Up until now, Modena, a city situated in northeastern Italy, has been best known for its tortellini, balsamic vinegar, and among auto enthusiasts, as the home of Ferrari.
However, the bluegrass band which refers to itself by the unlikely handle, Best Before War, may soon add itself to that city’s list of unique offerings. The group — which currently consists of Silvia Nicoletti on vocals, Matteo Bertaggia on guitar, Andrea Cerè, who plays double bass and sings harmonies, Stefano Santangelo, who contributes mandolin and harmony vocals, Marco Pandolfi on banjo and harmony vocals, and Elena Mirandola playing violin — was formed nearly eight years ago. The project was borne from an idea spawned by two bluegrass enthusiasts who happened to meet when they found themselves by chance in the same locale.
“Initially, it was intended to be just a study of the genre,” Nicoletti says. “Since then, many things have happened. We’ve had several changes in band members, including one of the founders who left us last summer, and it’s probably only now that we have reached a point where we feel were best represented by the repertoire we play during live performances.”
They’re so comfortable, in fact, that when asked to describe their sound, Nicoletti replies succinctly. “Solid and powerful,” he says.
Indeed, he mentions an array of archival influences. “We love traditional bluegrass, from its roots with Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and Doc Watson, to the great masters like Tony Rice and Norman Blake. However, we also look with great interest at newgrass artists like Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle. With a female vocalist, we often draw inspiration from groups with female voices, including talented European bands like the Hayde Bluegrass Orchestra.”
The unusual handle originated early on, when they only played music circa pre World War II. “Now that’s no longer the case,” Nicoletti notes. “But we still love the name… so we decided not to change it!”
The group has yet to tour, but Nicoletti said they have performed in various clubs around Italy. “We’ve played frequently at chef Massimo Bottura’s court in his B&B, which was just judged as the best in the world some weeks ago. On one of those occasions, we also met the actor Patrick Dempsey, who was in Modena filming the Enzo Ferrari movie, and we discovered that he is a big bluegrass fan as well!”
Best Before War has also appeared at several major festivals, including the Italian Bluegrass Meeting in Cremona on various occasions, the Blues Made in Italy gathering in Verona, and Roots Way in Novellara. “We would love to perform at the Bluegrass In La Roche in France,” Nicoletti notes. “We’ll try to send them some of our material very soon, because we’re hoping to be selected!”
In the meantime, the response from folks back home has been consistently positive.
“Because we play a relatively unknown musical genre in Italy, we are welcomed with a mix of interest and curiosity,” Nicoletti maintains. “During live performances, we like to engage the audience with anecdotes and facts about the songs we play as well as bluegrass in general. That helps them better understand what they’ll hear.”
At this point, the group puts its emphasis on cover songs, but Nicoletti says they span an array of material from many artists. “For example, we play Never Meant To Be by Tony Rice, Dolly Parton’s version of I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open, The City of New Orleans as recorded by Rhonda Vincent, and Crooked Tree by Molly Tuttle. We also present some great American classics, such as American Pie, but at the same time, we play them in a bluegrass style.”
Although the band has yet to record, Nicoletti says they hope to soon and that they’re still ‘finding their way.’ “We have a dream — to perform where bluegrass was born,” he adds. “We hope to do it soon.”
In the meantime, when asked, Nicoletti offers an answer when asked why he thinks bluegrass enjoys such international popularity.
“It’s because, even though much of today’s popular music is filled with artificial sounds, when one encounters a genre that requires such a deep knowledge of live-played instruments, it still captivates audiences,” he insists. “Artists of the new generation, like Billy Strings, have contributed to the resurgence of this genre, and that’s thanks in part to social media.”