Soul, Italian-Style 

The temperature was in the mid-90s and the humidity felt just right, but when Memphis groups The Boogie Blues Band, The South Soul Rhythm Section, and The Millennium Maddness Drill Team and Drum Line performed at the Sweet Soul Music Festival during the third weekend in July, they'd spent two days traveling nearly 5,000 miles to get there.

An annual event that has captivated Italy for nearly two decades, the Sweet Soul Music Festival was held July 20th-23rd in an amphitheater in Porretta Terme's Rufus Thomas Park.

During the festival, the tiny mountain town superseded Memphis as the epicenter of soul music as seasoned musicians such as organists Don Chandler and Charlie Wood, tenor saxophonist Lannie McMillan, and Memphis Horns trumpeter Wayne Jackson held court for thousands of adoring fans.

Although Boogie Blues Band frontman James Govan was a no-show, Wood and singer Bobby Purify took turns providing the lead vocals on songs like Otis Redding's "These Arms of Mine," Andre Williams' "Shake a Tailfeather," and the Dan Penn/Spooner Oldham classic "I'm Your Puppet," which Purify helped make a hit single in 1966.

"Get It While You Can" singer Howard Tate (who relaunched his career with appearances at the Ponderosa Stomp and the King Biscuit Blues Festival after years of obscurity), German marching band Chio Maico, and Italian-grown groups the Radio SNJ Groove Machine Band, Distretto 51 & the Capric Horns, and the Greensleeves Gospel Choir also played at the four-day festival.

New Orleans faves Irma Thomas, Davell Crawford, and the Neville Brothers added a deeper context to the Southern soul theme by weaving their personal post-Hurricane Katrina experiences into their performances. Crawford's solo delivery on his own "Gather by the River" and the Nevilles' heart-wrenching rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" -- which had Aaron Neville ad-libbing the lyrics "Bye, bye, Porretta/Porretta, help me please/There's been times that I thought I couldn't last for long/But now I think I'm able to carry on" -- were not wasted on the international audience, who hung onto every word.

That level of intense respect and sheer love for the musical genre, spearheaded by Porretta Terme's number-one soul fan, festival organizer Graziano Uliani, sustained the Memphis musicians all weekend long.

After three scorching performances -- which featured vocals from Amandra Kneeland -- the South Soul Rhythm Section had sold out of their entire stock of T-shirts and CDs, while saxophonist Cedric De'Von Britton, keyboardists Tontrell Houston and David Brown Jr., drummer Kenny Shepard, and bassist Dywayne Thomas Jr. stayed busy signing autographs.

South Soul invigorated the European audiences with their jazzy originals and interpretations of Alicia Keys and Al Green songs, while Millennium Maddness' frenetic, hip-shaking acrobats (Samantha Brownlee, Don Cork, Jamar Horton, and Kierra Neal) and beat-obsessed teenaged drumline (DeMario Carlock, Joey Curry, Brandon Smith, and Chris Walton), led by Andrea "Ms. Sunshine" Paschal, slayed the crowd with their daredevil moves.

Both groups were brought to Porretta Terme by Center for Southern Folklore director Judy Peiser, who worked with Uliani to present the next generation of Memphis soulsters to the Italian stage.

Horton explained that Millennium Maddness practiced daily since May to learn specific routines for the festival. The biggest challenge, he said, was perceiving the crowd's response -- "figuring out how they're receiving us, because it's hard to tell by their reaction whether they like what we're doing or not."

Walton agreed, noting that it was very difficult to gauge the audience, which clapped politely and called out genteel "bravos" instead of whistling or hollering Memphis-style.

When not reporting to the stage for daily soundchecks or nightly performances, the Memphians immersed themselves in local culture, wandering through the salumerias and trattorias of the resort town, sampling regional meats and cheeses, and gorging themselves at the gelato stands that stood on nearly every corner.

For Dywayne Thomas, however, the trip to Italy was more significant. "I get to be with my father," he said, beaming at his dad, former Memphis bassist Dywayne Thomas Sr., who has resided in Porretta Terme for the last 15 years.

"It's been a very cool trip, and it's been easy playing for the Europeans," noted the younger Thomas. "We're all the same people, and we've all got the same souls."

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