traditional Italian folk. Her early albums (she has 10) were more electric-guitar rock, but in recent years she's turned toward folk, especially the Sicilian tradition, and acoustic instruments including fiddles and accordion. She was in the States to do a short "warm-up" tour debuting material from her new Elettra (Polydor).
At the Regattabar, she played solo, alternating two acoustic guitars, occasionally thumping a tambourine with a foot pedal. Looking more drawn and delicate than in some of her press photos (she's 35 now, and the baby fat has melted from her chiseled features), she touted her Sicilian heritage often, and she wore what could have been a trad Sicilian signora outfit — knee-length unbelted black dress, black stockings. Except for her bare arms and rock-and-roll boots.
She sang in Italian and Sicilian (there's a difference, believe me), in a deep, commanding alto that she controlled honestly, measuring her delivery, never overselling her songs. She spoke only in English, despite the Italian back-talk from the audience. "This is about a woman ditched at the altar. It's not autobiographical." "This is about a woman who abuses plastic surgery, chasing the illusion of endless beauty." And, an hour later, for an encore: "This ['Elettra'] is the story of a prostitute who falls for her client. . . . It's not autobiographical."
Yes, she was funny — and tender, and scary, vulnerable but not fragile. She was as much Piaf as PJ, at least in her throaty delivery and her cabaret-artist ability to get into character — especially when she mimed the image of a sexually abused girl at her abuser's funeral, right hand on hip, left arm extended, holding a lipstick, squinting as she spat her curse. She paced the set beautifully, from gentle folk love songs to traditional Sicilian comedies, chording and plucking delicate solos or banging out big rock chords, thumping the beat on her guitar with the heel of her palm. Yes, vulnerable, but never fragile.