By 1985 Stevie Ray Vaughan was on a roll. Who in less than three years after his debut had seemingly achieved the near impossible, that is by making the blues popular again, and in doing so, inspired a whole new generation of young guitarists in the process. Soul to Soul was Vaughan’s third studio venture, and one which saw him broaden his already considerable sonic talents, combining elements of rock, jazz, R&B, and of course the blues itself, into one musical palette. The biggest shift being Vaughan’s decision to permanently incorporate a keyboard player into the group, a one Reese Wynans, which legend has it, was knocked back by Duane Allman because he didn’t want two keyboardists in his new band, soon to be known as the Allman Brothers. Adding Wynans to the line up also allowed Stevie Ray to explore new territory both in terms of performance and composition.
First song “Say What!” has a loose, jam like feel to it, where Vaughan manages to paint with his guitar an impressionistic landscape of vibrant and radiant colours. Any fan of Hendrix would find this instrumental hard to resist I’m sure, and offers the listener a chance to lose themselves in wah wah heaven.
“Lookin’ Out the Window” is an up-tempo shuffle, augmented by some fine saxophone by Joe Sublett. Vaughan’s vocals are particularly strong, and although not an outstanding number, there are far worse ways to spend a few minutes of one’s life. The same goes with “Look at Little Sister”, which sees Wynans play some smooth honky-tonk behind Vaughan’s growling Texas shuffle, while Sublett adds some deep baritone sax to the mix.
On the self-penned “Ain’t Gone ‘N’ Give Up On Love” Vaughan expresses his inner Albert King. There’s not too much difference between this and what can be heard on the title track of his first album, except for Wynans’ rich and subtle keyboards, which afford the song an element of texture while supporting Stevie’s aching leads, as if his heart were breaking with every bend of the string. “Gone Home” is a pleasant yet seriously jazzy workout, where Vaughan and Wynans exchange solos. Stevie was certainly no George Benson (something the guitarist himself admitted to), but here he demonstrates that he obviously had the skill and necessary understanding to pull it off when and where he wanted to.
Side B opens with Doyle Bramhall’s “Change It”, a blues-rock shuffle, and it doesn’t disappoint. Vaughan throws in some more of those Albert King style licks, and is perhaps the closest thing he came to producing a blues-pop number. For some reason I’ve never really been all that taken with “You’ll Be Mine”. Whether it’s the arrangement or the White King sans germs production I have no idea. Vaughan’s performance is powerful to be sure (when is it never?), but just seems a little too clean for one who likes their blues to have a more rugged and rustic quality. “Empty Arms” is all jerky jazz-rock, with tasteful state of the art guitar by the six string master himself. Quite undemanding but memorable all the same. Things pick up with “Come On (Part III)”, a fast paced and furious version of the Earl King classic, however Vaughan has chosen to adopt the more famous arrangement performed by Hendrix, heard on Electric Ladyland. Vaughan doesn’t so much as reinterpret the song as update it for modern ears. And where Hendrix’s own construal was somewhat less polished, Vaughan’s variation is quite intense, and contains some of the most ferocious playing of the entire record.
“Life Without You” is the closing number, and remains one of Vaughan’s greatest compositions. The chords have a particularly Hendrix feel about them, reminiscent of “Bold As Love”, the last track from Hendrix’s second album. A solemn and reflective piece, at about the three-minute mark we take off into the stratosphere with a soaring guitar solo, of the sort which must have made many an old musician believe in the instrument again.
Soul to Soul may not be Stevie Ray Vaughan’s finest LP, but it is most definitely consistent with anything he had done before, or would achieve in the future. One thing which is certain and that is it is without doubt his most commercial, where songs such as “Lookin’ Out the Window” and “Look at Little Sister” seem to suggest that the guitarist likely had the radio in mind when it came to what he chose to include on the record. Which for me is what makes this LP a somewhat less satisfying listen overall when compared to his two previous albums.
The remastered edition includes a couple of bonus tracks, the first of which captures an incredible medley of Hendrix’s “Little Wing/Third Stone from the Sun”, which is so good, I dare say even Jimi himself would be jealous; while the second, “Slip Slidin’ Slim”, is a short slide dominated instrumental written by Vaughan. Neither of these recordings would have fit with the original album, but they are a most welcome addition here, and boost the enjoyment factor immensely.