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Porretta Soul Festival 2016

If you’re reading this with no prior knowledge of the Porretta Soul Festival – which is unlikely, as I have been gushing about how good it is pretty much since Ace got its website up and running – you have just missed the 29th edition.  Quite a big ‘miss’ if you are a soul and R&B fan, as the weekend of July 21-23 2016 was exceptional to say the least.

Over the past 29 editions, Festival organiser Graziano Uliani – a man who is as tireless a promoter of southern soul as he is affable – has brought a phenomenal number of 60s and 70s soul greats to Porretta Terme, a small town in a small corner of Northern Italy, just on the Tuscany/Emilia-Romagna border. Many of those artists who have shared a mutual musical love-in with the capacity audiences at Rufus Thomas Park in mid-July are no longer around to be re-booked, unfortunately.  Thus it’s even more to Graziano’s credit that he always manages to come up with a stellar list of vintage favourites, even as the number of available choices sadly (and naturally) dwindles from year to year.

Porretta Soul 2016 was no different to the past 28 in that respect, nor was it any less enjoyable. Headlined on the Saturday night by octogenarian blues man Bobby Rush – a proven Porretta favourite, with a great new Rounder album “Porcupine Meat” in his immediate future – and with 70s funk and soul legends Fred Wesley (and the most excellent New JB’s) and George McCrae, who sounded and even looked almost exactly as he did in the ‘Rock Your Baby’ era 40 years ago,  bookending Friday night’s musical entertainment, there wasn’t really anything for even the most curmudgeonly music lover to complain about.  Particularly when you also factor in the performances of returning Porretta soul queen Toni Green and former Soul Brothers Six front man John Ellison – for me the star performer of the weekend, sounding just as fiery as he did on that wonderful group’s handful of fabulous Atlantic 45s – and a bunch of lesser-known but no less talented acts like Theo Huff and Stan Mosley, who maintain a fine tradition of classic soul singers in an admirable manner.

There just isn’t enough room here to mention everyone who appeared, but it would be quite wrong for me not to mention the great house band. Anthony Paule’s outfit first appeared in Porretta as an act in their own right three years ago and were immediately invited by Graziano to come back last year to do their own show again as well as becoming the house band for all the other featured acts. Along with their sublime vocal front man Frank Bey they did it all again this year too, and I am sure that everyone who was there will be both hopeful and glad to see them back again for Porretta 30 next year.

I’ve only spoken of the Friday and Saturday nights, but Porretta Soul is actually a four-day festival, with virtually all of the weekend’s acts coming back to do a couple of their best songs on Sunday night in time-honoured ‘soul revue’ style, and a Thursday night concert featuring some of the many European and international young bands who Graziano has also given sustained exposure to over the decades.  As well as the main shows in Rufus Thomas Park, bands also play during the day on a smaller stage in one of the adjacent streets, just by the wonderful Califfo pub run by football mad Anglophile Davide Filipponi - who loves the English visitors so much that he even gets in a barrel of real ale for us during the Festival (Adnam’s Ghost Ship, since you ask…). The town of Porretta Terme loves all of this activity, and everyone in town gets behind the Festival to make sure that all visitors are made to feel totally at home whether they arrive by plane from the USA and elsewhere in Europe or get the bus down from Silla, the next town over to Porretta.

If you’ve seen my previous ravings about Porretta Soul on the Ace website and elsewhere, and you’re still not thinking about making it a regular event on your soul calendar, you might also like to consider that Porretta is only a train ride or two away from places like Pisa, Firenze, Lucca and Bologna and is well worth making the centrepiece of an Italian holiday that includes days out to some or all of those places. The town fills up quickly and hotel space is at a premium, so my advice as always its to keep checking the Festival’s website for announcements of 2017’s dates and get accommodation sorted as soon as it is (most hotels will let you cancel up to one week before the festival).