Stevie Ray Vaughan seemed to be just one of those individuals who was born to play guitar. And while some musicians study law, or work as accountants by day, lest the whole music thing doesn’t pay off (because often it doesn’t), in Vaughan’s case it was a situation of all or nothing, which probably goes some way to explain much of the emotion and urgency he brought to his approach. Had he been around in the 1960s, I’m certain that the majority of major record companies would have signed him post-haste. But by the late 70s, at least from a commercial viewpoint, the blues was hardly setting the scene, far less fashionable, having been usurped by the likes of disco and whatever other slick musical trend was prevailing at the time, and with New Wave just around the corner, I guess you could say that the blues as a form of popular expression had been made officially redundant.
Fortunately, Fate had other plans, and when Vaughan performed a gig at the Montreux Casino in Switzerland (a day after having appeared at the famous Montreux Jazz Festival itself, which would turn out to be a most auspicious event for Stevie in more ways than one), amongst those in attendance was Jackson Browne, who was so blown away that he went backstage to meet the young guitarist, even jamming with him and his band Double Trouble into the early morning hours. It was on this day that Browne offered Vaughan free use of his own personal recording studio in Los Angeles, an offer which Vaughan gladly accepted and held him to only a few months later. Over three days the band recorded what they thought were merely demos, however when influential music critic and civil rights activist John Hammond (who was in his 70’s at the time, and had been responsible for furthering the careers of such artists as Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and even Bruce Springsteen, to name but a few) heard the tapes, he was so impressed that he convinced Epic to organize a recording contract. However instead of making an album from scratch in some expensive facility, it was decided to utilise the original recordings made at Browne’s studio, albeit with a little cleaning up, and with new vocals by Vaughan himself. The resulting LP was released in 1983, and proved to be an unexpected sensation.
The album opens with two Vaughan originals, “Love Struck Baby” and “Pride and Joy”. The former bolts from out the gate like a thoroughbred, with riffs that are reminiscent of Chuck Berry, albeit at a much faster pace, and with strings heavy enough to make most guitarists fingers bleed just by looking at them. “Pride and Joy” was a song he’d been performing for a number of years and shows his unique ability to play lead and rhythm simultaneously. And now the monster that is the title track. “Texas Flood” hits the listener like a sledgehammer, and was to Vaughan what Red House was to Hendrix, in that each song provided both guitarists the opportunity to improvise and indulge in some good old-fashioned instrumental prowess. You can immediately hear the Albert King influence here not only on Vaughan’s guitar, but also vocal style. This is one flood of sheer biblical proportions. “Tell Me” is a cover of the old Howlin’ Wolf tune, and while Vaughan’s voice lacks the growl of Mr. Wolf himself (how could it? The man was born with a fuzz box in his larynx), his performance is convincing all the same. “Testify” is an exciting high-speed instrumental, which Vaughan would often use to open his shows. “Rude Mood” is another instrumental, and one which for some reason I’ve never been much of a fan of, no matter how impressive his playing on it might be.
Buddy Guy was one of Stevie’s favourite guitarists, so it’s no surprise that he would want to include a cover of one of the man’s signature tunes, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. It’s a fantastic rendition, and one which Buddy himself would have no doubt approved of.
Drummer Doyle Bramhall had performed with Vaughan’s older brother Jimmie when they were in high school together, so the connection went back a long way. And if memory serves me right, it was actually Bramhall himself who encouraged the younger Stevie to develop his voice, advising that his career would go further if he did. “Dirty Pool” is a song they both wrote together, where Vaughan sings and plays with great conviction about a relationship gone sour. And speaking of relationships, the self-penned “I’m Cryin’” is next. Similar in style to “Pride and Joy”, Vaughan exhibits more of his trademark lead/rhythm interplay.
The album closes with the romantic “Lenny”, a dreamy instrumental Stevie composed for his first wife of the same name. There’s a strong Hendrix feel throughout, not to mention a little Albert King as well, and is a delicate way to end what was undoubtedly one of the most atypical and uncharacteristic LPs issued that year (I bet you wouldn’t have found this in Madonna’s collection).
Stevie Ray Vaughan may not have been one of the most original guitarists who ever lived, but what he lacked in that department he certainly more than compensated for in terms of power and passion, two qualities one often doesn’t associate with today’s generation of axe slingers. Which is a pity, though not unsurprising really, considering that there probably aren’t too many musicians nowadays sleeping on the pool tables of the very venues in which they had just performed because they can’t afford to pay for accommodation. The blues itself has never been about plush hotels and designer clothing. It’s a cliché I know, however sometimes a little suffering can go a long way, especially when it comes to drawing a distinction between the creation of real art, and those who are simply pretending.