The Pistoia festival is celebrating its 35th birthday.
1980 is the year the Pistoia Blues Festival was born. And it hit the lethargy of a provincial town enveloped by summer heat like a veritable cyclone. On the 14th and 15th of July Piazza del Duomo was the stage for an event which, in retrospect and without exaggeration, we can call epoch making. Unexpectedly, in a period of general organisational difficulty, some of the greatest names in the international blues scene descended on the town. Muddy Waters, B.B King, Fats Domino, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams and Alexis Korner set the town alight for two days with a large band of Italians too from the afternoon into late at night on a stage set up below the Giano building. The result was a surprise. Thousands of people invaded the town, sounds and colours suffused the streets of the town centre and opened the floodgates to an event which emerged as one of the most important in Italy over the years.
In just a few years Pistoia became one of the capitals of Italian music. Through a number of vicissitudes, a series of editions saw appearances by John Mayall, Frank Zappa, Jackson Browne, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Albert Collins, Rory Gallagher and Jimmy Page. In 1986 the event was extended with a longer programme which kept the square busy for a number of days. The event then picked up speed and side events joined the fray which branched out into the most popular meeting places in Pistoia. Putting some order to our memories is not easy – one at a time the old neighbourhood centre, the Santa Barbara fortress, the Napoleonica hall, the public gardens and the town centre’s bars were brought into the event.
Careful eyes and ears scanned the geographical areas linked to the Afro-American scene. Chicago, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. It was a fascinating scene which featured Lonnie Brooks, Magic Slim, Hubert Sumlin, Koko Taylor, a large party from Woodstock led by Alvin Lee and Richie Evans, Otis Rush, Albert King, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Ron Wood, the Charlie Watts orchestra, John Lee Hooker, Jerry Lee Lewis and also Buddy Guy & Junior Wells more than once. One of the most exciting moments worthy of special mention have included the arrival of guitarist Steve Ray Vaughan. His concert will be remembered as one of the most intense moments of the summer of 1988. This Texan musician who, in the company of his trusted Double Trouble, has been given credit for reinvigorating the blues scene in the mid eighties, kept the audience spellbound and gave an absolutely magnificent concert. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, this was to remain his only appearance on the Pistoia Blues boards.
The following year saw the Blues Brothers saga celebrated in great style. The reunion of this celebrated house band captained by Steve Cropper and Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy was completed by the arrival of Solomon Burke and maestro Cab Calloway, celebrated director of the Cotton Club. The July 1992 edition was only marginally less exciting with a large party from New Orleans showing off the crescent city’s scene in all its many facets. From Willy De Ville’s minimalist blues to Zachary Richard’s Cajun nuances via masters such as Dr John and Johnny Adams before the festival’s closing concert entrusted to the indigenous Wild Magnolias, custodians of the most colourful features of the Creole carnival.
The 1990s, in fact, saw the first stirrings of globalisation. Blues widened its borders. Over a time frame of twenty years, in random order, the following made their appearance: Robert Cray, Jerry Lee Lewis, Van Morrison, Johnny Winter, Bob Dylan, David Byrne, John Mayall, Robert Plant, Steve Winwood, Jeff Beck, Canned Heat, Patti Smith, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, Bill Wyman, Santana, Lou Reed, Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek, Joe Cocker, Greg Allman, Ben Harper, Lenny Kravitz and Black Crowes. This year’s edition could well last days and days with the number of musicians who have been invited. I’ll finish this overview of the event with the undisputed king of the squares. His Majesty B.B. King. Present right from the festival’s first year, this Memphis singer and guitarist has lived through all the best periods in Afro-American music. Clearly his many visits to Pistoia are an added value for one of the longest lasting and most prestigious musical events in the Italian and international calendars. Happy travelling.
Archivio Pistoia Blues