Friday, July 21, 2017

Porretta Soul Festival day 1

The 30th Porretta Soul Festival started on Thursday and once again this pretty little town in the hills south of Bologna is filled with soul music fans instead of the usual octogenarians taking in the spa waters. It's a chance to catch up with friends from the UK, the Netherlands, the US (Noah Shaffer) and of course Italy. This year for the first time there was an admission charge for the first evening, but there was a good crowd on to see what was a largely undistinguished line up.  Much better will follow.
First up were The Sweethearts, an all girl group from Geelong, Australia, comprising around 20 instrumentalists and vocalists. Their set was mostly standard soul fare with Otis Redding songs such as I Can't Turn You Loose and Mr Pitiful, enlivened by some fine drumming by Bernard 'Pretty' Purdie guesting on Cold Sweat. There was also a good original number called Favour. Sax Gordon also made a contribution, but this was only moderately interesting as a set, although the girls were quite a lot more professional than the last time they were here a few years back. The second act was the Gaudats Junk Band, featuring Italian musicians playing home made instruments with regular MC Rick Hutton on vocals. The less said about them the better (although the audience liked them) and the same could be said for the next act, Spanish band The Lucilles. Lead singer Lucille Hurt, a slim young lady in a geometric patterned mini dress shaking a tambourine, gave her all but it was a pop act, with very little in the way of soul included. Final act was the highlight of the evening. This was singer Martha High with members of James Brown' s band. They got into the Godfather groove, with Cold Sweat, Stay Tonight and a medley of Big Payback, Make It Funky, Open Up The Door, Think and Mama Feel Good. Martha, who was discovered by Bo Diddley when singing with a group in Washington DC, looked and sounded great and finished with the gospel number Got Something To Shout About. There was no 'One More Time' despite Rick Hutton's best efforts, but there will be more from them during the weekend, with an extended James Brown Orchestra.
More posts will follow covering this, the world's greatest soul festival, with photos when I get home.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Porretta number 30

The 30th edition of the Porretta Soul Festival begins next week and once again Graziano Uliani has assembled a high quality line up for this, Europe's, and my opinion, the world's greatest soul festival. It is appropriate that among the stars this year are Carla Thomas and sister Vaneese Thomas, as the festival, which is dedicated to Otis Redding, was built on the early appearances of their dad, Rufus Thomas. The arena where the artists perform is Rufus Thomas Park, there is a street in the town named after Otis, and this year the bridge across the river to the railway station is to be named after another of the soul greats who has played there, Solomon Burke.
Other artists appearing this year include Willie Hightower, who was very impressive when he appeared at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans two years ago. There's also an appearance by members of James Brown's band, including Fred Wesley, Martha High, James's MC and 'cape man'
Danny Ray and bassist Fred Thomas. Other acts include Goldwax artist Wee Willie Walker, Scott Sharrard (Greg Allman's band leader), Memphis singer Barbara Blue (the new queen of Beale Street), the glamorous and ever popular Falisa Janaye (pictured at Porretta in 2013), drummer Bernard 'Pretty' Purdie, Rob Paparozzi of the Blues Brothers Band, Sax Gordon and Toni Lynn Washington. Bluesman Vasti Jackson is making a return visit with a tribute to Johnnie Taylor, as is New Orleans piano player Davell Crawford,  and there's also, a new name to me, Ricky Fante. 
It's 20 years since my first visit to Porretta, a quiet spa town hidden away in the mountains south of Bologna. This was a couple of years later than some of my friends, who had visited the festival and came back full of praise. That year, 1997, the stars were the Bar-Kays, Mable John, Jackie Johnson, James Govan, Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Irma Thomas, J Blackfoot (pictured with me below) and Otis Clay. Since then I've returned nearly every year and seen many other soul greats. In many cases they are no longer with us and this was their only appearance in Europe or, at least, their first since their sixties heyday. The line up has been variable but every year there have been artists who I have desperately wanted to see and the festival has never failed to be highly enjoyable, with top class backing bands (this year's, for the fourth year running is the Anthony Paule band). The audience, made up largely of locals, make up for their lack of soul music knowledge with tremendous enthusiasm.  Regular MC Liverpudlian Ricky Hatton, with his rather dodgy Italian, is another regular star of the show.
For the small group of Brits (and other non Italians) who attend every year, Porretta is a must. And it's not just the festival that appeals. There's the regular walk up the hill that overlooks the town and the late night bevvies in the Califfo Irish bar. There is free music during the day from Italian soul bands, a food and craft market and record stalls as well. It's a great weekend, and I can't wait!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A Closer Walk in New Orleans

