Stevie Ray Vaughn, 20 Years After His Death

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My main emotion surrounding Stevie Ray Vaughn remains one of regret. It was 1990, and I was finishing up my sophomore year in high school. A similarly inclined friend and I made some tentative plans to see SRV, who was ascendant at the time, in July. “In Step,” the album that marked his return to sobriety and a “comeback” of sorts, was high on the charts with three hit singles, and he was about to release another disc with his brother Jimmie. But I lost touch with my friend over the course of the summer and we never made it to the Connecticut date on the tour. I dismissed it, thinking I’d have plenty of chances to see him. I was wrong. He died in a helicopter crash on Aug 27, and the next time I saw my friend, we realized that we should have used our new drivers licenses in a different way that summer.

As I posted here recently, the 80s weren’t very good to rock music, and certainly not to blues rock. Even “classic rock” icons like Clapton and Robert Plant succumbed to the era’s penchant for overproduced synth pop. SRV’s real legacy isn’t so much that he almost singlehandedly kept the fire burning for blues rock during that era, although he did. He also, almost unique over the last 30 years or so, managed to revitalize and push the boundaries of white blues and blues rock. For all its magic, the blues is a relatively limited, confining art form, which has arguably since the British blues revolution of the late 60s struggled to find something new to say. SRV found it. Not just through his playing, which was near Jimi-esque at his best (in fact, his solos were probably cleaner and better constructed than Hendrix’s), but also through his development as a songwriter and singer.

This popped up early on with “Couldn’t Stand the Weather,” the title track of his second disc. He takes a stop-time blues riff, and by the time he’s done he’s filtered it through jazz and funk and back again.

And the album he was touring behind at his death, “In Step,” had him exploring some boogie and even pop-rock conventions. Check out “The House is Rockin” and “Tightrope,” co-written with Doyle Bramhall, and the gorgeous nine-minute jazz-blues of “Riviera Paradise” that closes the disc.

Not that you didn’t want to just hear him wail on a standard or two. Like his revolutionary cover of Larry Davis’s “Texas Flood,” the centerpiece of his debut album of the same name. This is the definitive version to me: 9 1/2 minutes, and it never feels masturbatory. He’s always got something else to say, and you want to hear him say it. This really gets silly after the minute mark, probably his best playing of the whole song. He’s doing it all behind his back.

Then, of course, there’s his reading of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” a song that takes balls to cover if ever there was one. Even on the relatively slower passages at the beginning, check out how much emotion he coaxes out of each note with his pick attack and vibrato. Note how he riff-checks the obscure Hendrix gem “Power of Soul” toward the end.

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