More than 30 years ago, an Italian music fan with few contacts in the world of black American music decided he wanted to bring his beloved southern soul music to the area of Northern Italy where he lived by promoting a show headlined by one of his favourites, Solomon Burke. From that modest beginning in 1987 has emerged the world’s most prestigious soul music event. For the 31st time, the Porretta Soul Festival has again recently brought artists and music lovers from all over the world to the small, sleepy spa town in Northern Italy where it is held annually.
Over the past 30+ years, Festival Director Graziano Uliani has brought an incredible amount of southern soul veterans and, indeed, newcomers to the stage of the amphitheatre that is Rufus Thomas Park to make the dreams of soul fans from all over come true. And in spite of the fact that the Festival has also played host to the likes of Chaka Khan, Les McCann, Billy Preston, the Neville Brothers and Eumir Deodato, it’s still southern soul that draws people from as far afield as New Zealand, Boston (Massachusetts) and Finland year in, year out.
The 2018 edition of Porretta Soul was no less invigorating or satisfying than any of its predecessors. Regrettably many of those who have graced the stage in past years are no longer with us, and the dwindling pool of veteran artists who can still do the business IS making it harder for Graziano to source acts from the Golden Age of 60s Soul who have not yet paid a visit to Rufus Thomas Park. Full credit to him, then, for always coming up with a bill that manages to embrace both the best of the old and the best of the new, with a well-balanced mix of the known, the semi-known and the almost totally unknown with which to entertain the masses.
Although the core of Porretta Soul is still the three-night extravaganza that runs from Friday to Sunday inclusive, it has expanded in recent years. There’s now a full Thursday night show in Rufus Thomas Park, mostly showcasing local bands, that is somewhat less hardcore than the main event. (Some local bands can also be seen over the weekend playing on a stage set up in the adjacent street, which also features multiple stalls selling locally sourced street food and artisan ales throughout the festival). As always, the Sunday night show is a concise affair, with most of the weekend’s performers coming back to sing a couple of numbers – and often numbers that are exclusive to the Sunday show – rather than a full set. (Concise, but still great value for money – this year the whole thing lasted three minutes short of four hours!) After the official end of Porretta Soul, the Festival’s resident house band, Anthony Paule’s Soul Orchestra, and a smaller selection of the weekend’s artists take to the road for a couple of scaled down but still highly enjoyable shows in the neighbouring towns of Vergato and Marzabotto, before shifting location to Las Canarias for one final shindig on the sands at Maspalomas.
The small-scale tribute to Otis Redding that Porretta Soul once was has indeed grown to become THE major event of its kind on the soul calendar. Thankfully Graziano still has the enthusiasm and energy to look ahead and forward plan for its 32nd edition in 2019. Of course, these days the event is also streamed live on the internet, which brings the Festival to a whole other audience of blues and soul lovers around the world. But trust me when I say that there’s no substitute for being there in person.
This year’s line-up offered a splendid blend of always welcome Porretta returnees such as two-time festival veteran and Soul Brothers Six front man John Ellison, three-time veteran and maverick soul icon Swamp Dogg, Paule’s Soul Orchestra’s regular featured vocalists Terri Odabi and Goldwax legend Wee Willie Walker, the always dependable Wiggins brothers Percy and a sadly very frail Spencer who nevertheless sang his heart out on his featured numbers (including, on Sunday night, a heartbreaking rendition of ‘Old Friend’ that will forever remain etched in the minds of all who were there) and who joined his brother and Wee Willie in a rousing rendition of the Ovations’ ‘I Need A Lot Of Loving’ as a tribute to the Memphis label that launched the careers of two of them. The brothers and Walker also gave a short but incredibly moving gospel concert on Sunday morning in the local church, a feature of the festival that had disappeared for a couple of years but that was something everyone was glad to have back on the agenda.
For many, your reporter included, the absolute highlight of the whole weekend was the stellar Saturday night appearance of Don Bryant and the Bo-Keys, whose full 90-minute show was every bit as good as the one that many UK soul fans witnessed in London at Ronnie Scott’s not so long ago. But the effervescent Mr. Bryant was by no means the only star performer, nor was he the only highlight of the weekend. The now-veteran former Ronn/Malaco artist Ernie Johnson pulled out all the stops for a set that had those of us who saw his memorable appearance at the now defunct Blues Estafette in Utrecht more than 15 years ago revisiting our raving. Memphis’ Booker Brown was largely an unknown quantity to most who were there, despite having released at least four albums in the last 20 years, but years of working the chitlin’ circuit had honed a fine performer who won a lot of friends and fans with his well-chosen repertoire. His fellow Memphian Lacee (Reed) showed that her busy US schedule throughout the south was the result of a big voice and a big personality that by the end of the weekend had won over everyone in attendance, as did the relatively unknown (to me, anyway) Missy Christiansen whose short sets (including a tough version of O V Wright’s ‘Ace Of Spade’) became more confident as the weekend progressed.
The bluesier end of things was covered well by San Jose’s Chris Cain, who opened the ‘festival proper’ on Friday with a really enjoyable set that showed the welcome influence of the Kings, and by New Yorker Mitch Woods, who brought four decades of joyful boogie piano pounding to Porretta throughout the festival and whose lively versions of the likes of ‘Jambalaya’ and ‘House Of Blue Lights’ got the party started in the most upbeat matter.
And as well as all that, there was a world premiere screening on Sunday afternoon for ‘A Soul Journey’, director Marco Della Fonte’s beautifully constructed 90-minute documentary on the history of Festival featuring great footage from past years and a fine selection of talking heads from Graziano to the Wigginses to the late Otis Clay, to whom the film is dedicated. Della Fonte has a few minor tweaks to make to the film before it gets further showings, of which I personally hope there will be many.
There’s so much good stuff to say about Porretta Soul Festival and never enough room to say it all. I trust that nobody who isn’t mentioned here will take no offence at their omission. Once again, though, a final word of praise must be heaped on the Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra and its affable titular leader, whose stinging and regularly stunning guitar work is the glue that holds the whole Porretta sound together. The amount of work that Paule and his musicians put into providing the backup for virtually every singer on the weekend bill is as incredible as it is satisfying to listen to. Porretta has many fine house bands over the years but as Graziano said to me at last years show in Vergato, ‘THIS is THE Porretta band!’ – and he wasn’t wrong.
Although the line up for Porretta 2019 will not start to take shape for some months, many will be returning no matter who Graziano signs up and indeed some (your reporter included) have already made their hotel bookings for the third weekend in July next year. Once you’ve visited this charming, accommodating small town close to the Tuscany border, and had the full Porretta Soul experience, it’s inconceivable that you won’t want to visit again. And again.
Photo credit: Dave Thomas