Where have the Joe Cockers of the world gone? Where are the singers who drip soul and emotion from every pore and resist any semblance of smooth crooning or precise, auto-tuned robotics? Sure there might be the occasional missed note or muffed line, but the heart is in tatters and the voice has no choice but to follow.
There's at least one of those tear-stained singers still out there, and his name is Mike Granata, the Italo in Greenville's Italo & the Passions quartet. Alongside guitarist Casey Taylor, bassist Drew Pack, and drummer Brandon Gallagher, Granata specializes in a frenzied, grainy yowl that's part madman, part jilted lover, and part ecstatic preacher. Over his band's basic but surprisingly versatile guitar-heavy roots-rock, Granata can beg and plead and cajole with the best of them. And onstage, he's impossible not to watch. He doesn't so much dance to the music as become possessed by it, throwing his body into each twist and turn of a song.
And there can be plenty of those twists and turns. One minute the Passions can conjure the ragged, whiskey-and-cigarettes stumble of the New York Dolls, the next they can knock out a doo-wop-influenced soul ballad. The key is Taylor's guitar. He instinctively seems to know where Granata is going, especially on pounding rockers like the fuzz-coated "I Need Your Love," and he's smart enough to lie back on the slower numbers, letting the melodies do the work.
It's a symbiotic type of relationship that began when the two men were teenagers playing punk rock. "We've done other things with other bands, but mostly it's just been me and him evolving into what we are now," Taylor says. "As we were together longer, it evolved more into rock 'n' roll, but we always saw punk as just an extension of the roots-rock thing."
Over time, that roots-rock became more prevalent in Italo's sound, without sacrificing the rough edges. "It wasn't too much of a leap," Taylor says. "We never really set out to do a certain sound. We took all the music we like and meshed it into one. It's all based on rock 'n' roll, which is really just blues anyway. We all started out in punk bands, so we felt a connection with that raw rock 'n' roll feel. So we've always leaned in that direction. Playing as hard and fast as possible was the whole goal before, then it was about trying to give things nuance. It was a challenge we'd never had before. It's like we reached the end of punk rock."
The result of that evolution is a sound that's never quite one thing or another; there's too much needle-in-the-red guitar to call it Americana, and the rhythms are too flexible to be punk. And there's certainly no excessive pop varnish involved. "For us, it's just natural for the songs to feel that way," Taylor says. "A lot of musicians worry about being polished or presenting themselves as nicely as possible. It's like wearing a nice suit when you're trying to impress someone. But for us, that's just not happening."
Granata does the lyric writing for the band, and Taylor says that there's reason he pours so much heart, soul, and sweat into his performances. "One-hundred percent of Mike's lyrics and the skeletons of the songs he brings in are all about his love life and heartache and whatnot," he says with a laugh. "Usually when he brings a song in to practice, we can settle by the end of the session on what we want it to be. From there it's just running through it and listening for anything that pops up that we might want to add."