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Poretta Soul Festival 2014

29th July 2014

And so it came to pass that the Porretta Soul Festival turned 27 years old this July. This wonderful three-day event, held in the small and friendly spa town of Porretta Terme – about an hour south of Bologna on the train – grew from a desire by music mogul and diehard soul fan Graziano Uliani to pay tribute to his own hero, Otis Redding, by bringing some of the finest artists from he American South to Europe and presenting them in the charming surroundings of Porretta. In the years that have gone by since Porretta 1, Graziano has made his dreams – and those of southern soul lovers everywhere – come true time and time again.

Sadly, many of the vintage acts who came to entertain us in past years are no longer with us to make repeat visits, but Graziano still comes up with an annual bill of fare that’s guaranteed to spike the Italian tourist trade in mid-July. Although many festival attendees are locally based, there’s always a strong international contingent in town during Porretta Soul, with visitors this year coming from as far away as New Zealand to soak up the music and vibes.

Graziano always pulls out the stops to ensure that visiting singers have top-notch musical accompaniment, no matter what. This year he went above and beyond the call of duty by funding the participation of a ten-piece, truly all-star band of musicians and backing singers associated with the Muscle Shoals area plus the current four-man line-up of the Muscle Shoals Horns. Given that the ten pieces included in their number the likes of David, Hood, Mickey Buckins and Jimmy Johnson, the music was never going to be anything less than fantastic.

This year’s veteran headliner was Denise LaSalle, making what I believe was her first trip to Europe since the Malaco tour swung throughLondonseveral decades ago. Denise is now in her mid 70s, but she can still bring a crowd to its feet as she demonstrated on Friday with a set full of sassy and often extremely saucy soul that spanned nearly 30 years of recordings including ‘Trapped By A Thing Called Love’, ‘Man Sized Job’ and, somewhat inevitably, ‘My Toot Toot’.

Blue-eyed soul man and former Wet Willie lead singer Jimmy Hall was another of the weekend’s highlights, both during his own set on Friday and the Muscle Shoals Tribute that formed the bulk of Sunday evening. Jimmy drew inevitable comparisons with his pal Delbert McClinton, as he paid tribute to his late friend (and Porretta favourite) Eddie Hinton and more recent departure Bobby Womack, in a great version of a classic Hinton composition that Bobby also recorded, “A Little Bit Salty”. On the Sunday night, Jimmy sang two Shoals-recorded classics that are associated with Wilson Pickett. I’ve heard many versions of ‘Mustang Sally’ and ‘Land Of 1000 Dances’ performed in Porretta down the years but none with as much drive as these. And none that featured two guys who actually played on Pickett’s originals, either (Take a bow, Messrs. Hood and Johnson). They were among the pick moments of the Sunday tribute show, which was completely stolen by Mickey Buckins’ memorable rendition of ‘The Dark End Of The Street’. Mickey mightn’t have quite got all the words right, but he got all the soul spot on. James Carr (who was himself in Porretta 22 years ago) would have been proud of Mickey, who had every right to be proud of himself, too.

Not to decry the contributions of other featured artists including Theo Huff (who gave us a dynamite rendition of Johnnie Taylor’s Malaco classic ‘Last Two Dollars’), Chick Rodgers, Chilly Bill Rankin, Ex-Brothers Unlimited front man Jerry Jones and perennial Porretta favourite Toni Green – all of whom came in from Memphis to entertain – or veteran bluesman Guitar Shorty, but the Festival’s biggest surprise – and for many, its joint highlight along with the Muscle Shoals All Star Band – were Frank Bey and the Anthony Paule Band. Yes, I can hear most of you saying ‘who’? Most of us in attendance were saying ‘who’ as well. At least, we were before the first of their two shows started. By the end of their set we were rushing to the merchandise stall to purchase their two CDs before they sold out.

Bey had been in a funk band in the 70s in his native Philly, and before that he was apparently a member of Otis Redding’s touring show, but he hadn’t recorded in years until he teamed up with Paule – the epitome of tastefulness when it comes to guitar pickin’ – and his fine sextet. For an hour each night they held us in their thrall with a set that blended well-chosen revivals of soul gems and original material that sounded like well-chosen revivals of soul gems. Bey, Paule and co. stopped the show each night with their 6/8 southern soul take on ‘Imagine’ – a song you might feel you would never want to hear again. But then, you probably haven’t heard the Bey-Paule version. These guys need (and would love) to come to theUKand tear it up here as they tore it up in Porretta Terme. Somebody please take note and book ‘em.

There’s so much more to Porretta Soul than can be put into a few paragraphs, and I’ve probably missed out as much about this weekend’s entertainment as I’ve been able to fit in. Suffice to say it remains the premier fixture for every Southern Soul fan’s calendar. As always with Porretta, by the time you’ve seen all the music, squeezed in a few lengthy lunches and downed a few gallons of Prosecco, three great days have come and gone for another year. The good news for Porrettaholics is that there WILL be another year, as I hear that Graziano is already in negotiation to try to bring the Muscle Shoals guys back as the band for Porretta 28.

If I were you I’d reserve a hotel room as soon as the dates are announced.

Tony Rounce

(photo courtesy Simone Wilson)

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