Monday, July 22, 2019

Porretta Soul Festival - Rufus Thomas Park, Porretta Terme, 18 July 2019

It’s one in the morning in Rufus Thomas Park, the open air amphitheatre in Porretta Terme that’s home to the Porretta Soul Festival, and Don Bryant is just about done for the night. The 77 year old, possibly best known for co-writing hits like ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ for his wife Ann Peebles, is winding up the opening night of the festival with an energetic set of classic soul, backed by Memphis stalwarts the Bo-Keys.  And the crowd are lapping it up.
On one level, Don Bryant is just a little ol’ fella whose knees and hips are maybe a bit
Natty dressers Don Bryant and Hubby Turner
rickety nowadays.  But put him onstage with a band who know their soul stuff, and he has an immediate impact, strutting his stuff in a floral jacket and natty white hat, and working the crowd as he belts out ‘Nickel And A Nail’ with an authentic soul voice. Right out of the gate there’s dancing going on either side of the stage, and it doesn’t let up when Bryant and co follow up with the driving funkiness of the upbeat ‘Set My Soul On Fire’.
Even these crackers are eclipsed by ‘I Got To Know’ though, first released on his 2017 album Don’t Give Up On Love but a classic slice of Sixties soul, with a swaggering guitar solo from Joe Restivo, and great harmonies from some of the Bo-Keys.  Then on ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Alright’, written by Bryant’s mentor Willie Mitchell, ‘Hubby’ Turner rips out a blinding organ solo that seems to send drummer Pee Wee Jackson – who often seems to have a curiously alarmed expression - into a happy place.  The fact that Turner was part of the legendary Hi Records rhythm section in Memphis, recording with the likes of Al Green and Ann Peebles, is a key indicator of the pedigree of this band – and at 73 years old he cuts an impressive figure, dapper in his suit and fedora as he stands at his keyboards.
They go on to knock out ’99 Pounds’, the upbeat hit Bryant wrote for Peebles, while Bryant also finds time to produce a Howlin’ Wolf impersonation that’s improbably good given his stature, while Turner gets busy on organ again, and Jackson has some fun rattling around his kit.  And at the end of the set Bryant receives a portrait of himself in recognition of his work, indicative of the love felt for old soul legends in these parts.
Bryant’s set is preceded by the Bo-Keys (minus Turner on Keys) backing Scott Sharrard,
Scott Sharrard revs up the R'n'B with Pee Wee Jackson
one-time lead guitarist and musical director for Greg Allman, with whom Bo-Keys trumpeter Mark Franklin and sax man Kirk Smothers also played.  They duly open up with a Sharrard song recorded by Greg Allman, ‘Love Like Kerosene’, a danceable chunk of Memphis-style R’n’B on which Sharrard whips out a cracking solo that seems to race with the vibrant bass of Scott Bomar and Jackson’s drums, while Franklin and Smothers beef up the sound with their horns.
Sharrard delivers a enjoyably varied set, ranging from the funky soul with blues roots of ‘Everything A Good Man Needs’, on which he produces a nimble and skittish finger-picked slide solo, to the dreamy soul a la Al Green of ‘Words Can’t Say’, with Sharrard essaying some tasteful falsetto vocals.  ‘High Cost Of Loving You’, from his 2018 album Saving Grace, is a swinging thing, punctuated by the horns and with a great sax solo from Smothers to fit alongside Sharrard’s own biting solo, and some serious kit pounding from Jackson.
Sharrard closes with the Memphis classic ‘Precious Precious’, on which Turner appears to join his Bo-Keys compadres and deliver some swinging piano and organ.  It’s an enjoyable end to a strong set, at its best to these ears when Sharrard veered to R’n’B with his guitar a key component. All the same, it’s noticeable that when the Bo-Keys put aside the music stands for the arrival of Don Bryant, their playing acquires a more natural zip.
Re:Funk play their trump card - special guest Pee Wee Ellis
Earlier on, Switzerland’s Re:Funk got in a polished groove with a brand of soul-funk that often brought to mind the Average White Band, not least on ‘Show Us What You Got’. They’re a tight nine-piece outfit, capable of pulling off a stuttering dance rhythm with ease, crisp drumming from band leader Dario Milan providing the base for some Stevie Wonder-ish clavinet from Luca Fraula and a fluid guitar solo from Mad Mantello, while Maqs Rossi
provides energetic lead vocals.  ‘Roxette’ is neither the first nor the last big fat groove they deliver, with the rhythm section lock-tight and Francesca Morandi’s bass bubbling busily, while their fun horn trio do their thang.
Re:Funk also have a trump card, in the form of special guest Pee Wee Ellis, the sax player who came up with ‘Cold Sweat’ for James Brown.  And with Ellis safely ensconced front and centre they’re all set to, as the song puts it, have a funky good time.  Ellis’s ‘Chicken’, a piece recorded by Jaco Pastorius among others, is a veritable horn fiesta, Pee Wee showing he’s still got it on his solo in combination with the Re:Funk horn section, complemented by a simpatico organ solo over great drumming and counter-punching bass.
Their bumping and grinding take on ‘Cold Sweat’ is right on the money, and they close with ‘I Feel Good’, much to the satisfaction of the audience.  And just for good measure, Pee Wee is presented with a lifetime achievement award, reflecting his stature. 
Opening the night were Sweethearts, a troupe of schoolgirls from Geelong in Australia,
Aussie Sweethearts get into a 'Cold Sweat' with Pee Wee Ellis
aged between 13 and 16 years old.  This is the sixth time that a Sweethearts party has visited Porretta, and it’s clear that they’re worth the invite.  With over 20 girls in the company, there can be up to 19 of them onstage at any one time, including 3 backing singers, drums, percussion, two guitars, keys, and – wait for it – six saxophones!  Unsurprisingly, they create a big sound on Jackie Wilson’s ‘Higher And Higher’, and continue to impress as they work their way through a succession of classic covers, a variety of vocalists doing justice to the likes of ‘Shake’ and ‘Mr(s) Pitiful’ – and they do shake the house, especially on ‘Kind Of Girl You Can’t Handle’ (I think), with its choppy rhythm and controlled wah-wah solo.
They get a bit of a leg-up mind you, when Pee Wee Ellis comes on to guest on, yes, ‘Cold Sweat’. They cook it up nicely, and what a thrill it must be for two of the sax players to trade licks with the big man, which they do with gusto.
They close with a belting take on ‘Soul Finger’, segueing via a ‘Peter Gunn’ riff into an equally strong reading of Etta James’ ‘Tell Mama’, and receive warm applause for an impressive exercise in sisters doin’ it for themselves.

You can watch the full 18 July show from the Porretta Soul Festival here.

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