Wednesday, October 14, 2009

October 14: Stevie Ray Vaughan, "Texas Flood"

Artist: Stevie Ray Vaughan
Album: Texas Flood
Year: 1983
Label: Epic

It seems that nearly every day, another music publication is putting out a "greatest guitarists" list, and the top few never seem to change, regardless of the magazine. Though names like Hendrix, Page, and Allman are certainly hard to argue, there always seems to be one individual who is thought to be a "second tier" player. This is confusing, as the guitarist in question is by far more talented than many who regularly rank above him, and his contributions and influence can be heard in everyone from Kenny Wayne Shepard to Pearl Jam's Mike McCready. Unquestionably one of the greatest blues and blues-rock guitarists of all time, Stevie Ray Vaughan is nearly peerless when it comes to conveying true beauty and emotion through his playing. When one looks at the overall picture of guitar players, there is truly nobody with a sound and style quite like Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the manner with which he fuses together rock, jazz, and blues remains unrivaled to this day. Possessing one of the most unique guitar tones, as well as an instantly recognizable voice, it is he who is largely responsible for the blues revival that occurred during the early 1980's. Recording five extraordinary albums before his tragic death in 1990, it is his phenomenal debut record, 1983's Texas Flood, that instantly propelled him to "icon" status across the globe.

Even before breaking out on his own, Stevie Ray Vaughan experienced the highs and lows of being a professional musician. Shortly after he and his band, Double Trouble, played a private show for The Rolling Stones, they became the first unsigned band ever to play Switzerland's legendary Montreux Jazz Festival...where they were booed for nearly their entire set due to being a louder, electric act and a festival dominated by acoustic acts. However, this performance led to a late night jam session with Jackson Browne and David Bowie. Much later, Browne would offer Vaughan free time in his recording studio, but it is the work with Bowie that made him a "name." After the jam session, Bowie invited Stevie Ray Vaughan to play on his next album, Let's Dance, and the record would become the most successful of Bowie's career. After declining an offer to be in Bowie's touring band, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble entered Browne's studio and it was there that they recorded and self-produced Texas Flood. Completing the entire album in just under three days of recording, the album was a surprisingly large hit, earning Grammy nominations, as well as bringing blues-based rock music back to the forefront of popular music. Texas Flood is truly a magical musical experience, and many later re-issues make the original recording even better by adding a handful of live tracks, including the blisteringly stunning "Tin Pan Alley." After listening to Texas Flood, it is immediately clear why the album was so successful, as the music found therein finds a group of musicians with amazing chemistry, creating a soulful sound that had not been heard in decades.

Having honed the songs on Texas Flood with countless live performances, the group nails every nuance of each song, and the manner with which they are album to move as a single unit is a stunning testament to their combined musicianship. While Stevie Ray Vaughan is unquestionably the core of the group, his rhythm section, Double Trouble, help to take the songs to another level. Having honed his skills backing Johnny Winters throughout the 1960's, bassist Tommy Shannon met Stevie Ray Vaughan in the early 1970's when they briefly played together in the band Krakerjack. A decade later, the two reunited and formed two thirds of one of the greatest blues bands in history. Whether he is taking a slow "walking" bassline, or twirling around the brilliant guitar patterns of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Shannon's playing throughout Texas Flood is nothing short of superb, and it is due to his presences that the songs contain a funky, soulful feel. The other half of Double Trouble, drummer Chris Layton, is just as fantastic on the album, bringing a jazzy, swinging style to the compositions. Completely ignoring traditional blues and rock drumming styles and time signatures, Layton is truly in a class all his own, and his brilliance is highlighted by his work on the Isley Brothers' cover, "Testify." Proving that the sum is greater than the individuals, the wall of music presented throughout Texas Flood remains one of the most amazing and powerful musical experiences ever recorded.

While Stevie Ray Vaughan was unquestionably unique in his own right, was also a performer who made no attempt to hide his influence. Instead, he paid tribute to them in everything from his singing style to the way in which he approached the guitar. With his gritty, wailing voice, the singing to Stevie Ray Vaughan evokes the spirit of B.B. King and Larry Davis among many other musical greats. His ability to turn something as simple as a nursery rhyme into an explosive blues powerhouse ("Mary Had A Little Lamb") serves as proof that, with the right attitude and talent, there are truly no limits to what can be accomplished musically. The unmatched playing ability of Stevie Ray Vaughan can be perfectly summed up in the four minutes and forty seconds that is called, "Rude Mood." A fast-paced, truly gorgeous instrumental track, every element, from blues to jazz to rock, is found on the song, and Vaughan's performance is simply perfect. On the flip side, the albums' title track remains one of Stevie Ray Vaughan's crowing achievements and is truly the song that jump-started the blues revival. Using a standard blues progression both musically and lyrically, the song, which was originally recorded in 1958 by Larry Davis, highlights both the phenomenal emotion within Vaughan's voice, as well as his unparalleled guitar skills. With his guitar crying as much as his vocals, "Texas Flood" remains one of the greatest blues tracks ever recorded. There is not a moment wasted anywhere on Texas Flood, and nearly every song leaves the listener in true awe, even after countless listenings and more than three decades after its initial release.

Approaching twenty years since his tragic death in a helicopter accident, few musicians hold the level of respect that is given to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Truly a musician of unparalleled proportions, his impact on the world of music cannot be overstated. Traces of his sound and style can be heard in everything from grunge to rock and obviously, he was the catalyst for the blues-rock explosion that lasted for more than twenty years after the release of Texas Flood. The album is perfectly sequenced, reflecting the mood and flow of a live performance, and this is no doubt due to the time that the trio spent attempting to break into the mainstream. While his talent is undeniable, the true beauty behind the guitar playing to Stevie Ray Vaughan lies within the way he clearly emotionally connects to every single song. This distinctive, unguarded, soulful sound is what sets him far above his contemporaries, and what makes his songs so mesmerizing. The manner with which Vaughan combines the "old school" of crying blues guitar, with the "new school" of more upbeat, almost forceful music is unparalleled, and it is another aspect that makes Texas Flood so sensational. Easily one of the most talented guitarists of all time, Stevie Ray Vaughan ranks among the most elite to every play, and his tremendous 1983 debut album, Texas Flood, remains one of the most indispensable records ever recorded, and similarly one of the most significant musical landmarks in history.

Standout tracks: "Pride And Joy," "Texas Flood," and "Rude Mood."

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