In his all too brief career, Stevie Ray Vaughan, by virtue of being a true master of the guitar, achieved several things that most musicians only aspire to. First, with his stinging attack and pure tone, he is one of those guitarists that is instantly recognizable, no matter what the surroundings. His fluid method of phrasing never varied — from the jazzy “Lenny” to “Goin’ Down” (captured here live with Jeff Beck), the moment he strapped on a Fender Stratocaster, the sound was pure Stevie. His pattern of introducing a solo with a slight call and response section made the listener feel surrounded by a six-string horn section, and when he would shut his eyes and lean forward, hunched over the guitar, looking ready to topple over at any moment, well that’s when Stevie would burn. In a moment’s notice his fingers would fly over the fretboard, faster than the rest, but more literate as well. Vaughan always had something to say, and never played fast to prove himself — he never needed to. From the first cut in this box set, 1977’s “Thunderbird” with Paul Ray and the Cobras, to the last, “Leave My Girl Alone” from his final concert in 1990, his guitar and vastly underrated vocals are simply head and shoulders above the rest of the blues guitar slingers of the period.
Which brings us to his second laudable achievement. Although he would have made his mark no matter what genre he had chosen, Vaughan, not unlike a blues Gram Parsons, took a moribund music style and pumped new blood into its veins. Few listeners outside of hardcore fanatics listened to the blues in the “skinny tie new wave” 1980s — the original legends had either quit recording or died, and other than a few pockets that could contain a “scene” such as Chicago’s South Side or parts of Texas, the blues had few “up and comers”. I remember hearing “Texas Flood” off of Vaughan’s debut album in a record store and standing stock still until the song finished. To hear someone living play the blues with such emotion and intensity was like finding water in a long-dry well. I wore out copy after copy of it on tape, playing it for whoever would listen. And many did, even those people who didn’t know Howlin’ Wolf from Hound Dog Taylor. And they all loved it. It’s impossible to imagine the rebirth of the blues — from Johnny Lang to Kenny Wayne Shepard et al — without him.
Over the years Vaughan was able to play with those artists he grew up listening to, from Albert King (his “Ask Me No Questions” is included here) to Lonnie Mack, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins to Jeff Beck. In fact, probably one of the few he missed out on, his favorite artist to cover, Jimi Hendrix, well, he has the rest of eternity to make up for that lost time. Like his hero Hendrix, Vaughan was a flamboyant, destructive talent. From assorted chemicals to hats festooned with wild plumage, Stevie was larger than life. Thankfully he was able to defeat his demons a few years before he died, and the resulting music showed a greater maturity without sacrificing the manic sparking brilliance of that created during his “drug days”. He went on to record “Family Style” with his talented older brother Jimmie Vaughan (formerly of The Fabulous Thunderbirds), and while it didn’t sound like anything either of the two had done before, it did give a hint as to how the blues would be played on say….Mars.
Of the 54 cuts on this collection, 36 are previously unreleased. While little “new” music is heard, you listen to the 75th version of “Pride and Joy” for the same reason you listen to multiple versions of “Cherokee” by Charlie Parker, simply because both were geniuses who found new ways to communicate each time they picked up an instrument. Included is a DVD containing six songs from the 1989 Austin City Limits episode featuring SRV and Double Trouble. Hopefully this means the full show will be released at some point, because it shows a great guitarist being backed by a stellar band (Chris Layton, Tommy Shannon and Reese Wynans-Double Trouble).
Stevie Ray Vaughan had already created his legend when he died in 1990, with over a decade of craftsmanship and heart captured on record. While not nearly enough, it is sufficient to convert the uninitiated, and becalm the rest of us who miss so deeply the soul and passion of Stevie. It’s been a quiet 11 years.