Tonight I saw Elisa Toffoli at Great Scott with a couple of the Italian postdocs at MIT, Paola Rebusco & Alessandra Silvestri.  For those of you who don’t know Elisa (that included me less than 5 hours ago), she is a super-star in Italy with a huge international following. Not surprising then, the packed room was resonant with Italian words (“brava!”) and the exuberance of sing-along fans.

And for good reason – Elisa and her band were simply spectacular.  Her powerful vocals, while perhaps amplified by the small space of the venue, were nevertheless a beautiful sonic force. Her head-voice highs never swung into the shrill and her words were sharp and clear.  The latter is particularly impressive given that this Italian sung every song in pitch-perfect English.  She did fantastic renditions of Blackbird and Mad World, and the playlist ranged from power rock to ballads, while Elisa herself alternated between guitar and keyboard.  Her band was tight and full of characters (see below), but for the most part Elisa was the focus of the crowd.

Three things stood out to me during the performance.  First, Elisa made good use of a recorder-playback device for a couple of songs, harmonizing with her own vocals which she laid down one on top of the other.  I first saw this technique back in 2003 in LA, and this is only the second time I’ve seen it used live (this probably reflects how little I get out to see live music).  It was also the most seamless use of the playback I’ve heard.

Second, Elisa’s shaggy mop and overgrown bangs were remarkably similar to those of my undergraduate advisor Sally Ride back in the 80s when she was an astronaut.  Huh.

Third, and the focus of the second half of this entry, was the bass player, who I believe was Max Gelsi (based on the official fan site).  I honestly could not take my eyes off this guy, as he was far and beyond the greatest band nerd I have ever witnessed.  He bore an uncanny resemblance to Chris Farley; somewhat overweight, long hair pulled back into a pony tail, his motions were both awkward and strangely elegant while he performed a thousand different physical interpretations of his chords.  His facial ticks, deep knee bends and elevated pick frequently drew our attention away from Elisa, who was also striking and dynamic but in an arguably attractive way. Occasionally he would even mouth the words Elisa was singing – isn’t this considered bad form?

Here was a guy who is the very antithesis to every stereotype of the cool, sophisticated Italiano.  What was he doing in this band?  The answer: playing his heart out.  And the crowd, despite being as suave and well-frocked as any gathering of young Italians would be, loved him for it. At the end of the set, he got by far the loudest applause, the audience giving him back some of the energy he gave to us.

While I watched the bassist’s gyrations and facial explosions, I began to think a little about this “nerd” label I immediately assigned to the guy.  Being a professor at MIT, I know quite a bit about nerdness, both in my own personality quirks and being immersed in a mecca for the awkward and uninhibited.  But what does being a “nerd” actually mean? provides two definitions, one slightly more positive than the other:

1. A stupid, irritating, ineffectual or unattractive person.

2. An intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit: a computer nerd

Real nerd-like behavior can frankly be painful to watch, but only in the presence of a judgmental crowd.  In reality, such behavior in an accepting environment is rarely aggressive or demeaning to others, can be intensely personal and self-reflective, defies repression, and is nearly always original.  These really don’t sound like negative traits worthy of scorn (definition #1) nor necessary limited to the “intelligent” or to “nonsocial hobbies or pursuits” (definition #2).  Based on what I saw on stage tonight, I came up with a somewhat better definition for nerd:

Someone so immersed in an activity or passion that he or she defies normal social conventions

The key phrase here is “social conventions”, for nerds only seem awkward when not around other like-minded people.  Conventions are expectations; expectations are restrictions.  Nerd behavior breaks these restrictions, dismantling the gridlocks that are set up by social conventions.  These include some particularly bad old social norms: religious persecution, slavery, gender discrimination, child abuse, xenophobia.  I contend that the elimination of these negative behaviors from our status quo first required the awkward behavior of some real nerds.

So to nerds in general, I say thank you.  Your colorful peculiarities in the bland sea of conventional thinking have contributed to making our world a better (and more entertaining) place.

And thanks also to Elisa and her band for a rockin’ concert!