Later this year I will be visiting New Orleans for the umpteenth time for the Ponderosa Stomp and the Blues and Barbecue festival. I've lost count of the number of times I've been to this, my favourite city, but it's nearly every year since my first trip there in 1989. Many of the New Orleans music greats have died during this time and venues which were once regular music haunts have disappeared. But despite this, and the changes brought about by Katrina, it remains a wonderful place, a city I know well and always enjoy.
This year I will have a lot more places to search for as a result of an online project called A Closer Walk.  Supported by the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation and the community radio station WWOZ, it has huge amounts of information about places associated with the city's music history, interviews from the Stomp's conference sessions, music by many New Orleans musicians, suggested tour routes around the French Quarter and elsewhere, and what they called 'lagniappe' - bits and pieces about New Orleans such as dances popularised there and musical styles. Contributors include music writers John Broven, Jeff Hannusch and Red Kelly.
The key theme of A Closer Walk (the name of a gospel tune often played by New Orleans jazz musicians), is the wealth of places, past and present, where the various musical styles (jazz, blues and
New Orleans R and B) evolved. These include Congo Square, Storyville (the red light district which operated for 20 years until 1917), the original homes of jazz artists such as Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong and the still surviving Preservation Hall. There is info on many places where R and B stars have performed, including the Dew Drop Inn, The Little Gem Saloon, Iroquois Theater, Valencia Hall, Tipitina's and Ernie K-Doe's Mother In Law Lounge (pictured below). There's information too about Cosimo Matassa's studio and those operated by Sea-Saint and AFO. There's a mention too of the Dooky Chase restaurant. I learned a lot from the site - for example I now know where there is a monument to Gram Parsons and where Earl King and Ernie K-Doe are buried.
The festivals this autumn look excellent as ever. The Stomp has some interesting names, including Evie Sands, Gary US Bonds, Warren Storm and country singer Frankie Miller, although very few New Orleans legends this time. The line up for the Blues and Barbecue Festival, announced today, looks even better, with Bobby Rush and Robert Cray headlining and a strong under card including Walter Washington, Grady Champion and King Edward, who I've seen a couple of times in Jackson. I'm looking forward to taking a closer walk in the city this time.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Catching up on a few more deaths

It's time to catch up on a few deaths that have occurred over the last few weeks - not as many as we've seen previously (although only a summer lull I'm afraid).
The most recent was that of influential Cajun accordionist Belton Richard at the age of 77. He was
one of the leading exponents of  south west Louisiana music and recorded extensively for the Swallow label with his group the Musical Aces. Originally from Rayne, Louisiana, he first recorded in 1959 with Un Autre Soir Ennuyant, a French version of Jimmy Clanton's Another Sleepless Night. Other Swallow recordings included Cajun Waltz, How Does It Feel To Be In My Shoes and Behind Closed Doors.
I really couldn't let the death of Anita Pallenberg, at the age of 75, go unremarked. Known as the muse of the Rolling Stones, she
had relationships with Brian Jones and Keith Richards and starred with Mick Jagger in Performance. But to me she is best remembered as The Great Tyrant in the 1967 movie Barbarella. She looked stunning, sharing the glamour stakes with Jane Fonda, and was bewitching as she called Barbarella her 'pretty pretty'. The only trouble was that it wasn't her voice uttering those seductive lines. It was most likely Fenella Fielding, although Joan Greenwood has also been credited. Either way, Anita was undoubtedly a gorgeous looking woman and it's not hard to see why she was such a favourite of various Stones.  Here is a clip from Barbarella
A belated farewell also to Curtis Womack, second oldest of the Womack brothers and a member of the family group the Valentinos, which also included Bobby, Harry, Cecil and Friendly, who recorded for Sam Cooke's Sar label. After Bobby left to go solo and Harry was murdered in 1974 the Valentinos broke up amid family tensions. Cecil, who went on to form Womack and Womack, married Mary Wells but Curtis had a long affair with Mary, an abusive relationship apparently. Curtis continued to support various artists and I well remember seeing him with Mary Wells at the Town and Country in London in 1989 on a show that also featured Marv Johnson, Kim Weston, Caroline Crawford and Martha and the Vandellas. Those were the days, especially as two days later I went back to watch a show with Willie Mitchell, Lynn White, David Hudson, Ann Peebles and Otis Clay. Those were the days indeed.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

