Stevie Ray Vaughan died just as he was becoming the great guitar player the cult of millions always insisted he was--not just a man who could play faster than God, not just an acolyte who could turn ancient riffs into tomorrow's templates, not just a reformed drunk who could play with sobering dexterity. Stevie had shown on 1989's In Step and '90's Family Style (the latter of which was a showdown with older brother Jimmie) that he wasn't just myriad influences filtered through his own two hands; he had found his own voice, found a way to slow down, to say more by playing less. He was no longer Johnny Winter and Jimi Hendrix and Freddie King and a dozen other moribund bluesmen resurrected. Stevie Ray was his own man--a soul man, substituting the precision for the passion. Listen only to "Riviera Paradise," its silences more profound than any thousand riffs upon which he built his legend.
In a sense, Stevie was becoming more like Jimmie--who was always the better guitarist anyway, an Oak Cliff cat who played with far less flash but considerably more style. If Stevie played so hot he could melt strings, then Jimmie was the master of cool; he played with soul, easy elegance, coaxing emotion instead of mere feeling. From the moment he first appeared on vinyl, with 1979's Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jimmie proved he didn't need to be the frontman to steal the show. Kim Wilson was just his backup, there to fill in the blanks, a great singer who was never great enough.
Yet Jimmie never became the superstar his brother would become; indeed, just as Stevie's career was taking off, Jimmie and the T-Birds were struggling just to find a label that would take them, having been dropped from Chrysalis in the early 1980s. Stevie's success was no surprise: He was a bluesman in the guise of an arena-rocker, playing to the back rows with a showman's flair not seen since Hendrix. Jimmie's blues were more intimate, more fragile, more elusive; seldom did they float past the stage. When he released his first and only solo record in 1994, Strange Pleasures, it went almost unheard. Stevie's fans were no doubt confounded by its range--the flamenco flourishes and border blues, the hushed tribute to his dead brother and the sax-and-organ-driven roadhouse romps; Jimmie's fans no doubt wished he were Stevie.
But he isn't--and God bless him for it. (It's too bad Jimmie's sharing the bill on this night with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, one of seemingly a dozen teenagers carving a career out of Stevie Ray's tombstone.) Last year's all-star tribute to Stevie Ray proves that much: Jimmie turns his brother's familiar old songs into gentle revelations, and his own "Six Strings Down" is moving for all the right reasons.
Jimmie Vaughan, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Maylee Thomas perform December 31 at the Bronco Bowl.
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