Ten years and three months after his death, Stevie Ray Vaughan releases yet another disc--three, actually, plus a bonus DVD of unreleased Austin City Limits performances, as this long-awaited boxed set finally arrives a year later than promised. For those keeping score, SRV makes 12 albums that Sony has released since Oak Cliff's native son started playing sideman to a choir of angels, which is (more or less, depending upon whether you count last year's reissues) twice the number issued in his lifetime. That would make him the hardest-working dead man in show business since his idol Jimi Hendrix. It's astonishing that Epic hasn't depleted the vaults. By this point, you'd expect the label to be down to between-song tunings and studio chitchat and answering-machine messages--but of the set's 54 tracks, 36 have never been released (and most of them are live cuts, meaning he's among the few dead men to release three live collections from the hereafter, once you include In the Beginning and Live at Carnegie Hall). Actually, most of them have seen the light of day, in various versions: What's a Vaughan box without "Pride and Joy," "Rude Mood," "Texas Flood," "Couldn't Stand the Weather," "Crossfire," and so on? Maybe a Jimi Hendrix box?
Only the callous and cynical would deny the talent that runs rampant on a collection such as this, which begins in 1977 (with a young Stevie Ray singing "Thunderbird" with Paul Ray's Cobras) and ends on August 25, 1990, two days before his death in a helicopter crash outside Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. It's the complete Stevie, give or take, a narrative that begins with an acolyte mimicking his local heroes (the Nightcaps) and concludes with his surpassing the masters until Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy, covered at set's end, look like faded and torn black-and-white stills standing next to the Technicolor, Cinemascope giant. His blues were larger than life, epic, and all-consuming; the dude played until your fingers bled.
SRV will offer no grand revelations even to the casual fan; what surprises can one find when all the mysteries and tricks have been revealed on so many releases that flood the market annually? Even your mother knows what she'll find here: Vaughan, turning his guitar inside out while he spat out joyous, cathartic, exhilarating noise. By now, there is no need to talk of the tradition from which he sprang, because, in the end, Vaughan invented his own; he was Hendrix and T-Bone Walker and Lonnie Mack and Albert Collins and Freddie King, yes, but most of all he was a kid from the Cliff who found what he was looking for--"that one right note, that one that goes right to your knees," as he told one writer shortly before his death. Only, Vaughan had a million of those right notes; his legend was built on being able to whip them all out at once without sacrificing passion for prowess. If you want to know why even his most ardent followers stink to holy hell, it's for this reason alone: Stevie needed to play, and everyone else only wants to. That's what separates the great from the ordinary, the talented from the greedy--the desire to share with everyone else what your fragile shell can no longer contain.
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The boxed set has its share of rarities worth owning, none more important, perhaps, than "Texas Flood" recorded at the Montreux International Jazz Festival on July 17, 1982, a year before Vaughan and Double Trouble made their debuts for Epic. (The song had been released previously, on the out-of-print Blues Explosion collection, but never in this context or with "Collins' Shuffle," a previously unheard track also included here.) It's no less astonishing to hear the crowd boo Vaughan than it was to hear the Brits jeer Bob Dylan at Manchester's Free Trade Hall in 1966; they were both branded heretics by audiences that thought they knew best. As Vaughan begins picking out the notes at the beginning of "Texas Flood," the crowd begins booing and hooting; they wanted quiet blues, folk blues, black blues. They wanted their hushed, reverential past, and Vaughan welcomed them to their future with a kick in the balls. Finally, the boos turn to cheers, but not before Vaughan wears his ass out turning the spiteful into true believers; such was his talent, making the blues acceptable for blue hairs and gear heads, frat boys and fat men, hippies and yuppies.
Then there's the Hendrix jam, "Little Wing/Third Stone From the Sun," taken from a CBS Records Convention in Honolulu in 1984. Lord knows how he got it up for a roomful of salesmen in Hawaiian prints, but like a man on the trading block, Vaughan plays as though he's giving it up to the highest bidder. Of myriad "Little Wing" takes floating around, on The Sky Is Crying or the Soul to Soul reissue (which features an oft-bootlegged version of the two Hendrix tracks), this is the keeper. Same goes for the "Rude Mood/Pipeline" medley that surfaces on the second disc. Taken from a February 1987 MTV Mardi Gras special, the performance features Stevie and his older brother playing together on the same double-neck guitar; the photo of them sharing the moment is famous, and, finally, you can hear what the ruckus was all about. It's a funny, sort of sloppy moment, but you can hear the smiles on their faces.
In the end, Vaughan's weren't great songs, really; they were great performances that changed every time he took the stage (and Vaughan was far better on stage than in studio; like a great jazzman, he used the audience as his next best instrument). For proof, listen only to that dreadful 1996 A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan, on which brother Jimmie, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Dr. John, and other old friends tried to find some way into all those songs that became the stuff of classic-rock radio 18 hours after they were released. Those performers could neither mimic nor interpret "Cold Shot" or "Pride and Joy"; they could claim no ownership, because those songs were not public domain. They belonged to Stevie Ray and no one else. Only Eric Clapton and B.B. King seemed to get it, if only because they were unafraid to cut loose, show off, give it the ol' what-tha-hell. As my old friend Michael Corcoran has often said of Vaughan, he was the ultimate guitar hero because he knew that anything worth doing was worth overdoing. Stevie Ray never kept anything for later, not for the next song or the next show or the next album; he was always spent but never empty.
One can only hope, though, a collection such as SRV doesn't serve to dilute the legacy. In its rush to immortalize the man, Epic also runs the risk of rendering him so much product; they will fill the bins with so much so fast that customers won't know what to buy, and when they do finally decide, they'll be unable to afford any more, more, more. SRV is essential, but no more than In Step or Live Alive or The Sky Is Crying, the first and still the best posthumous release. Pray, then, that this is the last SRV disc Epic releases this year or this decade, even if there are hours and hours' worth of viable material left in the vaults. (Speaking of which, why no Triple Threat cuts with Lou Ann Barton and Johnny Reno? Talk about nitpicking.) Let the man rest in peace already. It's been 10 years; maybe he needs a break.