In Step was the very first Stevie Ray Vaughan album I was exposed to, when a much older neighbor of mine played it for me when sitting in his backyard while enjoying a glass of beer on a hot summer’s night. And although I was only 16 at the time, I was so impressed that it wasn’t long til I procured a copy of my own. Such was my enthusiasm that within a year I had every official album, poring over each and every note as if it were my last moment on earth (youth does have a tendency to approach such things far more intensely than when in middle age). That it had been some four years since his last studio release, 1985’s Soul to Soul, was due in part to Vaughan’s out-of-control substance abuse, resulting in him choosing to undertake a 12 step rehabilitation program (hence the album title), which by the end, saw a cleaner, and meaner (instrumentally speaking) Stevie emerge determined to pick up his guitar and make a new record, one that would express his past demons as well as offer comfort and encouragement to those who were experiencing perhaps a few demons of their own.
The fast paced six-cylinder “The House Is Rockin’” is the opening track, and probably not what a lot of people were expecting at the time. And although it’s my least favourite song of his, Vaughan’s playing is some of the best of his career, and it sounds like he’s having fun, which remains the most important thing. “Crossfire” sees Vaughan channel Hendrix, Clapton and Albert King all in one impressive display of technique and ability that would make many a guitarist shake in their boots. The song writing gets serious with the autobiographical “Tightrope”, a confessional number where Vaughan proves that one no longer has to be on drugs to play like the Devil. He lets it rip on Willie Dixon’s “Let Me Love You Baby”, the most upbeat track of the album (with the exception of “The House Is Rockin’”), while we get all bitter and bluesy on Buddy Guy’s “Leave My Girl Alone”. Vaughan has never sung better. And while the production might seem a touch pristine, Stevie’s guitar is as filthy as all hell.
“Travis Walk” is an instrumental reminiscent of “Scuttle Buttin’”, on Couldn’t Stand the Weather, in terms of structure and complexity, but in a far more slowed down way. On “Wall of Denial” Vaughan bares his heart and soul, where the lyrics serve as a personal essay into the mind of a man who has obviously been on the brink more than once or twice and yet lived to perform another day. The only tune of the LP I’m not into is “Scratch-N-Sniff”, a kind of buoyant country-rock composition which is not only like nothing else Vaughan had ever recorded but perhaps a bit too good-feely for my taste. However things improve with the forceful and vigorous “Love Me Darlin’”, where Vaughan simply amps it up and unleashes a flurry and fury of notes even Buddy Guy would be proud of. Mind you, Stevie used much heavier strings than most other guitarists, which makes his abilities even more impressive.
The LP ends with the soothing and peaceful “Riviera Paradise”, a piece Vaughan had been tinkering around with for years but never could quite finish. Whether it was sobriety that allowed him to finally complete it I do not know, but regardless, it one of his most enduring compositions, and a classy piece to be sure. Vaughan’s guitar glistens all the way through, providing succor to the soul. Both earthy and state of the art, “Riviera…” is designed to invoke in the listener a sense of peace and tranquility, and that it does, every time I hear it.
The remastered edition has several bonus tracks, all recorded live, so as to give one an idea of what Stevie sounded like at the time. The most impressive of these is a rather heavy version of “Texas Flood”, and “Life Without You”, a tender ballad which doesn’t stay tender for very long, because Vaughan soon reaches for the sky through his strings, with an extended guitar solo that has to be heard to be believed.
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s death in 1990 robbed the world of an incredible talent. No other guitarist in the 1980’s did more to promote and further the blues than him. And now, more than 25 years after his passing, those shock waves he created so long ago, can still be felt today. It’s just a pity that he wasn’t allowed to grow old and become the elder statesman of the music form which he loved so well. If only he hadn’t of got into that helicopter; if only he hadn’t of been in such a hurry. If only…