Texas guitarist whips up a tornado of his own on second album
The career of Stevie Ray Vaughan in the 1980’s could be likened to that of Eric Clapton’s in the 1960’s; that is, both played an important and integral part in popularising a style of music either ignored, unknown or largely forgotten by the general public. Both guitarists were also responsible (though not solely) for revitalising the careers of numerous blues artists whom they admired before they themselves became famous. But there any similarity ends, because the 80’s was not the 60’s. Long hair was out, and blow waves were in. Even the guitar, that once great phallic symbol of male virility, had itself been relegated mostly to the backbenches, becoming little more than a prop, a tool used to apply a bit of colour, or texture as required; while the synthesizer generally took centre stage as the dominating instrument, usually played by some ineffectual dandy wearing women’s makeup and a hair style that looked like it had been shaped by a whipper snipper.
So, when it was released in 1984, Couldn’t Stand the Weather must have appeared like some primitive artefact from an ancient and non-neon past. And while it might not have been powerful enough to expunge the western world of all its many ‘pop-fops’ (who would prove to be ephemeral in any case), what it did succeed in doing was establish that finally the blues was back.
Opener “Scuttle Button” has some of the most furious finger picking Vaughan ever laid down, whose pace is as unrelenting as it is intense. A lesser player attempting this would probably wind up with finger cramps, yet Vaughan could sustain this sort of playing for over two hours, often seven nights a week.
“Couldn’t Stand the Weather” is another gargantuan number, and arguably one of the best songs Vaughan ever wrote. Stevie brought in his brother Jimmie (from The Fabulous Thunderbirds) to play with him on the album, and whose rhythm guitar adds a deeply humid texture behind Vaughan’s Albert King meets Jimi Hendrix crossbreed.
“The Things that I Used to Do”, the old Guitar Slim tune, has a sound so big it could halt a semi-trailer. This is the second track featuring Jimmie Vaughan, who once again provides a warm and solid foundation behind Stevie’s sharp as knives delivery.
In any other decade Vaughan’s cover of Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) might have come across as superfluous, perhaps pointless even. But in the age of MTV, where misogynistic musicians in leopard skin leotards thrived in abundance, like ugly fruit on an artistically barren tree, Stevie’s interpretation of one of Hendrix’s signature songs is a revelation. Vaughan may not have possessed the level of imagination of his hero, but he definitely knew how to channel the man’s spirit. What Vaughan presents here is both powerful and haunting.
“Cold Shot” is another cover (by W.C. Clark. Sounds literary doesn’t it?), but you wouldn’t really know it, thanks to Vaughan’s downy vocals and a heavy as lead six string battering. Next is “Tin Pan Alley”, which had been a staple of Vaughan’s live repertoire for quite some time (the finest version can be heard on In the Beginning, recorded four years earlier), so it should come as no surprise that it would find its way on an SRV album sooner or later, and is a slow, extended, whisky and cigarettes late night blues number. “Honey Bee” is an energetic shuffle, with plenty of sting, where Vaughan shows his ability to play rhythm and lead at the same time. While “Stang’s Swang”, which closed the original album, reveals his jazz leanings in convincing fashion.
The deluxe edition of “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” contains a plethora of bonus tracks, far too many to dissect here, plus an extra disc which documents a superb live performance from Montreal in 1984, recorded not long after the album had been completed. As far as the outtakes are concerned, there’s not one dud amongst them, and reveal that Vaughan and company were exploring far more than the album itself suggests. Although special mention should be made of his reading of Hendrix’s “Little Wing”, arguably one of the most authentic and heart-wrenching interpretations ever made by someone who obviously knew his subject better than most; and for which was bestowed a posthumous Grammy award in the year following his death as best instrumental performance, when originally released on the out of print The Sky is Crying; and rightfully so.
From this point on Vaughan would provide a niche for those who were more interested in the real deal than any latest six month fad. A world tour would follow, so too heavy drugs and all the other usual trappings that befall most in the business. But the important thing is that he would never compromise his style, nor sell out as Eric Clapton had done around the same time, remaining true to his roots til the very end, and to the music he loved the most, the blues.