Peace, Love, and Soul at Porretta

Nona Brown, Scott Billington, Johnette Downing, and Larry Batiste during our closing song, a version of “Jesus Is On the Mainline,” at the 2022 Porretta Soul Festival.

During July, Johnette and I were thrilled to be a part of the 34th edition of the Porretta Soul Festival in Porretta Terme, Italy. The festival is unique in the world— a celebration of American soul music located in the foothills of the Apenine Mountains between Bologna and Florence. Each year, artistic director Graziano Uliani curates a show that celebrates the vitality of soul music, with veterans such as the Texas singer Ernie Johnson, newcomers such as the genre-pushing J.P. Bimeni & The Black Belts, and little-known artists such as the big-voiced singer Chick Rodgers. The house band is the Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra, from San Francisco.

So, you ask, why were we there? It is a good story!

The ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax visited the region around Porretta Terme with his Italian colleague Diego Carpitella in 1954, when they spent half a year traveling the full length of the country and recording many Italian folk music traditions. The two stayed for a time in the small inn run by Graziano’s parents in nearby Vergato. This year, Graziano decided to host a forum about Lomax’s visit. He knew that I had been involved with the Rounder Records releases of the Lomax Italian Treasury series (as it came to be called), and that Steve Reynolds and I had remixed some of Lomax’s recordings on our Tangle Eye record. So, I was invited to be one of the speakers at the conference.


When Graziano began conceptualizing the Lomax forum, he had the idea that Johnette and I could perform a set of Lomax-associated songs after the panel discussion. In 2016, Johnette and I had travelled to Porretta to perform our show for children, and to preview the just-recorded Bobby Rush album, Porcupine Meat (Bobby was the headliner that year), so Graziano had heard our duo performance. We got busy learning a set of material such as Woody’s Guthrie’s “Blowin’ Down This Old Dusty Road,” Lead Belly’s “Irene Goodnight,” and the minor blues “No More, My Lord.” Since we were traveling light, we decided to do the entire set with just ukulele and diatonic harmonicas supporting Johnette’s lead and my harmony vocals.

What we hadn’t quite internalized is that we would also be opening the main show, at the Rufus Thomas Park Amphitheater, on Saturday and Sunday nights, in front of 3000-4000 Italian soul music fans who were accustomed to a ten-piece band with a horn section. We waved to the crowd as we were introduced, and began playing “When I Lay My Burden Down.” By the end of the first chorus, the crowd was clapping and singing along. Our friends Nona Brown and Larry Batiste, two of the backing singers for Anthony Paule’s band, joined us on our final song, making a good transition to the show that would follow. It was all a great success.

The performances that followed were wonderful, with Chick Rodgers absolutely bringing down the house with a voice that would have done Aretha proud, with the swing dancers who turned out for Mitch Wood’s rollicking piano, and with John Ellison appearing in white robes. On Sunday morning, Nona Brown was the special guest of the outstanding Joy Gospel Choir (who truly performed with passion and joy) at the Chiesa dei Cappuccini. Her solo performance during this concert may have been the musical highlight of the week for me.

Corno Alle Scale manager Sig.  Bonarelli, Graziano Uliani, Scott Billington, Johnette Downing, Mitch Woods, and Piquadro owners Marco and Beatrice Palmieri.

Two days later, we were invited to perform in the mountains at the Corno Alle Scale Rifugio, at 2000 meters, where we opened for the outstanding boogie boogie pianist Mitch Woods. The event was organized by the Piquadro leather goods company, who were sponsors of the festival. The rifugio is the kind of place that inhabits my dreams, high above the tree line where the blueberry bushes were in full fruit, with a wonderful menu. After our show, Mitch and I took the ski lift down!

Sometimes, I look back and think of the harmonica that my mother gave me in my Christmas stocking when I was 11 years old (she a book of Green Stamps to acquire it), and how far it has taken me. In fact, Johnette and I lit a candle in the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Porretta Terme in honor of all our parents. We also ate our share of gelato at the Tip-Tap Gelateria, traveled to Bologna for a day, and soaked in the spa at the Hotel Helvetia. It was a wonderful trip.

The full cast of the 2022 Porretta Soul Festival!

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