I never miss Festa Italiana. And I'm not one of these people who throw on a red, white and green hat or a "Totti" jersey and become an Italian for the weekend. My mother's maiden name was Montemuro. Not only do I know the meaning of Pasta Fazool (see the lyrics from "That's Amore") and how to spell it, I also happily consumed bowls and bowls of it at Mama's dining room table.
With my last name being Concannon, I am also Irish. A few years ago, a friend bought me a T-shirt that read, "Half Irish, Half Italian. Half Gaelic, Half Garlic." I've never worn the shirt and considered putting it on for Festa last night, but went with something more generic. It's one of many T-shirts in my closet yet to make its debut, a constant source of irritation for my better half. I still have a 2002 Miller Park All Star Game shirt wrapped in plastic. I'll wear it at the appropriate occasion. One must not rush into fashion decisions.
But all of my shirts paled in comparison to the one I saw last night, "Accordion Power. More Contino." Contino, is the legendary Dick Contino, who was recognized as the world's top accordion player in the late 40's and early 50's when he recorded his signature hit, "Lady of Spain." He appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" 48 times. Dick turned 80 this year but is still a fixture at Festa. He'll be on stage twice a day, every day through Sunday. His fans were out in force yesterday as Contino and his band performed from their classic play list.
Veteran crooner Tony Spavone belted out a few tunes in an early evening set Thursday. At one point he encouraged the crowd to "hug all the people around you. It's OK. We're all Italian tonight." At that very moment, a large man who looked like "Ogre" in "Revenge of the Nerds" walked by, wearing ill-fitting shorts, ratty tennis shoes and calf-high black socks. I wasn't hugging that dude. I'm not that Italian.
Thursday's musical acts featured the answers to two great rock n' roll trivia questions, including my own personal favorite all time music tidbit: Name someone who was the lead singer of two groups that were one-hit wonders. Answer? Sonny Geraci. In 1966, Geraci and "The Outsiders" recorded "Time Won't Let Me." (A County Stadium staple in 1992, played at the beginning of the bottom of the first before the then lethal 1-2 combination of Pat Listach and Kevin Seitzer came up to bat). Then in 1972, Geraci was front man for Climax and the ultra-sappy prom anthem "Precious and Few," which became a mega-hit. Geraci played a primetime gig Thursday night. I had seen Sonny a few years ago at Festa and was tempted to check him out again but there was another rock trivia answer playing at the same time at another stage.
Joe Puerta once told me, "I can't go into a grocery store without hearing a song I played on." Nice problem to have. In 1984, Joe was a founding member of "Bruce Hornsby and the Range." He played bass on "The Way It Is," one of the top albums of the 80's, an all-time classic. But Joe had an extensive resume by then. In 1970, he launched "Ambrosia," which 40-years and many hits later, played at Milwaukee's Lakefront Thursday night.
"I'm cheating a little bit. My family is actually from Spain," Puerta confessed. "We had a pretty good week" (Spain won the World Cup soccer championship last Sunday). Italian or not, Puerta immediately took charge as the group opened with the highly underrated non-chartbuster, "Nice, Nice, Very Nice." There were only about two hundred people at the Giuffre Brothers stage at the start of the show, but more fans came in as the group sang one of its standards, "You're the Only Woman." Puerta, who impishly bounced around, interacting with his longtime band mates, is a Brew City treasure. Since moving here from California, Joe has established a state of the art recording studio and is producing some of the best young musical talent in the Midwest. His voice still rings true and clear and he remains a superb composer. His Christmas album, "Christmas Dreams," contains a song ("I'll be coming home for Christmas") which was used in an episode of ER. But I encourage you to check out a lesser-known tune on that disc, "The Gift." It is both a great ballad for the holidays and a terrific love song.
"This is from our album ‘180,'" Puerta announced, transitioning to the next selection. "Does anyone know what year that came out?" "'78!'" someone shouted. "78?" Puerta replied. "I think that was the RPM it played on the turntable." An old-school answer from an old-school performer. But as I saw last night, old school performers are still pretty cool. I may have to go back and check out another set from Dick Contino. Heck, maybe it's time I wore my "Half-Gaelic, Half Garlic" shirt after all.
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