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Poretta Soul Festival

My Name is Tony Rounce and I am a Porrettaholic…

…Ace’s man on the spot gives you the lowdown on the 2013 edition of the greatest soul music festival in Europe and probably the world.

It’s hotter than Hades in Europe at the moment, but there’s no doubt that the coolest place on the planet for any true soul fan to have been during the weekend of July 19-21 was the tiny town of Porretta Terme in Northern Italy – down the road from Bologna, and situated in one of the prettiest locations in a country that’s chock full o’ such things. For 26 years now, the tireless enthusiasm of Porretta Soul festival founder and promoter Graziano Uliani has brought some of the greatest legends in soul music to this small hamlet. Not by sitting at the other end of a telephone line or PC and doing business, but by getting on US-bound planes and convincing the artists who he books that they will be heading for an event where they will be loved be every one of the several thousand locals and international visitors who pack Porretta’s Rufus Thomas Park for three consecutive nights and days annually in the name of soul. It is the only music festival that I know of that has its own theme song, and all who attend never tire of hearing Memphis-born singer and musician Charlie Wood’s terrific “Rufus Is Back In Town” – which you really need to hear right this very minute, if you haven’t:

The list of people who Graziano and his team of like-minded colleagues have brought to town down the years is as impressive as it is extensive. The likes of James Carr, Percy Sledge, Oscar Toney Jr, Carla Thomas and – on many, many occasions - her father Rufus, Clarence Carter, Millie Jackson, Irma Thomas, Solomon Burke, Swamp Dogg, Syl Johnson, Billy Preston, the Neville Brothers, Eddie Hinton, J Blackfoot, Spencer and Percy Wiggins and the Rev. Joe Simon are just a few of the legends who have come to this lovely and loveable little town to spread their messages of soul to an always-enraptured audience. Several of the artists have come time and again, and I get the impression that many would pay their own fare to come and perform there if Graziano suddenly ran out of funds. Happily most Porretta nights are a complete sell out, so there doesn’t appear to be much chance of that happening anytime soon...

The 26th Porretta Soul has just concluded. The bill of fare was as varied and enjoyable as it ever is, with most of the headliners making their first appearance at Rufus Thomas Park and two Porretta legends. Memphis’ Miss Toni Green and Miami’s David Hudson, each making their umpteenth. Among those headliners were Pastor Mitty Collier, on her first trip to Europe in almost 50 years, TK and Malaco legend Latimore, and the youngest 80 year-old blues blaster in the business, the great Bobby Rush.

There have been many great Porretta “house bands” down the years but the latest one, led by Memphis keyboard maestro Paul Brown, might well be the best of all. Paul might look like a cross between Tiny Tim and a whirling dervish, but he’s the kind of guy that bleeds soul and is so committed to what he does that he even wears authentic 70s suits on stage that once belonged to Poppa Willie Mitchell. He sure knows a good musician when he hears one, and that’s why his Heart And Soul Band has class and quality in every department – not to mention two superb and very sweet backing vocalists in the misses Jackie Wilson and Lo Carter. There isn’t enough time in the world to do full justice to the qualities of every member of H&S, but it would be wrong not to spotlight the unit’s brilliant drummer Sofia Goodman, whose drive and precision across 5-6 hours behind her kit each night put her in a class with any of the world’s great soul drummers, from Al Jackson Jr, Howard Grimes and Roger Hawkins to Benny Benjamin, James Gadson and beyond.

Before I lay a few highlights of the weekend on you, it would also be wrong not to mention the strength of this most recent weekend’s “undercard” of artists. Two blistering performances by Japanese funk band Osaka Monaurail, with a precision-drilled show that would make any James Brown band of the 60s and 70s look sloppy, and a fabulous Sunday set by Brazilian brothers Igor and Yuri Prado, with astonishing Austrian B3 maestro Raphael Wressing and ever-genial Bostonian Sax Gordon all but stole the weekend from under the noses of some of the more established names, while a tight-and-torrid one-off set from the great Charles ‘Wig’ Walker and his aptly named band the Dynamites provided the perfect primi piatti for Sunday night’s grand finale.

OK, so you want highlights? I got your highlights right here. Nothing - and I do mean niente - could beat David Hudson, coming out into the audience during his exceptional version of Bobby Womack’s “That’s The Way I Feel About ‘Cha” to propose – for real, and on bended knee – to his charming girlfriend (and, happily, now his fiancée) Juanita, except possibly his performance of the same song during the grand finale, wherein David was so overcome by the total love of both the assembled multitude and of his bride to be, who he slow danced with on stage, that he was unable to continue singing and left the stage in floods of tears of happiness. Bobby Rush accompanied by two delightful young dancers that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an R. Crumb cartoon laid down some unimpeachable Chicago blues including a riveting version of Muddy Waters’ ‘She’s Nineteen Years Old’ and a medley of ‘Polk Salad Annie’, P J Proby’s ‘Niki Hoeky’ and Bobby’s own ‘Chicken Heads’ that had no business working, and yet somehow did. Toni Green sang the hell out of ‘I Who Have Nothing’, perhaps not realising that it was originally an Italian song before Ben E King got hold of it. Latimore played the best blues guitar you ever heard coming out of a Yamaha keyboard while laying down a version of ‘Let’s Straighten It Out’ with help from Rush and Hudson that was positively hypnotic. Pastor Mitty Collier sang for her Lord and master and brought the house down with some fiery testifying before cooling the pace with “I Had A Talk With” – no longer any old “My Man”, but very definitely her man, “Big G” himself. Even the weekend’s long standing “incomparable compere” Rick Hutton – as much of a Porretta legend to many of us who attend as the festival itself is, and so much so that many people walk around sporting a t-shirt boasting a phonetic spelling of his catchphrase “one more time” in his honour – got in on the act with a storming version of “Turn On Your Lovelight” in tribute to Bobby Bland. The late Mr. Bland might not have known what to make of Rick’s frankly unique dress sense and/or dance style, but he surely would have appreciated the passion in his performance.

On the Sunday night, all the stars of the weekend come back to reprise a portion of their show, followed by a grand and usually highly shambolic treatment of a soul classic, sung ensemble. This year Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” emerged loosely through the chaos, with Pastor Collier having the final and perhaps definitive say with “Spotlight on God, he’s the King of them all, y’all’...

Graziano Uliani would never claim to be God, but he should be revered forever for the work he has done to bring so much great music to so many grateful people for so many years. I don’t know if they give out knighthoods in Italia but few people deserve to be honoured as much as Graziano does. Even before Porretta Soul 26 was over he was already talking to me and, I suspect, others, about his early plans for Porretta Soul 27. Here’s hoping that Graziano has many more Porretta Soul’s in him - not just next year, but long into the future…


..Alla prossima volta, Signor Uliani!