As it was in England with the BBC, live radio broadcasts in America throughout the 1960’s and ‘70s were just as vital when it came to providing many a struggling artist the opportunity to be heard, allowing people to tune in and hear something which might not otherwise have been brought to their attention, especially if said band or artist was without a recording contract. And so it was when Stevie Vaughan, as he was then known, was invited by KLBJ-FM to perform on their “Better Late Than Never” program on the night of April 1, 1980, with the intention that it would be broadcast totally live and without any disruption. And while this historic little document was professionally recorded on multi-track, the only tape that survives is a two-track copy (the former having been erased and reused for other purposes), and which is the source for what we have here, an honest, down to earth statement of what went down on that very special evening.
After a brief introduction Stevie Vaughan and Double Trouble launch into a ferocious interpretation of Freddie King’s “In the Open”, where Vaughan’s playing is so potent at times I’m surprised that there wasn’t any structural damage to the stage once he’d finished. “Slide Thing” is next, and affords the listener a unique chance to appreciate Stevie’s ability to handle bottleneck. Stevie announces the names of his fellow band members (Chris Layton and Jackie Newhouse on drums and bass respectively) before kicking off a lively “They Call Me Guitar Hurricane”, where he manages to raise a bit of a storm of his own. Along with Albert King, Otis Rush was an important influence in forming Stevie’s style, and his muscular take of Rush’s “All Your Love I Miss Loving” remains faithful to the original, albeit with a little extra high-octane chemistry thrown in.
The album’s highlight has got to be “Tin Pan Alley”, a song that would appear on Vaughan’s second album, “Couldn’t Stand the Weather”, and where for the next seven and a half minutes the listener is taken on an intense and spell-binding ride of passionate expression. Although Vaughan is obviously better known for his guitar playing, on this track he also proves himself an accomplished singer as well, something for which he is not often acknowledged.
“Love Struck Baby” was the opening track for Vaughan’s 1983 debut, Texas Flood, but who would have thought that the song dated all the way back to 1980, and what a fully charged six-cylinder-stringed version it is too! On Chester Burnett’s “Tell Me” Vaughan performs with dexterity few guitars before or since have been able to match. The same goes for his version of Willie Dixon’s “Shake For Me”, by which time one doesn’t need a degree to appreciate that Vaughan didn’t learn his chops by being raised by wealthy parents who could afford to send their kids to Harvard.
The album ends with “Live Another Day” (otherwise known as “I’m Cryin’”, another Vaughan original that would find its way onto his first album), a song with more of those heavy-duty riffs the man would eventually become famous for.
What In the Beginning establishes from the start is that Vaughan’s trademark style and technique was well in place years before he began releasing records (or at least as a solo artist). And as raw as the recording might be, one can’t deny the energy and quality of musicianship on display that night. Yet to think that this was merely one performance of many other gigs the man would have made week after week, month after month, year after year. But as fate would have it, or maybe just good luck, it would turn out that the son of the much famed talent scout John Hammond gave his father a tape of Stevie Ray’s show at The Steamboat, impressing him so much that he claimed that it was some of the most exciting blues he’d heard since Robert Johnson (based on this one has to wonder whether the old man really got out all that much, however I can easily see his point). It was Hammond who also convinced Epic Records to offer Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble a recording contract only a couple of years later, thus completing the wheel of destiny.
Our current times dictate that we shall never see another Stevie Ray Vaughan again, that much is certain. There have naturally been contenders (Kenny Wayne Shepherd and the more recent Gary Clarke Jr. spring to mind), but no-one, and I mean no-one, can ever hope to match much less approach the mighty guitarist himself. Call it overstatement, but I think one of the qualities which made Vaughan so exceptional was that he was one of a class of guitarists young enough to blaze a trail throughout the Eighties, yet old enough to have been part of that generation of musicians who had to learn and, eventually, ply their trade the hard way. Like Muddy Waters, Albert King and Jimi Hendrix before him, just because the man was white, didn’t mean that he was without demons of own. And that sense of hardship and suffering is a quality which can be heard in every note he played.