Stef Burns

Standing Next To The Giant Star

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As a guitarist in the ‘80s, Stef Burns rocked with the best of them. Then he left the US and spent 20 years touring through Italy with Vasco Rossi, the biggest rocker on that side of the Alps. Now Burns is trying to become a legend there himself – if only a minor one.

  • Author: Gunter Ullrich
  • Photos: DJ Marketing and Commnunication Ltd
„God? Let that somebody else be“

Electronic “party’s over” music drones from the speakers on stage. The football stadium's floodlights transform night into day. The stands, which had been packed until just a few moments ago, and the playing field, which had also been full, begin emptying. The crew starts dismantling parts of the stage. Meanwhile, a throng of screaming fans wave two American flags. One has large, letters scribbled on it: STEF.

To them, he’s a star. He starts throwing guitar picks from the stage. Some he winds up for, others he doesn’t. One he tosses over his back, another he aims like a dart, always with a big smile as he watches the crowd lunge for the pearl-white triangles that bear the band’s name in glittering letters: Vasco. The group is named after frontman Vasco Rossi, Italy’s biggest rock star. But by the time his guitarist begins showering his admirers with picks, Vasco has long since disappeared. On the back side of the picks is the name Stef Burns, the lead guitarist, a man who has performed with some of Rock ‘n Roll’s biggest stars - Sheila E, Prince, Berlin and Alice Cooper. When Burns plays a chord, a tinge of those legends is audible. In the 1980s, he toured with them around the world. He was along for the ride when Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” became a chart-topper through the film “Top Gun," just as he was for Prince’s “Purple Rain” and Alice Cooper’s “Poison.”

„To fill a stadium is like to win in the lottery“

If bands were football teams, Burns would be a midfielder, inconspicuous at first glance, overshadowed by the star player with all his goals and glory. But all that wouldn’t be possible if Burns didn’t have his back. With his lead guitar, Burns holds the line keeping everything together.

The scene is Padova, a city near Venice. It’s the final concert of a three-week tour that has seen Vasco sell out all of Italy's largest stadiums. Tonight’s concert alone drew 40,000 spectators. It’s the second night in a row in Padova because the first show sold out so quickly. “People are coming to see their idol, their god,” says Burns, who is content with not being the said deity. "We work in tandem. I do my job on the guitar and Vasco Rossi does his on the microphone.” On stage, it goes something like this: Vasco likes to provoke with his lyrics, but he also likes to do so with his body language. Even at the tender age of 60, he still manages to get girls in the front row to throw their bras onstage. Throughout the night, he lets Burns and the guys on drums and bass have their solos. Those are the moments when Vasco shares the spotlight, approaching his fellow band members, touching them, firing them up.

In 1995, Vasco called up Burns and asked him to join his band. Burns took him up on the offer without having any idea of what to expect in Italy. “Our first concert was at San Siro in Milan,” he recalls. Some 80,000 people attended the show, singing along to every song and showing Burns a passion he had never experienced before. It was like a dream -- one from which he would never wake up again. Burns has now been working in Italy for 20 years.

But there’s more to it. A man who is usually in the background has stepped into the limelight. "I love to sing in my own band," he says. That’s why Burns has been pursuing his next dream since last year by establishing his own band. The Stef Burns League's first album, "Roots and Wings," came out in 2014.

It’s a culmination of all his experiences. It allowed Burns to tap all the ideas he came up with during all those years of touring. The album rocks, has acoustic tones, orchestral scores and jazz influences. At times it’s hard, then soft, and then it’s funky. “I’ve always been interested in all kinds of musical directions,” he says. “If you want to achieve anything as a guitarist, you can’t get hung up on one style." That's why his band's first album is as multifaceted as the guitarist from northern California himself, who spread his wings in Italy but never forgot his roots. He's already working on his next album, which is due for release in 2016. "It will be a rock album," Burns says. "Ass-kicking rock.”

Asked if he thinks his own band will one day fill stadiums, he says it's unlikely. "It's like the lottery," says Burns. Sure, he wouldn’t mind winning and repeating as a singer the kind of success he had as a guitarist. But he has more realistic places in mind -- nice, big clubs with good sound systems, "where everyone can get close and see and hear us." Places where listeners can absorb the energy he and his bandmates exude. After all, that’s the real thrill in making your own music.