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Porretta Soul at 30

An Appreciation From Your Long Time Travelling Correspondent…

There was discussion among the British contingent that founder and director Graziano Uliani might choose to call time on his long-running Porretta Soul Festival when he reached 30 editions.  Having brought so many soul legends to town over the past four decades, and faced with an ever-shrinking pool of veteran talent to choose from, one couldn’t blame him if he did.  But Graziano gave more than an inkling that there would be another next year, at a delightful post-Festival concert in nearby Vergato on Monday evening, and  the Festival’s bandleader/musical director Anthony Paule confirmed to me on Tuesday morning that Graziano has re-engaged the services of his Soul Orchestra for next year. I’ve therefore taken it as read that I could be confident in rebooking my hotel for Porretta Soul 2018.

If you’ve ever been to Porretta Terme for the Festival, you will know exactly why I keep going back year after year. Four nights of listening to exceptional music, in some of the most pleasant surroundings imaginable, is never going to be a ‘no-no’ for me.  Many of the stars who graced the early festivals are now no longer with us, but their spirit is always in the air and their musical traditions are upheld by its roster of performers year-in, year-out.  Porretta is always a nice place to visit, and some of us would be quite happy to spend all year round there to be honest...

So, how did Porretta’s 30th Anniversary show stack up against the previous 29?   Pretty darned well, would be my answer. Maybe a few too many acts, maybe the shows could have started a little earlier to accommodate bigger sets from a few – but these are minor quibbles that do not detract from what is still the single best Soul Festival on the planet.

A huge factor in what makes Porretta Soul great is the strength of the house band. For several years now Bay Area guitar star Anthony Paule’s Soul Orchestra has been the glue that has held it all together, firstly as a featured act in its own right featuring the great vocals of Frank Bey and, in addition, more recently as the accompanists to everyone – a task they perform with aplomb and incredible expertise, considering how much learning of extra repertoire is involved.  Every single musician under Paule’s leadership is of the highest quality, as is their leader himself, with their drummer Derek ‘D-Mar’ Martin being worthy of special mention for his non stop athleticism and his ability to jump over his drum kit at a single bound….

Unfortunately there isn’t room here to mention all those who appeared but everyone rose to the task of playing to the assembled multitude (which seems to become more of a multitude every year!).  For me, the pleasure of hearing Goldwax favourite Wee Willie Walker singing his crossover classic ‘I Don’t Want To Take A Chance’ (which he dedicated to Ace) was the one single moment that will live with me forever,  but Willie’s sets over the whole weekend were superbly executed. As were those of a slightly bigger Willie – the equally legendary Willie Hightower, whose sublime readings of his Capitol and Fame 45s left everyone wanting more on both of his appearances at the Festival itself, and again at the post-Porretta party night in nearby Vergato on Monday – where he wasn’t scheduled to sing but was having such a great time (as we all were) that he reprised ‘Walk A Mile In My Shoes’ and a particularly fine ‘You Used Me Baby’.

The undisputed ‘Memphis Queen’ Carla Thomas sang ‘B-A-B-Y’, ‘Something Good’ and ‘Little Red Rooster’ (using Sam Cooke’s arrangement) with real exuberance and a sound that wasn’t too far removed from her Stax recordings of more than 50 years ago.  She also joined her sister Vaneese (another long-time Porretta favourite, who also delivered a fine solo set of her own) in singing ‘Walking The Dog’ and ‘The Memphis Train’ as a unique tribute to their dad ‘Rufulone’, the patron saint of Porretta Soul Festival, in celebration of his centenary this year.

A long set (almost two hours) by the official James Brown band – still featuring Fred Wesley and the superb Martha High and still introduced by JB’s legendary ‘cape man’ Danny Ray – never outstayed its welcome, despite its length, although I think Mr. Brown would have been handing out a fine or two for the somewhat more casual attire its members are wearing these days. (Ms. High also played her own solo set on Thursday night, which I wasn’t there in time to see but which I’m told was even better than her tribute to her fellow former JB ladies on Friday).

Past Porretta favourites Vasti Jackson – this year doing a fun-filled Johnnie Taylor tribute set, with several of JT’s biggest hits played in chronological order – Davell Crawford and Falisa Janaye, who delivered her best set of her several Porretta appearances to date, all went down a storm with the assembled multitude.  As did Terrie Odabi, featured vocalist with the Soul Orchestra on their regular gigs, but a completely unknown name to most of those who were seeing her at Porretta for the first (but almost certainly not the last) time, whose fabulous ‘Gentrification Blues’ almost stole the show from all the more experienced performers.  Take a note of the name, check out her CD and you will see why she had the whole of the UK contingent talking throughout the weekend.

Porretta hero Solomon Burke’s son Selassie was in town primarily for the dedication ceremony that renamed the bridge that crosses from the railway station to the town as the Solomon Burke Bridge to go with the long-established Rufus Thomas Park and Otis Redding Street that are also part of Porretta’s geography. But he also took time out to sing a beautiful ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ and two songs more readily associated with his late dad, Joe Tex’s ‘Meet Me In Church’ and a wonderful ‘Don’t Give Up On Me’. I feel that there’s every chance that we’ll see the younger Burke there again soon.

Of the other acts I saw myself, I got a great deal of enjoyment out of former Gregg Allman Band guitarist Scott Sharrard’s bluesily soulful singing and soulfully bluesy playing. He wasn’t to everyone in the UK soul crew’s liking, but I’d happily pay money to see his full show if he comes to town.  It was also nice to see Sue McCracklin stepping out from her main role as one of the members of the Festival’s. and the Soul Orchestra’s, resident backing vocalists Sweet Nectar to sing her late father Jimmy’s ‘Savoy’s Jump’ and ‘The Walk’ with great gusto and to great appreciation.

As I said earlier, it’s impossible to cover everyone who appeared at the festival but special mention should again be made to the Australian all-girl high school band the Sweethearts (formerly ‘Of Swing’), whose fifth trip to Porretta this was and who once again provided some of the best entertainment of the whole weekend. The 23-piece ensemble, who first appeared in Porretta in 2002 with an entirely different line-up – had one of the best shows at the festival; musically tight and with an amazing and constantly changing array of vocalists, all singing and playing with such professionalism that it’s hard to believe not one of them is over the age of eighteen (apart from when drum legend Bernard Purdie sat in with them for a number or two).  They are also to be commended for playing two almost entirely different hour-long sets in the intense midday heat on two consecutive days across the weekend, and are as much a credit to their current Musical Director Michael Fitzgerald as they are to the teacher who started their ball rolling in the 1990s, the late ‘Groovy Grandad’ Ross Lipson.  I’m sure they will be back and that the next line-up will be just as intoxicating as the current one, many of whose members will be moving on to a life beyond high school very soon.  There are so many accomplished musicians in the current line-up, but I would really like to single out young guitarist Ruby Gillan for an extra gold star and a house point for her robust and frequently stellar playing – or as I described it on my own Facebook page, ‘like Steve Cropper on steroids’ (not that I think for one moment that Ruby’s playing is chemically enhanced, of course…)

Graziano works tirelessly at obtaining the services of some truly major talents, and I have no doubt that he will start to organise a similarly stellar bill for next year as soon as he has got his breath back from this one. Here’s to the next 30 editions of Porretta Soul.

Un’ altro Festival fantastico. Alla prossima volta, mio amico!