The Italian Job 

Can a software geek and a drum-machine guru form a successful Italian folk duo -- despite not being Italian? Why not?

Roger Linn and Bruce Zweig are a bit of a contradiction: hardcore techies who play very analogue, Old World music. Their group is called Trovatore (Italian for "troubadour"), but unlike their traditionally rambling namesakes, they rarely move from one spot. With nary a drop of Italian blood between them, they revive the folk music of Sicily and Naples every Monday at San Pablo Avenue's Caffe Trieste.

Yes, in the shadow of such giants as cafe founder Papa Gianni -- and wedged between a display of vintage Italian photos, house-brand coffee tins, and French presses -- Roger (mandolin) and Bruce (piano) bring a little Southern Italy to southwest Berkeley.

And if that doesn't seem off-kilter enough, these guys met at a morning gig. You know, that time when most musos are fast asleep or just getting to bed? The pair started jamming in '97 with living mandolin legend Matteo Casserino at the original Caffe Trieste in North Beach -- "When I moved here, I understood it was the last bastion of cafe society," Roger recalls.

The two men hit it off, united by their odd musical taste and profoundly good fortune -- Trovatore can actually afford to play for grins and tips, because these guys hit it big elsewhere. Silver Spring native Zweig sold his Lightning Software Company long ago, and now enjoys semiretirement in Pacific Heights; Linn, who hit the road as Leon Russell's guitarist at age 21, hit paydirt in the '80s with the first drum machine. "Touring does get tired after a while, because I was only a sideman, and when you're on the road you can't do anything else," he recalls. "It wasn't long after that I was pulled by the idea of making electronic music products, which led to the drum machines."

Yes, A Flock of Seagulls sends its regards. "I single-handedly ruined music in the '80s!" Roger jokes -- his LM-1 and LinnDrum signaled a decade of preprogrammed percussion. ("I still get drumsticks through my back windshield," he adds.) He went on to write hits for Eric Clapton ("Promises") and Mary Chapin Carpenter ("Quittin' Time") before the techie itch struck again: These days, his Adrenalinn (get it?) guitar processor has been flaunted on CDs by Clapton, Green Day, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Beck. All big fans of Italian folk music, no doubt.

Roger's transition to mandolin was equally circuitous. Asked to join Matteo's group, he began by meddling with a charango, the South American mandolin-like ten-string made from an armadillo's shell -- Southern, yes, but not quite Italian. Then it was onto an actual mandolin, which he tuned like a guitar. Finally, he jumped in wholeheartedly and now plays a classic roundback mandolin of Greek origin, which looks like something you get once St. Peter vets you at the Golden Gate, inlaid with harps and the like.

Roger says he digs the arty/boho vibe at Trieste, and a recent Monday night gig bore that out. There's the guy with the parrot on his shoulder that imitates a cell phone ring. There's another doofus who doesn't seem to understand that the parrot is cute, but his real cellphone is just annoying. Sometimes there's even a German class camped out in a far corner. (Please, no jokes about the Axis.) But most everyone turns and faces the little makeshift stage while Trovatore works its magic: classic music filtered through the popular subconscious like pasta water through a sieve. Not just the theme to The Godfather (though they do play that), but songs that have shown up in less totemic flicks like Room with a View and King of New York. "Directors with class, they recognize these songs," Bruce insists.

In typically techie fashion, Bruce finds the tunes, turns them into MP3s, and e-mails them to Roger: Within a week, they're jamming at Trieste, Bruce sometimes gently muttering "B section" to cue his partner on the changes. The octogenarians next to me make a point of getting as close to the duo as possible -- maybe they're not the groupies most other musicians desire, but as the old man gums his quiche Lorraine and taps his feet while his lady companion mouths the words to the classic "Santa Lucia," Roger is grinning from ear to ear. He's playing for karmic dollars these days.

To that end, Roger also hosts house concerts at his Berkeley home, featuring the likes of Mike Marshall and Choro Famoso under the moniker RogMahal. "I wanted to provide a salon-style venue where the musicians got to play in a quiet, respectful environment," he explains. "There are no bar or espresso machine noises, no drunks, and the musicians get all the contributions collected."

Back at Caffe Trieste -- where there is, in fact, espresso machine noise -- the two work their magic. Whether it's the wistful "Quando Tramonda" or the bouncy "Che Ridere," the duo's telepathic understanding gets toes tapping throughout the cafe. The (literal) knitting circle in the corner is digging the vibe, bobbing their heads and needles in unison. Even the most jaded hipsters, still wearing shades at 7 p.m., pay similarly rapt attention.

Linn and Zweig are cool with where they're at. "I wouldn't want to be involved in the music industry now, because it's full of people who have managed to sustain their adolescence into advanced years," Linn explains. "Besides, in a sense I'm touring now at my little Caffe Trieste gig ... but now the audiences come to me!"

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