Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Porretta Soul Festival - Rufus Thomas Park, Porretta Terme, 20 July 2019

It’s a warm summer’s evening in Porretta Terme – like 30 degrees Celsius warm – and Rufus Thomas Park is already jam-packed well before the Saturday show at the Porretta Soul Festival kicks off.
Opening up tonight is Curtis Salgado, one-time member of the Robert Cray Band, inspiration for the Blues Brothers, and a multiple Blues Music Award winner.  His band come
The Curtis Salgado Band - let the good times roll!
on ahead of him, striking up a patient, funky intro that’s embroidered by a zinging Telecaster solo from guitarist Anthony Stelmaszack.  Salgado then strolls on, promising “blues, soul, funk, rhythm’n’blues – but whatever you wanna call it, it’s a good time.”  And they set about making good on that promise right away, with the swinging blues of ‘I’m Trying’, stuffed with crisp-toned guitar fills a la Jimmie Vaughan from Stelmaszack, supplemented by a surging organ solo from Damien Cornells, and Salgado’s first foray on harp.
From a distance, in his pork pie hat and baggy jacket and sweater, you could mistake Salgado for Van Morrison, if it weren’t for his more affable demeanour.  And there’s a bit of Van soulfulness in his sound at times too, as in his vocal on Robert Cray’s ‘Blues Get Off My Shoulder’, a halting, tripping slowie on which he and the band tap into a loose-limbed, easy vibe.
They’re joined by his fellow Portland resident LaRhonda Steele for ‘Nobody But You’, a piece of pulsing Southern soul that’s full of fun, accentuated by a piano solo from Cornells., and she returns later for ‘Both Sorry Over Nothing’, a duet that’s delivered with real spark,
and a great harp solo from Salgado in lieu of the Tower Of Power horns of the original.
All the way from Portland - Curtis Salgado and LaRhonda Steele
Other highlights include ‘I’m Driving In The Driving Rain’, referencing the Oregon climate, on which they cook up a rumbling soul/blues stew that’s reminiscent of Tommy Castro, and ‘Walk A Mile In My Blues’, which is inspired by some of Salgado’s part health problems and features a spot-on segment of call and response between Salgado’s vocal and Stelmaszack’s guitar, as well as a crackling solo from the latter that serves the song beautifully.
There are a couple of OV Wright songs along the way, including the slowie ‘Born All Over’, on which Salgado produces a bravura soul vocal performance to close the set.  They then encore with a blast of N’Awlins sounding rock’n’roll, complete with an ivory-bashing piano solo and some twanging guitar revelry, to which Salgado adds a spell of blues st-st-stuttering. We may not be talking ‘bout a revolution, friends, but Curtis Salgado and his band do indeed serve up a good time.
The Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra from California then take the stage as house band for the rest of the night.  The most immediately striking about them, as they kick off with a jump blues instrumental, is the exuberance of drummer Derrick “D’Mar” Martin, who shows off an
ability to perform squat jumps from his drum stool during a brief solo, as well as playing a floor tom with his elbow.  There’s more to his playing than these tricks though, and indeed there’s more to the Orchestra as a whole, with four horns and a trio of crack backing singers – the latter, I have to say, not utilised as much as they could be throughout the show.  However one of the three, the very glamorous Omega Brooks, takes the lead for a couple of numbers, including Stevie Wonder’s classic ‘I Wish’ – which takes me back to my school days, which shows how old I am – and unwraps an excellent soul delivery.
LaRhonda does Aretha, with the Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra
I wish, as it were, that the same could be said of Australia’s Georgia Van Etten, who then appears as a guest.  Van Etten is a former member of the Sweethearts, the all-girl troupe who have been regular visitors to Porretta Soul, but her subsequent career has evidently taken her in a jazz direction, as she delivers a very Cleo Laine-like vocal that really isn’t to my taste.  It’s very well done, in its own terms, but it doesn’t fit with the soul vibe, and I don’t see the point in a singer imitating a trumpet solo when there’s a trumpet player on stage.  (The great Georgie Fame gets a special dispensation for such shenanigans.)
But LaRhonda Steele then returns to lead the way on a tribute to Aretha Franklin, singing with just the kind of soul and sassiness required.  They cruise through a funky ‘Rock Steady’ and spot on ‘Respect’, before those backing vocalists show their true worth on the magnificent ‘Chain Of Fools’. Steven Stills’ ‘Love The One You’re With’ is decorated by a neat organ solo against a horn backdrop, and they even manage to bring some dignity to a soul reading of ‘Imagine’, with some nice piano from Tony Lufrano.
After a blast of ‘Take Me To The River’ that has some of the quirkiness of the Talking Heads version about it, Steele’s real highlight is a delicious take on BB King’s ‘Rock Me Baby’. She sounds like she really means it, and a climactic sax solo from Charles McNeal underlines the sentiment.
Steele is followed by the night’s main man, veteran Wee Willie Walker, who wastes no time in belting out a classic, with ‘Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home’ that features a trombone solo and a great, stinging guitar solo from Paule. Meanwhile Walker is without a
Wee Willie Walker - small but perfectly voiced
doubt ‘wee’, but he delivers a rasping vocal with great phrasing.
Walker has been collaborating with Paule and his crew for a while, and it shows in the ease with which they deliver old-fashioned soul grooves such as ‘Let’s Talk About It’, a tune with a Smokey Robinson feel that’s embellished by sweet backing vocals, sparkling guitar, and supple bass from Endre Tarczy, while on another track in a similar vein Walker produces a brilliantly controlled quiet falsetto passage.
Despite its clunky title, ‘Warm To Cool To Cold’ is an enjoyably BB King-like chunk of R’n’B, and on George Jackson’s ‘I Don’t Want To Take A Chance’ Tarczy’s grooving bass is as impressive as Martin’s snapping drums.
They change tack and deliver some slow, brooding funk with ‘You’re Something Else’, before closing with ‘After A While’, the title track of their last album and another very Smokey-styled offering, on which Walker grabs the attention with an away-from-the-mic vocal segment.  He may be a little guy, but he has loads of charisma to go with that soulful voice.
There are a couple of acts still to come, but it’s midnight, and time for us to hit the road, Jack. You need stamina to go the distance at the Porretta Soul Festival!

You can watch all of the Saturday show at the Porretta Soul Festival here.

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