by Nick Paonessa
Today marks the 19th anniversary of the passing of blues legend and one of my biggest influences, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Most blues enthusiasts will agree that SRV single handedly revived the Blues genre back in the 80’s and brought the blues to whole new generation which ensured it would not only live on, but thrive.
The truth is that the blues is one of the oldest styles of music based on a very simple structure. While countless greats shaped the genre, and contributed some great music, by the 80’s, between the simplicity of the music and everyone playing the same licks and songs, the blues were getting tired.
Then along came Stevie Ray Vaughan. Well, actually Stevie was on the blues scene for some time before that, but on July 11, 1981, he got on stage for the first time with Tommy Shannon (on bass) and Chris Layton (on the drums), at Manor Downs Racetrack in Manor Texas. From that point forward, they became known as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble.
So what was so special about Stevie’s playing? What makes it different from other blues players? What did this man play in the decade of happy, decadent, loud, big hair rock & roll that made people stop and turn their heads and ears to a genre that wasn’t mainstream? While the 80’s gave us our share of guitar heroes, what set Stevie apart was 2 things.
First, was his natural instinct for dynamics and feel. I liken it to the contrast between say, Michael Jordon, on one play being able to charge the hoop and violently dunk the ball, shaking the very foundation of the basketball floor, then coming back on the next play and jumping up, gently gliding through the air, and maneuvering the ball through a maze of players with the precision of a surgeon, then have the ball gently roll off the tips of his fingers and into the basket; almost ballet-like. This is how I view Stevie’s playing.
If you take songs like “The Sky is Crying”, his version of “Voodoo Chile”, “Pride and Joy”, “Say What!”, he attacks the fretboard; every note articulated with so much soul and feel. He isn’t playing those notes from his brain. They could only be coming from his heart. I’m sure if you were able to ask him what notes he just played right after any of those songs, he wouldn’t have been able tell you because, he would just tilted his head back, closed his eyes, and something else took over. That’s why he never played any song the same way twice. That’s playing with feel. You can’t learn it. You can’t buy it. You have to be born with it. (Check back in the next month or so for my article on playing with feel)
Then, take songs like “Lenny” and my favourite SRV song “Riviera Paradise”, there are notes he’s playing where he’s barely touching the fret board. A complete contrast to how he digs deep into the fretboard to get the notes for the songs I mentioned earlier. And yet, even the quietest notes still screamed of “feel” and still made the hairs on your arm stand up. Maybe I’m being a bit dramatic for fringe fans, but die-hard fans know what I’m talking about. Quite simply, it was his ability to squeeze every ounce of emotion from every note, every chord, and every riff, weather he was spanking the strings, or barely touching them. Feel.
The second thing that defined Stevie Ray Vaughan was his tone. In a world with thousands of amp models and guitar configurations, very few guitarists can claim to have a “distinct sound”. And I’m not talking about one tone, on one song. Stevie played several guitars through several amps and yet, no matter what song, you know it was Stevie. Some guitarist (professional and amateur alike) chase “the ultimate tone” their whole lives. Stevie had tone in spades. Don’t kid yourself. It’s not as simple as buying a Fender SRV Stratocaster (which bears very little resemblance to “No. 1”, his main guitar), stringing it up with 0.012 gauge strings and plugging it into one of the many Fender or Marshall amp models Stevie used. As someone who’s been chasing the “ultimate tone” myself, I’ve come to learn that a lot of the guitarist who get credited with having “great tone”, (Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Helen to name few) did a ton of mods to their amps and guitars to get the sounds they did. Stevie was no exception. (Think about that when you’re dropping what will probably be too much money on any signature model amp or guitar.) Mods that most of time where one-offs and surely more than a few were undocumented. Throw in moded Tube Screamers, Vox Wah-Wah pedals and the like and it’s no wonder why no one can “bottle” the Stevie Ray Vaughan tone exactly. But ask anyone who’s chasing it. The fun isn’t in capturing it. The fun is in chasing it.
These 2 things are, in my humble opinion, the things that define Stevie Ray Vaughan.
A “must see” for any SRV fan is what I believe to be the greatest performance ever captured on video by any artist, “Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble – Live at the El Mocambo 1983“. It was recorded at one of the meccas of Toronto rock & roll, the El Mocambo, who’s hosted the likes of Rolling Stones (1977), U2 (1980), Joe Perry of Aerosmith (1983), Blondie, Ry Cooder, The Police, The Ramones and Rush, just to name a few. What’s great about this DVD is that, the size of El Mocambo puts you right on stage with Stevie so you can look in his eyes while he plays classic like Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile”, “Texas Flood”, and an incredible rendition of his ode to his wife Lenora, “Lenny”. Any fan I’ve spoken to about this DVD agrees, it is by far Stevie’s best performance. Because it was shot early in Stevie’s career, it has a very raw and innocent quality about it. Mark Waller, an Amazon.com reviewer, put it best. “This is a raw, intimate, and spontaneous record of a one-time event. All fans of the blues will be grateful to those who had the foresight to capture it on film.”
In the late summer of 1990, Vaughan and Double Trouble set out on an American headlining tour. On August 26, 1990, their East Troy, WI, gig concluded with an encore jam featuring guitarists Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan, and Robert Cray. After the concert, Stevie Ray boarded a helicopter bound for Chicago. Minutes after its 12:30 a.m. takeoff, the helicopter crashed, killing Stevie and the other four passengers who were part of Eric Clapton’s travel group. He was only 35 years old.
I’ve since been able to get my hands on bootleg MP3s of that final show. I’ve zipped all 15 tracks and uploaded them here. The sound, understandably, isn’t great, but any SRV fan should have these in their collection. I’ve made it a ritual on the anniversary of his death to listen to the whole concert. In fact I was listening to them as I wrote this post.
Rest in Peace Stevie.