2nd Blackpool International Soul Festival

The Impressions have always been my favourite soul group, so it's sad that they have now played their last ever UK show. But what a show it was. They headlined on day one of the 2nd Blackpool International Soul Festival at the Winter Gardens and were on superlative form. Long time members Fred Cash and Sam Gooden were joined by a new young lead singer Jermaine Purifory (pictured below), who has replaced Reggie Torian, who died last year. He has the looks of a young Sam Cooke or Eddie Kendricks and a voice that fits in perfectly with the traditional smooth harmonies at which the Impressions have always excelled.
Backed by the excellent Snake Davis Band, they ran through many of their back catalogue from the Curtis Mayfield era, including I Can't Satisfy, Woman's Got Soul and Nothing Can Stop Me. Fred took the lead on You've Been Cheating, but mostly it was the new boy who took that role with strong support from Fred and Sam, and fulfilled it to perfection. The inspirational Choice of Colors was included, along with This Is My Country, I Need You, I've Been Trying, Stay Close To Me and You Ought To Be In Heaven. There was no It's Alright, Amen or People Get Ready, but the encore, inevitably, was Move On Up, which brought a tremendous response from the large soul loving audience in the Empress Ballroom. The group members seemed to be enjoying themselves throughout, which makes it all the sadder that this final show should also be Jermaine's first in the UK. With his looks and voice he will surely go on to big things as a solo artist. All three of them spent several minutes after their set shaking hand with anyone they could, their faces beaming with huge smiles. The end of an era, but a great way to go out
As soul shows goes this was among the very best, but it was equalled the following night by Little Anthony, performing a full set for the first time in the UK apparently. Sounding very much as he did when his career began in the fifties, with a light but strong voice and a range which is still very much intact, his set was short but excellent. All his major hits with the Imperials were included, beginning with Tears On My Pillow, from 1958. His set was nicely balanced with up tempo numbers such as Gonna Fix You Good, doowop with Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop, classics such as I'm On The Outside Looking In, dramatic ballads such as It Hurts So Bad and It's Not The Same and the beautiful Going Out Of My Head. He left the stage, just 30 minutes after arriving, but returned to sing the Northern Soul favourite Better Use Your Head. So, only eight numbers in total, but all performed brilliantly and I don't think anyone felt short changed. This was a class act and a real pleasure.
One of the attractions at this year's festival was a chance to hear from Georgia-born George Kerr (pictured below with US music fan Noah Schaffer on his latest UK visit), an arranger and producer who was the man behind many Northern soul favourites by the likes of Linda Jones, the Shirelles. the O'Jays, Edwin Starr and many others. Interviewed by Kev Roberts, he proved to be an interesting interviewee, with detailed recall of his origins in New Jersey, time at Motown in the sixties, work with Jerry Ragavoy, prison recordings with the Escorts, a vocal group comprising long term inmates, and brushes with gangsters such as Maurice Levy and Joe Robinson of All Platinum. He came across as an engaging guy, who did everything wrong from a musical point of view but somehow made records that sounded great. Afterwards he signed copies of a typescript memoir which was also available as an audio book.
This festival looks destined to become a regular feature of the soul calendar and a star studded line up has already been announced for next year, including Patti Austin, Margie Joseph and Ann Sexton. The Winter Gardens is a perfect venue, with six rooms specialising in different types of soul, including crossover, modern and mod, ska and reggae. The attraction for many is the dancing, and there are many fine exponents of the Northern soul style, including a couple of guys in sleeveless T shirts and loon pants, who constantly spun round at excessive speed. Very dizzying. This year's festival sold out several weeks ago, so don't leave it too late to get your tickets for 2018.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

