September 28, 2023

Photo by John Bull / Rockrpix

Sicilian guitar sensation Matteo Mancuso has been causing a stir for a few years now, with his virtuosic YouTube videos, which he has been recording since his early teens. Now, with the release of his debut album The Journey, the dam has finally burst, with the music world at large finally hearing what the internet generation has been going on about all this time. For all that, tonight’s gig was the first time his band has ventured to these shores, and it’s the only gig scheduled so far for the UK, so it was a must-see.

Burr Island (photo by Graeme Stroud)

First though, there was bad news and good news. The scheduled support act, diminutive retro-chick and Brian May protégée Arielle, had to pull out of the gig at the last moment, which was a pain for me, as I have wanted to catch her show for ages. The good news though, is that her place was taken at short notice by a west country duo named Burr Island, and they were superb. Best mates Tom England, taking the lead vocals and picking a folk-style acoustic guitar, and Oskar Porter singing pin-sharp close harmonies, can’t help but draw comparisons with Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills & Nash et al, but their style and content is all their own, and they are just superb. The highlight of their half-hour set for me was the mistily nostalgic ballad English Roses, which is worth looking up on YouTube. For tonight’s gig, they were backed by the sublimely tasteful electric guitar of Nick Gauntlett, who added to the atmos without ever once trying to dominate. A fantastic performance all round, guys.

Matteo Mancuso’s youthful trio is completed by six-string bassist Riccardo Oliva and drummer Gianluca Pellerito, a combo that only played one track on the album, but make a stunning live band. They elected to open with Silkroad, a prog/metal/jazz epic that also opens the album. It morphs from a hard rocking intro to a super-melodic jazz ballad, with interludes of rattling rim-shot rhythm, and some ace super-shredding. I wondered whether they had made the mistake of shooting every bolt in their arsenal right at the start, but there was enough left in reserve to keep the interest going.

Most of the set was original material from the album, but their second number was a cover of Allan Holdsworth’s Fred, which featured some lovely drum breaks and the first bass solo of the evening. Oliva then switched from bass to keyboards for Matteo’s guitar solo, which he did on and off during the show. Their entire set was instrumental, but Mancuso came to the mike for a bit of a chat in perfect, but accented English to introduce the next piece, Open Fields, “dedicated to my home country of Sicily,” before wringing some sweet harmonics out of his Revstar.

Matteo Mancuso (photo by John Bull / Rockrpix)

Pellerito was given his chance to shine on Falcon Flight, which featured an excellent drum solo, with Oliva taking off his bass and going full keyboard. Blues For John was a highlight too, with its good-time, rock and roll rhythm and quiet, rim-shot interlude, but an extra layer of texture was added to the set when Oliva came out from behind his keyboards and played the tastefully melodic title track from the album, The Journey, just as a duet with Mancuso, with Pellerito taking a break for a few minutes. I have to say, stunned as I am by Mancuso’s astonishing virtuosity on the rockier numbers, this quiet madrigal with its bass picking and guitar/bass interplay was the high point of the set for me.

The very next number was another highlight though, the jazzified 12-bar jam-out The Chicken, which drew cheers from the audience when it was announced. Some incredible drumming and pin-sharp stops and breaks brought the main set to a superb climax. The guys were back for an encore, playing Drop D, with some sweet harmonic pinching on the guitar, a jangly jazz interlude with lots of ride cymbal, and a super-tight ending that went straight back into recorded music as they left the stage.

Read Velvet Thunder’s interview with Matteo Mancuso

Mancuso’s supernatural soloing abilities are boggling to behold. His highly individual picking technique, which mainly involves using two fingers on his right hand to pick the strings in a blur of speed, making use of the other fingers and thumb where necessary, mean that he can morph from super-fast shredding to heavy strumming, to two-hand tapping completely seamlessly. Just in case that might get repetitive, Oliva was on hand to take tremendous bass solos throughout the evening. Their general smiling good humour added to the atmosphere too – anyone who has ever been in a band would recognise the smirks and glances that indicate when someone might have played a wrong note or missed a beat, but the way they were grinning at each other the whole evening, you’d have thought they completely messed up every number. Well, maybe they did, but it didn’t notice from out the front, that’s for sure. Let’s hope they’re back soon.

Photo by John Bull / Rockrpix