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Class ?

Main Category: Guitar Heroes
Also applicable: Roots Rock, Jazz Rock, Hard Rock
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Stevie Ray Vaughan fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Stevie Ray Vaughan fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1983

Well, turns out that synth-pop and hair metal was not the only two kinds of music that mainstream America was listening to in the Eighties - Texas Flood never reached the top of the charts, nor did it even make the Top 20 (actually, if my sources are correct, Stevie Ray usually lingered somewhere in between numbers 30 and 40), but it did make a hell of a lot of impact. It almost seems that the public was waiting for a traditionally-based, unpretentious, unassuming, and highly skilled blues-based guitar player/singer/personality to come along, and Stevie Ray fitted the profile to a tee.

I mean, for those who have had their share of Sixties/Seventies top-notch blues rock, from Hendrix to Clapton to the Allman Brothers, Stevie Ray's appearance on the scene might not seem to be like the second coming of Christ, and in fact, on a technical level there's nothing about Texas Flood that would radically distinguish the guy from, say, Duane Allman. But let's not forget that by the early Eighties, blues and blues-based rock as a popular phenomenon had nearly died out - it still had its audience among the Southern barroom crowds, and people could still be buying B. B. King and Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton records, but they certainly weren't cool. They were old farts with a solid, but limited, audience. And here along comes somebody new. A new, fresh figure, young, talented, and impressive, and hugely professional at that, bursting with energy and passion. And suddenly, hoopla, for some time, the blues is cool again!

And Texas Flood really delivers. Recorded over a couple of days with his backing band, with minimal studio time and minimal, if any, overdubs (mostly live, I think, and most of the songs on the first, maximum second, take), it's thoroughly unoriginal, yet thoroughly entertaining. I'm not too sure what exactly to write about these songs: the actual melodies are all in the traditional blues vein, sometimes merged with faster blues-rock, sometimes on the brink of becoming rockabilly, and occasionally venturing into jazzier territory. Stevie's vocal is maybe a little less developed than on future records, but he just sounds like yo av'rage guy from de sunny Texas oughta sound, man. Think a slightly less whiny Gregg Allman. So it's basically his guitar or nothing.

One could argue that Texas Flood is really nothing but a good combination of all the distinct personalities Vaughan had previously studied: some Albert King imitation, some Buddy Guy imitation, some Hendrix imitation, and that's Stevie for you. But first of all, not everybody can do a prime imitation of all these guys: for instance, take a listen at the driving riff and maniac soloing of the instrumental 'Testify' and you tell me if anybody but Jimi could have actually played like that. No wonder the public scooped the record up like mad; through some of these songs, it was able to smell a whiff of the passionate idealistic Sixties spirit. Yes, 'Testify' is certainly derivative of classic Jimi material like, say, 'Killing Floor', but it's hardly just a soulless imitation - simply because it's impossible to imitate Jimi well if you don't put all of your soul into it. There's none of that entertaining, but essentially robotic Van Halen/Gary Moore-like shredding on here, instead, Stevie somehow learns to treat the instrument as an integral part of his body and spirit, just like Jimi did. And it works.

It also works on the slow, guitar-torturing workout of the title track, where some of Jimi's techniques are again used by Stevie to good effect (although he prefers to evade imitating Jimi's gimmicky sides - his guitar playing is much cleaner, with all the feedback limited to just a few minor occasions where its presence really adds a lot to the particular solo's power). It also works when Stevie is brewing up a fast jazzy storm on the instrumental 'Rude Mood', with highly expressive phrasing that never amounts to mere showcasing. In fact, there's no showcasing at all on the album; I can't name even a single passage where it'd be obvious that Stevie was just 'flashing his chops', and yet it never gets boring anyway.

Other highlights include his funny rendition of 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' (taken over from the Buddy Guy reinterpretation), the almost entirely trill-based 'Dirty Pool' which is pretty unique as far as seriously depressing blues songs go, and the closing moody instrumental 'Lenny', dedicated to his wife. Note, too, that despite the lack of originality, there's a whole range of moods and styles covered here - fast tracks, slow tracks, barroom rock, moody emotional blues, rockabilly, you name it, and Stevie feels pretty comfortable with everything. The album's sequencing is really fun as well, opening with a couple faster, ass-kicking numbers, then wisely alternating slower and faster songs and ending with the intimate "encore" of 'Lenny'. Maybe a couple tracks might seem superfluous ('I'm Cryin', for instance, is hardly necessary in the light of the far superior 'Pride And Joy'), but overall it's one hell of a bluesy album - and, in fact, come to think of it, at least when we only count white blues performers, I can't really think of a record whose existence would nullify the need for Texas Flood. So let's put it this way.



