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Vanessa Peters and Manuel Schicchi

The Wheelhouse, Wombwell
Saturday 14 November 2009

For the final show in the UK leg of their current tour, Texan singer-songwriter Vanessa Peters and Ice Cream on Mondays guitar player Manuel Schicchi appeared at the Wheelhouse in Wombwell tonight as part of the Barnsley House Concerts series. Once again the Jones family, Hedley and Lynne together with Hedley's sister Sue and Rory the dog, invited a small audience into their home for another intimate evening of fine and mellow music.

Originally from Texas, Vanessa lived most of her life in Dallas before moving to Houston and then on to Austin, one of the world's leading music capitols. After gravitating to Italy and subsequently returning several times to the little town she had fallen in love with there, Vanessa met a bunch of like minded souls in 2004 and started making music together. "I was a student there, almost ten years ago now, and then I started to go back to visit because I liked this little town. Then one of the years I was visiting I met Manuel and the other two guys that form the band (bassist Juri Deluca and drummer Alberto 'Gumo' Serafini) and we all started playing together. That was in 2004 and since then we've been touring and playing together for the last five years, so I use Italy as my home base when I'm in Europe."

Ice Cream on Mondays was the name of the band and Vanessa was only too happy to join them in order to tour and play with them and together they have gone on to record three albums. I suggested that being in a band with three Italian male musicians was the unattainable dream of possibly all the women I know, to which she jokingly replied "It's true, me and three Italian guys is a bit strange but you could say the same for them; it's three Italian guys and one girl from Texas, for a lot of Italian guys that's the unattainable dream."

Completing her UK tour with not one but two consecutive house concerts, the first taking place in York last night and then again in Wombwell tonight, I asked Vanessa about the current appeal of such unique settings, which in all fairness are relatively new in the UK. "We love house concerts; if we could do a whole tour of just house concerts we would, because ultimately they're less stressful and they're more fun. They're more how story telling music is meant to be. Our music is not meant to be a big stage production with lights and dancers, it's just about the songs."

The songs were certainly what it was all about tonight and the duo performed much of the new album SWEETHEART, KEEP YOUR CHIN UP, with an exceptionally gentle touch. Completely unplugged, Vanessa and Manuel lowered their acoustic volume level to minimum in order for Vanessa's voice to cut through. "When I talk I'm a lot louder than when I sing" the singer admitted, even discarding her pick in order to gently brush the strings of her guitar with her slight fingers.

Starting with the opening song from the new album, Vanessa revealed the context of much of the new record, that of Greek Mythology and in particular Odysseus and Penelope from Homer's classic work of literature. On Good News, one of the winged Sirens is used as the basis of her story telling, as a metaphor for some of our current world conflicts. "I'm really interested in literature and so I like the idea of taking these old stories and making them modern" Vanessa admitted and at the same time pointing out that the references are not immediately obvious, "If you download the record off itunes and you never look at the lyrics and you never look at the drawings you might never even catch the mythological references because I never actually say this is the Odysseus song or this is the Penelope song, it's only if you had bought the record that you would know that. So I try to write songs that could go either way."

The characters in such literary stories as The Odyssey appeal to Vanessa in as much as she empathises with the protagonists in their yearning to return home.  "I like these characters because these are characters that are not at home and we are never at home anymore, so I identify with the idea of being out to sea and trying to struggle to find your way back." To Vanessa touring and being out on the road has an appealing side to it but there is always this nagging desire to return home. "It is an adventure but at the end of the day you do just want to get home."

Vanessa tells us that home really is Texas, and despite being constantly reminded that her home town was where they shot Kennedy, the songwriter found empathy when she recently met someone from Lockerbie. "We sort of laughed together; this really is a weird world." Weirder still, for me Dallas represents the place where they shot JR, whose brother apparently had fantastically imaginative dreams that play out for much longer than your usual sleep length, but hey, if the man from Atlantis says it was a dream, then it must've been.

With songs like Austin I Made a Mess and Drowning in Amsterdam, the autobiographical element is apparent in Vanessa's song writing, but sometimes the lines between fact and fiction are somewhat blurred. "Some of the songs are totally fiction and some are completely autobiographical and it's up to everyone just to decide, because I will never tell."

Dedicating a good part of her life to touring, I wondered when Vanessa manages to fit songwriting into her busy schedule. "If I'm alone I will write on the road. It's really hard for me to write when anyone else is around at all, even if it's my best friend, I want to be totally alone." With such personal songs it would appear logical to find ones own space and to avoid distractions as much as possible.

There's a big difference between playing solo or in this case in a duo and playing in a full band. I asked Vanessa if she misses that bass line here or that drum fill there when playing in such a trimmed down version. "When you play with the band you do have to follow the letter of the law, if there's a stop coming up you have to stop there because everyone else is going to stop, so the nice thing about the duo is that we are flexible enough that if we want to do something a little bit different with the song we can and it doesn't stress anybody else out." Having said that, Vanessa is always keen to get back with the band eventually. "When we've been playing as the duo for a long time, three or four or five months and then we do have a band show, it's just really fun it's really nice to rock out a little bit."

Vanessa's popularity has grown, particularly in light of the recent video she made with Schicchi, which was entered in a video contest presided over by singer-songwriter Aimee Mann. As runners-up with their take on Mann's single Freeway, Vanessa soon found that the hits had rose from 3,000 to 30,000 overnight, eventually exceeding 100,000. Vanessa is still astonished at the number of hits the video has received. "It was crazy, I was rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, it was like is there another zero over there? I thought oh my God how is that possible overnight." Upon announcing the winners, Mann singled out Vanessa's video as one of her favourites, adding I would imagine, to the good publicity.

During two sets that our host Hedley Jones described as 'sublime', Vanessa and Manuel performed songs from their back catalogue including Nothing I Should Cry About from her debut album SPARKLER (2003), Gone from her first album with the band THIN THREAD (2005), Such Good Actors and Fireworks from her last album LITTLE FILMS (2006) and a whole bunch from the new album, plus no less than three covers, Neil Young's Only Love Can Break Your Heart in the first half and Tim Hardin's Reason To Believe in the second with the old Elvis hit (I Can't Help) Falling in Love With You serving as the final encore and therefore the song that rounded off their last UK date in their current tour, before shooting off to Holland, where they were due to be playing another gig in less than twelve hours time. Another indication of their gruelling tour schedule.
 
Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky