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Milan for a band

Milano Aeroporto isn’t actually Milan Airport. Instead, when you jet into this cosmopolitan city you land at a cute, harmonic place called Bergamo in North Italy. It’s a 45-minute bus-ride from the dynamic Milan, that, a city of two great football teams and a place that was to host, once again, another rocking RUSH concert. I wasn’t there to follow football anyway, but to chase the mature, but not too old, Toronto trio for the umpteenth time. And the reason is, you are guaranteed the proverbial icing of rock music that oozes with confidence, satisfaction and class.

Flying in from Manchester in early spring you step onto Italian tarmac and breathe in the (much like Manchester) chilly March air. Stretching my limbs after the two-hour flight, feeling perky and pumped up ready, once again, to experience more great adventure and absorb everything, every sound around me – I was here to enjoy.

The airport looks like any other I have landed at, concrete and stone and glass walls. Controllers busy waving and signalling in their lime green fluorescent waist-coats. Passport control in dark blue uniform and matching hats. They are at work while I am on a short break. And so, I arrived a day prior to the show.

This is it. Bergamo sounds majestic but it isn’t, it’s too old and decaying to be described in that way. It dates back to Roman times, and despite The Local Council’s ambition to modernise their town, it still resembles one of those settings seen in a 1900’s film made in the fifties. Cute though. A taxi to my hotel rumbles me along the half-repaired cobblestone avenues of Bergamo. On route to the city centre from the airport you pass by an Art Museum, a whole stack of statues (I don’t know what the collective noun is for statues) and a water fountain gone dry. The driver speaks as much Inglesa as I do Italiano, and what’s more he has never heard of RUSH either. Gracie mille.

Checking into hotels is always a favourite part of arriving; settling down after a thousand miles of travel. Unzip your travel bag, spread out your clothes on the spare bed and get cleaned up. Ambling out lazily onto the balcony, ahead of me the centrepiece of the view is a Cenotaph, a ninety-foot reminder of the sacrificed Bergamo soldiers of World War I. To the left is a not-too-decaying McDonald’s and opposite that, a sallow-looking (I thought it deserved a better colour) Tourist Information Centre. I have a smoke and admire the view. Sipping a bottle of beer I wandered back into my room, laid down smiling satisfied that it was only another twenty-four hours before the best rock band ever were about to take over the Datch Forum Arena and I have a good seat.

Following RUSH has taken me to places both ordinary and exotic – this trip is somewhere in the middle of that scale. All these places have many things in common; they all serve funny-tasting food, few speak English and everyone of them drives on the wrong side. This is Europe and after a while it becomes another home from home, like RUSH once said (whether metaphoric, ironic or philosophic) “We’re only at home when we’re on the run”.

These hotel rooms often have their own little fridges stacked high with goodies. Goodies such as Mars Bars, Kit-Kats, Aperitivo and Birre are set out neatly for our consumption. Down in the lobby there is a Gipsy band who tune out romantic melodies, but that makes no impression on a RUSH fan, and two, without your girlfriend the romantic aspect goes to waste. The kind of place you would expect Humphrey Bogart to appear in his white blazer and black tie, but instead the guests were businessmen, there to attend a Conference or a Trade Fair. They are happy to talk to this Englishman but not one of them enquire about spare tickets for the show. Maybe I got off at the wrong stop. Night-time falls and so it’s bedtime.

The Day of The Show

On days like this it’s easy to leap out of bed brisk in anticipation of the day ahead of you. The local commercial radio station airs ads that I can’t not understand, staged between Dolce Vita and Pavarotti. At the breakfast table the guests linger. I think it nice that the Germans, Austrians, Swiss and of course the natives smile. They squeeze the fresh orange into their glasses, help themselves to cereal and pour into their quaint cups the fragrant coffee from the little machine that also grinds the beans. It doesn’t matter that they don’t serve Full English Breakfasts; vitamins are what you need. So, perfect. Get packed, get your RUSH T-shirt and get off to Milan.

An A-road takes you past stone-built villages, and a variety of scenery from forest lands, to glaciated rocks, and meanders along the steep mountain range of the Southern Alps. You travel past places with names such as Malmissimo, Gordonolla and Illegro (why is it every Italian word seems to end in a vowel). Not too long after the bus pulls up in the centre of Milan. Local transport police orchestrate the traffic signalling the best ways to avoid all the roadworks. Towering skyscrapers reaching into the low-lying clouds and in one of these I have a room booked. The routine of the previous day in the previous hotel lends itself to habit more than plan. That accomplished, this day means I have more time to ‘be a tourist’. I purchase a one Euro map of the city and set off in search of the San Siro Football Stadium, home of AC and Inter Milan. Luckily this is not too far from the Datch Forum Arena (the venue for the show) and on arrival you can feel something positive about to happen.

The underground you may wish to avoid but you can reach your destination much quicker than travelling by the tram system or trolley-buses. On the map there is a hippodrome situated right next door to the gigantico football stadium; curiously it was called the San Siro Hippodrome. A sunny day is developing and there seems to be a genuine feel-good factor around the city and in particular the district I am in. Bustling and happy the natives don’t notice that chap in the RUSH T-shirt, unconcerned whether he is a Blackpool boy with a Sandgrown accent, but, the privacy of a traveller discovering new places is all part of your adventure. It is for this reason that I discover the Grand Canyon-sized San Siro. It is of awesome scale and presence though it reminds you of Old Trafford in Manchester but without colour. It has lifts and escalators, concrete and steel, and is a monument to modern day civil engineering. However, it is the unexpected Hippodrome that captures me most. A real Hippodrome – something I have never seen before in real life.

It is open: there is a meet that day, not horse-racing, but trotting chariot racing. I learn that the horses are not allowed to gallop; otherwise they are disqualified. And you can bet. The jockeys were not Kieron Fallon or Tony McCoy; they are Luigi de Rossi and Alberto Grille. What’s more, they don’t have prices such as 5/4 or 9/2: everything is something point something; still, you get what I mean. Every thirty minutes a new race gets underway; it looks more like the Whacky Races and you almost expect to see Dick Dastardly and Mutley to crank up their choking banger-automobile, even Penelope Stopit tuning into the event. It is fun. The would-be Ben Hur chariot men (I think that’s what might be called) race around sportingly propped in their little buggies, holding on like their lives depended on it, and the photos are about to be downloaded. If it weren’t for the grinding sounds from the chasing chariots on the sand track, you would think you are at home at Haydock Park. The Tote, the bookies and the eager-to-win-money customers.

After race seven (and no returns from my bets) it is time to depart. Dusk is brooding as the street lights are systematically lit, so a pleasant stroll along something La Rue and through something Plaza and you can see the Arena in the distance. Just two more hours before Lee, Lifeson and Peart are about to entertain another 9,000 RUSH nuts.

Approaching the Arena there are people wearing RUSH things too, such as baseball caps, leather jackets and badges (I am no longer alone). Besides the 9,001 fans, there are scores of market traders, selling unofficial (and fake) RUSH merchandise– I have got off at the right stop. The traders appear North African or certainly Mediterranean and everyone of them chatters their charm to tempt you to part with your Euros. Ticket touts buying and selling, upgrading and making a little profit. Some force themselves upon you and it can be intimidating sometimes. I am left alone and besides, I have a ticket anyway.

I don’t regard myself as a stalker of this group, but I can’t help thinking that some might think I am. Prior to every show I see, I always head for the rear entrance. Not once have I even accidentally stumble across the band, but on this occasion I see the drummer race from a dark blue Mercedes into the back of the Arena. There is something mystical about these three men, you can’t touch them, but I guess that is how it is supposed to be. So, as excitement shivers up and my spine (I should have grown out of this at my age) forth to the Arena front gates.

The Datch Forum might well be the Metro Arena in Newcastle or the NEC Birmingham, except for the lack of Geordie and Brummie accents. And yet despite this being Italy I can’t understand why not one of the security men smiles. Maybe they dislike their work I thought. Maybe they don’t appreciate the music and are dreading the big booms of RUSH – maybe they should watch the magic music played by these three master musicians. Anyway, that is their business; mine is to join the queue and wait for the gates to open. Mamma Mia, the atmosphere is lit, you can hear all these Italians talking their native tongue, sprinkled with the mention of one of the band member’s name – ‘La dotte se panne de Alex Lifeson belle gitar fantastico’, followed by a title of a RUSH song; a fascinating falsetto, like a melodic chorus.

Up the broad, high paved steps to the main entrance, as another line of security check your ticket. Once past these, you get to bask in the happiness only ever experienced when you look out for the first time into the Arena from a lofty vantage point. This is where the band will play. Huge. Packed high like Wembley Arena, the crowds shuffle in. Beers and hot-dogs and all the time while the best crew in the world make last-minute checks before the 8 o’clock start as even more excitement runs up and down your spine. Two minutes to go. One. You’ll have to excuse me now, it’s eight o’clock, I have to g…


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