Year Of Release: 1984

Uhm, not nearly as superlative, mainly because (a) we heard it all before and (b) Stevie sounds like he's not having so much fun on this record as he had on Texas Flood. There's less songs, for starters, and the mood is mostly depressing throughout, with just a couple upbeat compositions and lotsa covers that can please you or displease you, but aren't nearly as good as the ones he did before. Maybe the fame got to his head way too quickly - I don't know at what particular stage of alcohol-related problems he was in 1984, but could have been something to do with that, too.

No, I mean, it's great to hear his version of 'Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)' once, just to see that he can indeed play it almost the exact same way that Jimi did. And don't get me wrong: it's a spectacular achievement, I really don't know any other guitarist who could approach the style of Hendrix with such precision and such understanding. He gets all the vibratos right, follows the exact syncopation pattern, recreates the "three-guitars-in-one" effect to a tee... no complaints whatsoever from the technical side. But once you got through your initial amazement, how often would you like to listen to this thing? Will it really substitute the original for you? Need it substitute the original? Besides the fact that I do feel a certain whiff of sterility about it (I guess it's the same thing that separates the original art masterpiece from a perfect copy - you still can't be sure you'll get the exact emotional effect from an imitation, however perfect it is), it just doesn't have any independent use of its own. Yeah so this guy can play exactly like Jimi. Yeah so what?

And nine more minutes are wasted on Stevie's 'Tin Pan Alley', which is hardly anything more than a re-write of the classic 'Double Trouble', performed close to the way Eric Clapton was performing that song in concert. Now to tell the truth, there's some great jazzy soloing going on there, but the style doesn't vary at all through all of its nine minutes, and the vocal parts aren't particularly impressive. I do think the number would be great in a live setting, but in the studio it sounds a bit stiff and way too monotonous - kinda like all those Cream jams, but with far less energy.

So my personal money here is on the shorter numbers, a bunch of which manages to artistically save the record and some of which are even superior to Texas Flood material, or so it seems - like the ass-kickin' opener, 'Scuttle Buttin', for instance. More of Stevie's jazzy tricks itched in between lightning-speed expressive riffs, all of this set to a fast, steady, unpretentious blues-rock beat, and it's all over in two minutes - could have easily trimmed down 'Tin Pan Alley' a bit to make that one longer, but who are we mere mortals to question the structural patterns of guitar greats? A bunch of squirrel diarrhoea, no more. Remember that the next time I start complaining about how much Mick Box's "immortal" solo on 'The Magician Birthday's' sucks.

SO! The title track rocks just as hard as 'Scuttle Buttin', and actually does the depressed angered bluesy heart trick much better than 'Tin Pan Alley' - just a plain (well, not too plain) hot little rocker to bang your head to, all jagged riffs and unexpected tonality changes and more Hendrix-derived lead guitar licks. 'The Things That I Used To Do' (slow soulful blues) and 'Cold Shot' (mid-tempo shufflin' blues) are nothing special as far as structure goes, but they're moderately short, so if you're into blues, or Stevie Ray, at all, you'll have nothing against them - I personally feel Stevie could use a little bit of arranging diversity here, but, well, okay, I'll swallow generic blues if it's played really well, and this one is.

At the very end of the record comes 'Honey Bee', which is another midtempo blues-rocker that almost feels like total salvation after the tediousness of 'Tin Pan Alley', and a short pure jazz improvisation, 'Stang's Swang', so that the album basically shows the limits of Stevie's stylistic range for all they're worth - well, from the blues of 'Scuttle Buttin' to the jazz of this thing. I frankly don't know why I give this baby three stars... it doesn't seem particularly inspired to me. But I suppose the fact that Stevie can play like Hendrix does have to be rewarded, after all, and besides, a great guitarist is a great guitarist, as long as he doesn't particularly fuck up the songs; I'd still take this thing over Clapton's Collins-produced period any time of day.



