Franco Battiato @ Le Poisson Rouge

NEW YORK, NY—Franco Battiato, one of the greatest figures in modern music, is little known in the U.S, which is nothing short of an outrage. Perhaps it is partly his own fault because Battiato—who is in many ways the Italian equivalent to Peter Gabriel—rarely spends time touring. This performance in New York was one of only two stops in the U.S., the other a performance in L.A. the preceding night, and this visit was only his second to this country.

Entering the scene initially as a synth-pop genius of innovative prog-rock in the early ‘80s, he has since delved deeply into experimental and world music, integrating rock with Turkish, French, Persian, German and Brit-pop styles. Fiercely original, yet fearlessly quoting Hendrix, the Beatles and Mozart into his melodies and complex rhythms, Battiato directly addresses the most profound issues of existentialism, modern physics, oriental philosophy, cosmology and sex. His take on politics is serious without being radical, insightful and humane rather than revolutionary.

This night he performed backed by a string quartet, guitarist, pianoforte and synthesizer for a small crowd of fervent, mainly Italian, mainly middle-aged fans whose emotional response was so intense that it threatened to overpower the show.

Drawing from his vast repertoire (I own more than 20 of his albums) he supercharged the audience into a frenzy of cheering, weeping, and singing along with a combination of his new songs and a generous serving of his beloved favorites. Styles spanned the gamut from delicate, meditative pieces like “Oceano di Silenzio” (Ocean Of Silence) and “Gli Uccelli” (The Birds) to melancholy songs of love such as “La Stagione Del’Amore” (The Season Of Love) to spirited, Near-East-flavored rockers like “Voglio Vederti Danzare” (I Want To See You Dance) and “Centro Di Gravita” (Center Of Gravity).

Halfway through the set he got to the much-adored favorite, “No Time, No Space,” which is half in English. The audience began singing along and they continued to do so for the rest of the concert. It was interesting to note that the crowd, even those who appeared to be anything but Italian, knew the words and timing perfectly. His one explicitly political entry was a relatively new song in English, “Keep Your Hands Off Tibet.”

He and the band returned for two sets of encores, which built a crescendo from mild, meditative “Prospettiva Nevski” to conclude on the frenetic sing-along, “Cuccurucuru,” a crazed take-off on the classical “La Paloma.” To have kept a crowd of several hundred middle-aged, middle-class standing and singing until 11:30 p.m. on a weekday night attests to the devotion of this unique artist’s following.