Music’s invisible man emerges for rare shows

A tentative floater and reluctant public figure amid today’s image-conscious – and often generated – music industry, Thanassis Papaconstantinou has shunned fame but poured plenty of devotion into his distinctive craft since emerging in the mid-1990s as one of the country’s most authentic and truly creative contemporary songwriters. Papaconstantinou’s highly personal, hard-to-pinpoint material – much of it a peculiar latticework of this country’s old-school popular music, Greek folk, and dashes from the West, as well as thoughtful, eloquently penned lyrics – has drawn a religious following and prompted considerable critical acclaim. Yet, Papaconstantinou tends to hide from it all. A publicity agent’s nightmare who avoids interviews, Papaconstantinou has rarely been photographed, never shot a video clip, nor taken any other initiative that he feels could slash his private life. Papaconstantinou has continued living in his hometown of Larissa where he has written on a part-time basis when not preoccupied by his full-time job as a state-employed mechanical engineer. Besides keeping well away from fame-driven cliques of colleagues in the «where-it’s-at» urban centers of Athens and, to a lesser degree, Thessaloniki, Papaconstantinou has also kept a distance from the stage – most of the time. On rare occasions, such as now, the stage-shy performer can pull together enough grit and desire for face-to-face meetings with his growing legion of fans. Last Sunday night he began a series of six shows at Gyalino Mousiko Theatro in Athens. These performances come after a lengthy absence from the club circuit. Considering his invisible presence and rare concert outings, Papaconstantinou probably won’t be back for a while, which makes the current series of gigs that much more worthwhile. Quite astonishingly, during his last appearance in Athens – last summer at the WOMAD Festival – Papaconstantinou probably even surprised himself by pulling off a performance before a crowd of thousands. He appeared as one of several Greek acts on the world music event’s high-caliber international bill. On that day, Papaconstantinou received sturdy moral support from an ensemble of accomplished musicians. Also there, as guest vocalists, were Socrates Malamas – a potent songwriting force in his own right and seasoned stage performer who knows how to handle a crowd – and singer Melina Kana. As a trio, they presented Papaconstantinou’s then new album, «Agrypnia» (Insomnia), his sixth and most recent, which the cast had recorded together. A summer earlier, Papaconstantinou had got himself entangled in another venture with high-exposure, two triple-header shows alongside Malamas and Kana at sizable open-air theaters packed with screaming fans in Athens and Thessaloniki. Prior to that, Malamas had often protested in jest, at his own shows, about Papaconstantinou’s hesitancy to join him on stage for a show or two. Papaconstantinou, Malamas and Kana have had a fruitful three-way collaboration, mostly in the studio, for several years now. But unlike these previous stage adventures, Papaconstantinou has less up-front activity on the stage to hide behind at the current performances. Malamas, whom Papaconstantinou had referred to as a «guru» of his at one of the aforementioned shows, isn’t on the bill as the experienced pal and solid rock he could lean on, nor is Kana, whose smooth vocal delivery and charm can turn heads and stretch ears. Papaconstantinou, a self-taught musician who lacks the on-stage flare and confidence to ignite proceedings alone, is, however, being accompanied by a fine combo of gifted, free-flowing players. They include guitarist Babis Papadopoulos, formerly of the now-defunct and hard-hitting rock group Trypes. Papadopoulos has since pursued less abrasive and more creative avenues in various worthwhile projects, which include heavy contributions to albums by Papaconstantinou and Malamas. Papadopoulos first collaborated with the Larissa-based artist on his superb «Vrahnos Profitis» album in 2000, for which the guitarist’s heavily treated sounds were a key aspect of the project’s electrified texture. The album, which marked Papaconstantinou’s first major break from cleaner acoustic sounds, was hailed as the year’s best release by many respected local critics. On its follow-up, last summer’s «Agrypnia,» Papaconstantinou drifted even further from his early period’s pristine approach for his most wayward album to date. The album’s reduced emphasis on rigid song structure for less disciplined, wayward, and mostly instrumental musical pieces inflected with jazz and rock elements, highlights the artist’s willingness to evolve – with taste. The album includes a track whose lyrics were inspired by another elusive figure, the early 20th century Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who camouflaged his work behind four different names – his own, that of Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Alvaro dos Campos. No doubt, in penning the track, «Rua Da Bella Vista,» which is sung by Malamas on the album, Papaconstantinou found solid reason to empathize with the poet and his evasive nature. Over the next few nights, however, Papaconstantinou, the local contemporary scene’s least tangible man – and talent – will need to persevere under the spotlight, before he vanishes again back into his creative little corner. Gyalino Mousiko Theatro, 143 Syngrou, tel 210.931.6101, tonight, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, at 10.30 p.m.