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The Boston Phoenix Texas Flood

Repackaging Stevie Ray Vaughan

By Ted Drozdowski

APRIL 19, 1999:  Yeah, he never played alternative rock, and to him hip-hop was something the Easter bunny did. He also wore his influences like a neon suit. But Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of the greatest American performers of the '80s.

That's hard to explain to those who never had a chance to see one of his incendiary concerts. They were exercises in complete honesty, unsparing acts of giving in which Vaughan fused prodigious technique with a spiritual devotion to music that seemed to resonate in all of his fat singing guitar notes. It shone in his face when his eyes closed and he brayed out the lyrics to a song by Howlin' Wolf or one of his own torn-from-the-heart numbers.

Utterly devoid of irony, pushing every ounce of energy out of his bony body, Vaughan was always out to entertain -- relying on tricks like the behind-the-back picking he'd learned in his years on the Texas roadhouse circuit -- and to touch people. To him, the stage was a pulpit, and he preached the joy and love of the blues until he died at age 35, in a helicopter crash, on August 27, 1990.

Vaughan's work within what the late critic Robert Palmer once termed "the church of the sonic guitar" has just been commemorated on the new The Real Deal: Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (Epic) and in the reissue of four of his albums: his debut, Texas Flood; Couldn't Stand the Weather; Soul to Soul; and In Step (all on Epic/Legacy). In particular the previously unissued live tracks included on Texas Flood, Soul to Soul, and In Step help explain why in just seven years as a recording artist this adopted son of Austin was almost single-handedly responsible for the '80s and '90s resurgence in the popularity of the blues. It was Robert Cray who recorded the blues revival's first hit in March 1987 with "Smoking Gun," but it was Vaughan who captivated arena-loads of people with his performances.

If not for the additional recordings, the merit of reissuing these albums less than a decade after Vaughan's death would be slight. The expanded liner notes don't add much to his canon. And the CDs' sonic differences might be lost on unattuned ears. Mostly Vaughan's amplifier tones sound more live and present than on the originals, and his vocals are better defined. The second Greatest Hits volume is purely a marketing exercise, though it does rescue fans from having to search for the hideous Back to the Beach soundtrack to get Vaughan's duel with Dick Dale on "Pipeline." Vaughan released only six albums in his lifetime -- not enough for two hits collections without filler like "Empty Arms," "Shake for Me," and "Wall of Denial."

But a live medley of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" and "Third Stone from the Sun" transforms Soul to Soul from an album that in 1985 represented a creative holding pattern for Vaughan into a sizzling document of his spontaneous creativity. Like the greatest blues players -- including Hendrix himself -- Vaughan sticks to the architecture of the songs and then injects his own gritty persona. His slight melodic variations in "Little Wing" yield to layers of effects and feedback in "Third Stone," which climaxes in a spraying fountain of sound that oscillates from speaker to speaker, swelling to what seem like unconquerable dimensions as the number comes to its volume-sodden end. What's brilliant is that this essay in Vaughan's distillation of Hendrix's approach comes right after a bonus interview segment in which Stevie Ray extols the virtues of Jimi's playing. There's also the slide-guitar instrumental "Slip Slidin' Slim," valuable mostly because Vaughan was under-recorded on slide.

The earnest energy with which Vaughan approached his career is caught in the additions to Texas Flood. Live takes of that album's "Testify" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb" are raw and bristling. So is the Lonnie Mack instrumental "Wham!", from the same 1983 Hollywood concert. But Texas Flood was already a pillar of Vaughan's legacy, portraying him as a hard-nosed blues purist in tributes to influences Larry Davis (author of "Texas Flood"), Buddy Guy, and Albert King. There's even a suggestion of the jazz-fueled complexity that would infuse his later work in the instrumental "Lenny."

The studio outtake of "Tin Pan Alley" that's been added to Texas Flood pales next to his definitive reading of the aching slow-blues barn burner on Couldn't Stand the Weather, which itself now includes four unreleased numbers from the original's 1984 sessions. The best are a rough-house take of Freddie King's "Hideaway" and a ripping slide-guitar rundown of Buddy Guy's "Give Me Back My Wig" -- both worthwhile homages. Finally, there's In Step, Vaughan's last solo album, recorded when he was at his peak. Even without the addition of the four compelling live performances from the In Step tour, this CD is a beacon of blues-rock perfection. It remains the work of a man on top of his craft and, after defeating a decades-long booze and drug problem, on top of his life.

A year later he'd be dead. And his work would be such stuff legends -- and reissues -- are made of.

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