One Love Manchester

I don't have much interest in today's pop music. Most of it is sterile and dull compared with what I grew up with. I found myself watching the One Love Manchester concert tonight partly because I used to live in Manchester and worked at the Co-op HQ across the road from where the suicide bomber blew himself up and therefore felt a connection, But also because it was a chance to see quite a few of today's pop stars live all at once, as it were.
To be honest, I had never heard of Ariana Grande before the terrible incident two weeks ago. Most of the others, such as Miley Cyrus, Marcus Mumford, Pharrell Williams, Little Mix, Usher and Katy Perry I have heard of but know little about, although some of their records are well known. And, of course I am only too familiar with the likes of Coldplay, Robbie Williams and Justin Bieber. All of them did just one or two numbers and were received ecstatically by the crowd. The many video contributions from artists as famous as Stevie Wonder and Sir Paul, and many others who are way off my radar, all of them 'standing with Manchester' added to the excitement for the 50,000 people at Old Trafford cricket ground, who showed that, far from being cowed by the atrocity, it had brought them together like never before. I've always liked Don't Look Back In Anger, and Chris Martin did it well. I was wondering where Manchester's most famous band Oasis were, but fortunately Liam Gallagher turned up, even if the rumoured reunion didn't take place.
Following last night's atrocity in London the concert had an extra edge for many people, including me. I also worked just to the north of London Bridge in Lombard Street for many years and know Borough Market well.
Whether events like this have any impact on the maniacs who cause such destruction is doubtful. But I think it is important that life goes on as normal regardless of these evil individuals. We cannot let them impact on our way of life. So congratulations to Ariana and all the other artists who appeared at very short notice. And to the people of Manchester of course.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

New chapter for Fingerpoppin Soul

For over 20 years Hans Diepstraten and Harry Van Vliet have been presenting a weekly soul music show on Dutch radio called Fingerpoppin Soul. They've notched up over 1200 shows and their guests have included dozens of visiting soul stars, starting with Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook of the Skatalites in 1993 and including Percy Sledge, Rufus Thomas, Sam Dees, Bobby Womack, Allen Toussaint and William Bell among many more. They have done many interviews for In The Basement magazine, run live shows for a couple of years, DJ'd at many locations including in England and Sweden, and are regulars at every soul show in the Netherlands, including the much missed Blues Estafette in Utrecht where I first met them.
Hans and Harry have now began a new chapter with the launch of a splendid new website which has details of every artist they've met or interviewed over the years, a timeline featuring the show's development and their many trips abroad and photos of some of Harry's huge collection of picture sleeve 45s. Here are some of them:
Their Thursday night show is a must for soul fans: this week (May 26), they are welcoming back DJ Moonshine, who brings his own Garrard record player to the studio and plays exclusively R and B, blues and gospel 78s. The title of the show is 'Going To Heaven with DJ Moonshine'. It's a fun show to be on, as I found out in 2014 when they invited me to spin a few records on one of their shows. And they are generous hosts. They presented me with a book of picture sleeve 45s - something Harry does on a regular basis with guests and at gigs. 
It's not long now until the Porretta Soul Festival and Hans and Harry will be attending - their first visit for a few years. It will be great to catch up with them. In the meantime I will be tuning into their weekly show, beginning with their 78s special this week.
Here's my blog entry from when I guested on the show.