thu 25/07/2024

theartsdesk at the Porretta Soul Music Festival | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the Porretta Soul Music Festival

theartsdesk at the Porretta Soul Music Festival

Obsessives migrate to Northern Italy every year to celebrate sweet soul music

David Hudson performs 'what can only be described as an absolute vocal masterclass' at Porretta 2012Luciano Morotti

Way up in the mountains of northern Italy sits a small spa town called Porretta Terme. For many visitors it is the resort’s healing waters that brings them here. Yet for others it is the healing music – once a year the Porretta Soul Music Festival is held across the second to last weekend in July. Here veterans of American soul music take the stage, often performing their only European show of the year (and, sometimes, many years).

I’d heard rumours of Porretta for several years – it has existed since 1988 – and having missed elusive genius Swamp Dogg at last year’s festival meant I went ahead and booked flights and accommodation for Italy.

Porretta, north of Bologna and tucked as it is in leafy woods with a river running through the town, is the perfect idyll for the weary urban dweller. Indeed, as many of the musicians performing come from Memphis, Mississippi and Chicago, places that swelter across summer, I’m imagining they feel blessed to have this break.

The festival takes place in an outdoor amphitheatre that packs in no more than 2,000 soul fans. Porretta Terme is so associated with Southern soul music the town now boasts an Otis Redding St and Rufus Thomas Park (pictured right) – festival founder and artistic director Graziano Uliani being a life-long aficionado of the Memphis groove – and the locals appear to love their festival: high-school brass bands blast out covers of "In the Midnight Hour", while almost every building boasts a poster of a particular festival year. Uliani certainly possesses the magic touch, having brought wayward white soul legend Eddie Hinton over for what would turn out to be his sole European concert, while the likes of William Bell, Percy Wiggins, Sugar Pie DeSanto and Chick Rodgers all performed here in 2011 (without setting foot in the UK).

How much longer Porretta can keep celebrating the old school is debatable: in the last year the world has lost Howard Tate, Etta James, Duck Dunn, Skip Pitts and Andrew Love, two singers and three musicians who helped define what we know as soul music. Needing to look towards younger performers probably explains Friday night’s opening acts: first up were Me & Mrs Winehouse, a Turin-based tribute band who very effectively mimic Amy (Friday was the anniversary of her death and she is huge in Italy), while Robin McKelle & the Flytones (pictured below) found a young white New York band performing standards and originals in a manner not dissimilar to what the Dap Tone label has popularised with the likes of Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley. Of the two acts I found Mrs Winehouse more effective as vocalist Silvia Zambruno channels Amy’s bluesy voice effectively while McKelle’s attempts at two Etta James standards revealed that, while an energetic performer, she is a pedestrian vocalist.

That night’s headliners were The Bo-Keys, the Memphis-based instrumental outfit who are lead by noted bassist/producer Scott Bomar and feature several veteran players in their ranks: guitarist Skip Pitts was a member until his passing earlier this year, trumpeter Ben Cauley is the sole survivor of Otis Redding’s last flight while drummer Howard “Bulldog” Grimes was producer Willie Mitchell’s primary sticksman (backing the likes of Ann Peebles, Al Green and OV Wright). Tonight The Bo-Keys play superbly, both as an instrumental band and as backing for vocalists John Gary Williams – once of Stax Records vocal group The Mad Lads – and David Hudson, a singer I have never heard of before who performs what can only be described as an absolute vocal masterclass.

Saturday night found things hotting up with The Bo-Keys backing both Syl Johnson (pictured right) and Otis Clay. Clay is another Hi Records veteran whose biggest hit remains the lovely "Trying to Live My Life Without You". He sings with the grave intensity that characterises deep soul and is quite magnificent. Johnson, best known for his late-Sixties anthem "Is It Because I’m Black", is a wayward (if seminal) figure in American music: starting out as a teenage blues player he went on to make magnificent soul and funk before disappearing once disco took control. Rap revived Sly’s fortunes with dozens of acts sampling his scratchy grooves, and on stage in a lipstick-red suit the pencil-thin musician sings in a voice not unlike that of Bob Dylan (ie, raw and often flat but affecting for all that). He boasts of how many major artists have sampled 1967’s "Different Strokes" (“Michael Jackson, Tupac, Wu-Tang Clan used if for 'Game on a Nigga'”) and is at his best when playing "Is It Because I’m Black"’s taut, blues funk. The Bar-Keys close the night and the veteran Stax records band – they backed the likes of Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes at their peak – are now something of a soul tribute band, covering all kinds of hits à la The Blues Brothers. Fortunately they do still perform "Soul Finger" and "Son of Shaft", but a lot of their set only aims at crowd-pleasing. Which they do.

Sunday starts with Australian 24-piece, all-female schoolgirl band The Sweethearts. Actually, there is one bloke on stage playing saxophone and he’s old enough to remember the soul classics they sing when they first came out – this being Ross Lipson, the teacher who has brought forth several versions of The Sweethearts over the last decade as he passes his passion for soul onto his pupils. As musicians, The Sweethearts remain in the school band league but their energy, enthusiasm and some interesting, spacey arrangements made for a highly entertaining performance. Joss Stone, watch out!

After that The Bo-Keys and Bar-Keys reprised their sets with Otis Clay performing a truly magnificent new number – he has an album set to drop and if this tune is anything to judge by it should be magnificent – before an all-star encore with David Hudson leading the massed ranks through Otis Redding’s "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa".

Porretta Soul Music Festival is one for obsessives. But if you like sweet soul music in a beautiful location with great food and friendly locals then, well, northern Italy is where you want to be every July.

Watch Otis Clay at the Porretta Festival 1997

If you like sweet soul music in a beautiful location with great food and friendly locals then northern Italy is where you want to be every July

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