Year Of Release: 1985

Here's where Stevie starts adding a pinch of diversity to the proceedings. On Soul To Soul, he tackles pretty much every traditional style of music as long as it has some real energy and passion in it (so country-western's out of the question). There's rock, blues, funk & R'n'B, jazz, and fiery balladry - all done in an expert and dedicated manner. Adding to this that Stevie's composing is starting to mature, and that there's a whole range of guitar tones to be explored on the songs, you get the point of view that it's one of his best albums. Right? More or less so, except that I'd still take Texas Flood over it due to the importance of the Devastating Original Impact. This stuff, good as it is, is still kinda secondary.

But I do like the way the album is sequenced. We open up with 'Say What!', one of Stevie's most aggressive compositions, a mid-tempo instrumental blues-rocker with soaring lead wah-wah parts (if I'm not mistaken, the first time Stevie actively employed a gritty wah-wah part in anything that wasn't a Hendrix cover). Of course, it's a bit hard to get sooo excited about this kind of ravaging playing more than fifteen years after its release... it won't be better than Hendrix, right? It was a marvel coming out in the era of synthesized loops, but now? Well... I dare say it still stands its ground even now. Put it this way: only about, say, half a dozen blues rock guitarists were able to come up with something similar, and when they did, it was similar and not the same. So get it!

We continue with a couple more blues-rockers, 'Lookin' Out At The Window' and 'Look At Little Sister', who, unfortunately, share the disgrace of being set to exactly the same melody - when one stops and the other one begins, you'd swear Stevie just made a short stop-and-start within one big song. That's one notch out of the "excellent structure", I'll admit, but then again, I'd rather have one big six-minute blues tune like that then having it reappear throughout the album - besides, there's some great playing on here, and the work of the brass section on both tunes is admirable.

'Ain't Gonna Give Up On Love', as you can easily guess from the title, is a ballad - the classic formulaic "now we play the organ very quietly... and now we play these guitar licks very quietly... and now we TEAR THE MOTHERFUCKIN' ROOF DOWN WITH THAT SOLO!" kind of ballad, the kind of ballad you can hear Clapton perform so often. In fact, I'd definitely say Stevie is "Claptonifying" his approach here, the exact way he was "Hendrixifying" it on some of the other songs. And then he dumps both and just plays some soothin' jazz for three minutes ("Gone Home"). It's nice to see him get better and better with jazz improvisation on each new album - admittedly, he'd never make it in a regular fusion band because he can't play as fast and precise as, say, Alan Holdsworth, but he's not really supposed to. He's an "amateur" in that area, and sometimes I far prefer the "amateurishness" in jazz to slick technical professionalism.

'Change It' could be taken for just another blues-rocker, but that's the one that really has a soulful vibe to it - with a bigger, more powerful arrangement (not quite a wall-of-sound, but close), and with an ever more passionate and less formulaic vocal delivery. Do you like Stevie's voice? I confess - I don't. He's doing a good job with it, but I'm just not a fan of his stereotypic Southern rasp. (Not that it affects the ratings or anything). But there are exceptions, like this song, when he raises his pipes to an almost howling-growling black sound, and gives a near-climactic performance.

'You'll Be Mine' is probably the best song on here from a pure melodic stand - you definitely gotta love that chuggin' ascending riff (again, played Hendrix-style, ah, if only I could define it... but it's pretty obvious, isn't it?), even if the actual verse melody somehow dumps the coolest parts of that riff. Anyway, it's definitely a great song to be learned from the album (you don't really need to learn any of the others if you have already taken a crash course in blues guitar - as for Stevie's solos, they can't be learned anyway. I mean, technically they can, but what kind of a dork would want to learn 'em?). 'Empty Arms' is a bit of generic filler, but the cover of Jimi's "Come On" is tremendously well done - and not being as excruciatingly long as the cover of 'Voodoo Chile', it gets my thumbs up. Geez, when he gets to that solo, I could swear it's Hendrix himself rising from the dead. (Then again, why the hell would Jimi want to implant himself in the body of a cloudy-minded Southern hick is beyond me - but that's what life's big surprises are for!).

Finally, the album closes with the soul ballad 'Life Without You', which is nothing to write home about, but provides a decent flourish, and now I've described all the songs to you as best I could - sorry, Stevie is one hell of a naggin' bitch to review. Still not sure whether to buy it or not? Then don't. Still not sure whether I'm a soulless idiot or not? Then buy it!


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