Music

Here’s What Happened at Rick Rubin’s Secret Festival in Tuscany

Unrepeatable. This is the first adjective that could be associated with Rick Rubin’s Festival of the Sun which took place in Tuscany for the summer solstice on June 21-22. The famous producer had an idea: turn an old village – with its narrow alleys, churches and amphitheatre – into a location for live shows, film previews and talks on the future of economics and technology.

This was the secret festival in Casole d’Elsa, announced by surprise just a couple of days before. A huge part of it was the Italian pop star Jovanotti, who worked with Rubin in the past and also performed live on a small stage set up in the main square of Casole d’Elsa.

The festival was based on the concept of surprise. When will it ever happen again that you are waiting to watch a free secret show where you don’t know who will be there but then you discover that the names include James Blake, Arcade Fire, Gossip and Rhye?

The name of the creator of the festival could have made it clear, anyway. Hundreds of people gathered in Casole d’Elsa on Friday (June 21) and knew nothing except that there would be some kind of concert. (It’s hard to imagine that a much larger crowd won’t arrive next year.)

Not even the invited press really knew what would happen. And that was the beauty of it. On Friday, in front of the church of Santa Maria Assunta in Casole d’Elsa, a crowd waited to enter. The name of James Blake began to circulate, which until then most of the spectators had never heard. But for those who had, the idea of listening to him in a church seemed like a dream.

The first performance was that of Krishna Das, an American artist who presents his kirtans, or Hindu devotional prayers, in musical form. The objective was to immediately involve the audience, making them repeat the mantras and allowing them to enter another dimension far from everyday reality. Among the church pews there was Rubin, looking satisfied with this first taste of the event. There were Italian artists such as Jovanotti and Dario Mangiaracina of La Rappresentante di Lista, the actors Riccardo Scamarcio with Benedetta Porcaroli and the artist manager Paola Zukar. Régine Chassagne and Win Butler from Arcade Fire were also there — calm, listening, ready to be carried away by the flow.

Next to the festival locations, the event program only said “live,” “show” and “film” without specifying anything else. We returned to the church and this time James Blake was there for real. In front of him were his piano and a loop station. After a while, “Limit to Your Love” started. Sunlight filtered through the painted gothic windows and blended with “Mulholland” and “Retrograde.” Blake couldn’t hear himself or his instrument well, so he started over, then stopped again. Everything seemed so real, but above all profound.

Meanwhile, Paolo Nutini was wandering around in the cloister. Maybe he too would like to play in such a particular context, but he couldn’t because he had to perform officially at the La Prima Estate festival, also in Tuscany. After a break, Jovanotti came on stage, telling people about the responsibility of having made Rubin fall in love with his homeland, Tuscany.

“A few years ago, Rick, my absolute legend, who later also became a friend, and I rented a villa near Florence to transform it into a studio and to work on my album. We were there for about a month. Every morning, he and I went around the villages and hills, so Rick fell madly in love with the region. He even bought a house right in the municipality of Casole d’Elsa: he’s one of us now!”

Jovanotti talked about how many houses they saw together to find one that was right to be renovated without distorting its old spirit — a bit like in his albums, where Rubin reduces the sound to the bare bones to maintain the essence of the artists.

“In the United States there is practically no concept of ancient,” says Rubin. “A 40-year-old house is considered as such. This is why I am so fascinated by your country.” Then there was another important source of inspiration: director Terry Gilliam’s film festival in Umbria. “When we were there together, we saw an incredible gem and thought we should do everything we could to do something like that.”

After Jovanotti, Beth Ditto’s Gossip arrived on stage, and the force of nature we all knew seemed to have returned. She apologized for her cough and her voice, but she seemed anything but unmotivated. Rubin himself invited the audience not to miss the “Heavy Cross” band for anything in the world.

Meanwhile, other Italian artists arrived backstage such as Levante, Madame, gIANMARIA, Birthh, Veronica Lucchesi of La Rappresentante di Lista. Everyone was relaxed and happy with the shows they got to see. The next day, Ghali, Frah Quintale and Måneskin’s Thomas Raggi and Ethan Torchio arrived. Everyone met up in the cloister transformed into a backstage, with tech gurus such as Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, who held a panel titled ‘Tech and Freedom’ on Saturday (on June 22).

On Saturday there were other surprises. DJ Cosmo Gonik arrives in Piazza della Libertà for his ecstatic dance, then another church hosted the cellist Lucinda Chua, Rhye and the Armenian pianist Marie Awadis. But it was with Win and Regine of Arcade Fire that the climax was reached. The two Canadians performed first in the church of Santa Maria Assunta for a concert and then on the stage in Piazza della Libertà with a DJ set.

The places convey a timeless charm. Not to mention the superlative location of the amphitheatre for the film about Nick Cave, This Much I Know to Be True, presented by the director Andrew Domini, with contrasting purple lights, clear sound and Arcade Fire and Blake in the audience. How can the same magic be repeated next year?

Festival of The Sun
Festival of The Sun

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