Narni is a charming town in the Umbria region of Italy: in addition to some wonderful scenic views, great Italian gelato (ice cream) and friendly people, it is the site for the annual “Black Festival,” celebrating its 11th year in August with a line-up that included Dionne Warwick and Solomon Burke. Logistical concerns meant that I didn’t make the first few nights but arrived on Friday August 28th in time for ‘The King Of Rock’n’Soul,’ a man who has outlived most of his fellow soul brothers, contemporaries including Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.
Preceding Solomon was Jamaican-born, London-raised, Tel Aviv resident Roy Young who offered an energetic, dynamic performance, dipping into catalogues of Pickett (“Mustang Sally”) and Redding (“Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa”), mixing it up with songs from his own albums, notably a rendition of R.E.M’s “Everybody Hurts” and a brilliant “Don’t Call It Love.” A soul shouter who faithfully recreates the raw R&B sound of the ‘60s in his own way, Young clearly loves what he does: his obvious passion for music shines through and his show was engaging and exciting.
While Solomon Burke deals with some physical limitations and is thus seated on a throne throughout his performance, he knows how to keep his audience entertained. Obvious highpoints of his show are classics such as “If You Need Me,” “Cry To Me,” “Down In The Valley” and “Eveybody Needs Somebody,” tunes that establish him as a soul man of the first order back in the ‘60s. His more recent material isn’t quite as compelling: certainly “Don’t Give Up On Me” is a highlight but a version of Anne Murray’s “You Needed Me” – from Solomon’s latest CD “Nashville” – was syrupy unlike “That’s How I Got To Memphis” (from the same album) which was another memorable. One of his daughters offered a rousing “I Will Survive” and with a show that spanned a good ninety-minutes, Burke left the audience in good spirits.
Saturday night (August 29) got off to good start with two female vocalists – Melvia Young (aka Chick Rogers) who chose to pay tribute to Aretha Franklin with versions of “Don’t Play That Song” and “Ain’t No Way” (a particular highlight). Toni Green is known to Narni festival-goers for previous appearances at the event and offered a range of cover tunes including Gladys Knight’s “Neither One Of Us,” Aretha’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” and a regrettably abbreviated “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” regrettable in its brevity since it was evident that Memphis native Green sang the Ann Peebles tune with conviction and authenticity.
Star time and there was a connection between the headliners for Friday and Saturday: just out of her teens, a young Dionne Warwick was one of the session singers providing backups for Solomon Burke at Atlantic Records in the early ‘60s. Accompanied by her regular touring band, Dionne was in splendid form . Battling sound problems, the legendary performer seemed relaxed and comfortable as she took the spellbound Italian audience on a trip down memory lane via her all-time classic hits “Walk On By,” an emotive “Anyone Who Had A Heart” and a breezy “You’ll Never Get To Heaven.” An obvious highlight: “Alfie,” delivered with just the right amount of poignancy, Warwick investing the soulful feeling that has always been innately part of her musical gift. It was audience participation time with “Heartbreaker” but incredibly, this Italian audience chose to also sing along with the ballad “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” a testament to the enduring nature of Warwick’s work and its global impact. Indeed, seeing both Dionne Warwick and Solomon Burke in front of captivated Italian audiences was a reminder of the impact that the art form we so appropriately term ‘soul music’ has had for decades the worldwide. Watching as the crowd stood to its feet to join Warwick for ”What The World Needs Now Is Love” and “That’s What Friends Are For,” it is obvious why she has spent much of the last decade or more touring all four corners of the globe. The love, respect and admiration she engenders among everyday music lovers the world over is a sight to behold – and I’m glad I made the trip to see it for myself!
Along with the Porretta Soul Festival (whose organizer Graziano Uliani was in attendance), Germany’s Baltic Soul Weekender and Britain’s Luxury Soul Weekender, the Narni Black Festival is another ‘must’ on the annual diaries of soul music patrons everywhere.
With special thanks to Pierluigi Avorio, Giovanni and Daniele (of “Soul Corner” at Caffe Maurizio in Ancona) and Narni artistic director Silvano Menichelli; and Kenny Carpenter in Rome.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.