For more than twenty years now, Porretta Terme, a small Italian city not far from Bologna, has been playing host to the biggest European soul event : the Sweet Soul Music Festival. Held in an open air theatre in the aptly named Rufus Thomas Park, the festival, whose booking is mostly focused on the classic Stax-Atlantic sound, has welcomed many of the genre biggest stars, such as Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes and the Neville Brothers over the years, but also some “cult” heroes such as James Carr, Sir Mack Rice, Dan Penn and even, on his only European appearance, the legendary Eddie Hinton !
This year program was particularly attractive again, with many unusual artists, some of them making their European debut. I missed the opening night, which was headlined by an Italian band which, I was told, was more rock and roll than soul. I didn’t spend much time at the free daytime stage, as most of the local bands that perform there seem to have chosen their repertoire from the same Blues Brothers compilation CD.
Friday night opened with the group of saxophonist James Thompson, a regular of Italian pop star Zucchero’s band : while his tributes to King Curtis and Junior Walker were pleasant, his own material was absolutely dreadful. It was a relief when the Soul Spinners, an Italian band, took the stage : after a couple of fine numbers on their own, they welcomed singer Vaneese Thomas, daughter of Rufus, and her two American backing vocalists. She’s a very good singer, with a charismatic stage presence and I enjoyed her set a lot, although she mostly performed covers of well-known tunes such as What’s going on and Respect yourself. The highlight of her set was a very intense reading of sister Carla’s A woman’s love.
This year’s “all star” band then took the stage. Lead by former Howard Tate music director Austin DeLone for the third year in a row, the group was once again very good and sympathetic to the music, including many high profile musicians such as former Charles Brown guitarist Danny Caron. The first singer to join them was festival favourite Bobby Johnson, a Jamaican born singer (some might remember his 1967 Ember single) who lives in Switzerland and is slowly but surely becoming a fixture on the European soul circuit. Sticking to the tried and true as far as repertoire was concerned, he gave a high octane performance which delighted the crowd, and got the rare distinction of being attacked during his performance by a half-dressed but completely high girl. I’ll draw a discreet veil over young US singer Jesse Dee, who seemed as embarrassed as the audience by his performance.
Oscar Toney Jr does not perform often these days, and it showed in his stage behaviour, which was a little weird. He opened with two pedestrian Otis Redding covers but hit the right spot as soon as her started to perform ballads, with magnificent readings of The dark end of the street and For the good times. It was well past midnight when Percy Wiggins took the stage. While his performance, which included a fine version of his classic Book of love and a Sam Cooke medley, was pretty good, he doesn’t have much stage presence and it was a little hard to concentrate on his set after more than four hours of music !
Saturday night started with a short set by the “all star” band before Spencer Wiggins took the stage. Although he had not performed secular music in a while, he sang some of his classic Goldwax material, including a tremendous version of Uptight good woman and an unexpected cover of Don’t put no headstone on my grave, which could have been another deep soul classic, had Wiggins followed author Charlie Rich’s suggestion to record it back in the sixties ! He also included a couple of gospel songs from his most recent recordings.
He was followed on the stage by another festival favourite, Memphis singer Toni Green, who was paying the festival a return visit after a successful 2007 appearance. While she is obviously a fine singer, I must admit that I was not much impressed with her over-the-top show : she did the most Las-Vegasey version of A change is gonna come I have ever heard, and doubled the demagogy by including a few bars of Michael Jackson’s Man in the mirror ! The Porretta crows love her anyway.
The band then took a break and we were introduced to Irene Fornaciari, whose main claim to fame is being the daughter of the aforementioned Zucchero. She mercifully did only three songs, and I can’t decide what was the worse : that the first two had nothing to do with soul or that the third was her attempt at a medley of soul classics !
The band came back to welcome J Blackfoot. I was a little disappointed with his choice of songs, as he mostly stuck to covers, but he was in very fine voice and “out-wicked” Wilson Pickett himself on I’m in love. With the additional help of his regular guitarist Thomas Bingham, he did snippets from some of his songs, but only performed the expected Taxi as a whole. The Soul Children’s Hearsay was the highlight of his show.
After a long intermission, the Solomon Burke Orchestra took the stage with the man himself seated in the middle of the stage. Having seen him several times in the past few years, I was a little disappointed by his performance : although he did include a couple of lesser-known songs, he seemed to be going through the motions more than enjoy the moment, and I can’t understand his choice of duetting with Irene Fornaciari instead of inviting one of his old colleagues to share the stage with him. Of course, Solomon Burke on an average night is still much better than many others on their better days, so this was a fine closer for a nice long (more than six hours!) evening.
Sunday was the last day of the festival and it started by a visit to the local church for the mass, which included gospel performances by some of the artists of the festival, including Percy and Spencer Wiggins and Vaneese Thomas, with an a cappela duet between Spencer Wiggins and Oscar Toney being the highlight.
Sunday evening was opened by the CIV Soul Band, a French college band which performed an entertaining set of familiar covers, mostly from the Stax songbook, rearranged by band director Jean-François Jacomino. The band had been well received in 2007 with its Otis Redding tribute, and with an almost completely different line-up (most of the musicians are under 20, and the very fine guitar player was only 14 !) got another tremendous –and well deserved- reception from the Italian audience. Being used to hear French singers often pathetic attempts at soul, I was impressed by the quality of all the lead singers of the band.
Traditionally in Porretta, the Sunday closer is a “best of” with most of the singers coming back for shorter sets. This year, all the singers from the two previous days apart from James Thomson and Solomon Burke performed two or three songs, very often songs that they had already performed on their earlier sets. This was nevertheless a very pleasant evening, closed by a J Blackfoot who called back all the artists on stage for a confuse but entertaining 634-5789. Despite this official closer, the audience still wanted one more, and the ever dependable Bobby Johnson obliged with a dynamic Them changes that left the audience speechless… and probably already looking forward to the next edition of this very unique festival !