Having been too young to truly comprehend the gravity of John Lennon’s death in 1980, the untimely death of Stevie Ray Vaughan on August 27, 1990 marked the first time I ever truly mourned over the loss of a favorite artist.
I’ll never forget the day I heard the news. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year in high school, and I was working the day shift at my job ripping tickets at the local movie theater in Newburgh, New York. There was this hair rocker who used to man the popcorn popper upstairs adjacent to the projection room two days a week. He was the guy who broke the news to us that the Chicago-bound helicopter transporting the 35-year-old Vaughan and four other passengers crashed shortly after taking off following a massive gig opening for Eric Clapton in East Troy, Wisconsin, leaving no survivors.
Following Vaughan’s death, my tastes in music changed dramatically, the product of being turned on to the sounds of Bad Brains, Fugazi, Jane’s Addiction, Faith No More, and fIREHOSE from friends and compatriots who looked outside of our small town box for bold, new sounds. However, my roots in classic rock remained fervently intact. And no other contemporary artist under 40 spoke to those roots like Vaughan, which, in turn, kept such albums as Couldn’t Stand the Weather and In Step as vital to my daily listening as Repeater and Nothing’s Shocking. He was the first guitarist I got into solely on my own, having first witnessed the might of his guitar playing on MTV back in 1984 in the video for “Couldn’t Stand the Weather”. I was hooked ever since. And the fact that I would never be able to hear that guitar again in any new light after August 27, 1990 was ultimately what brought me such grief upon the news of his demise.
Fortunately, the barrage of live recordings, box sets, DVDs, and anthological compilations (in addition to 1990’s Family Style, the so-so posthumously-released collaborative album with brother Jimmie Vaughan) that have been released in the wake of Vaughan’s passing ensured that fans like myself would continue to keep Stevie Ray and his fiery, Hendrixian brand of scholarly blues playing in rotation on our stereos. The man had a supremely fierce mastery of his instrument, which, in turn, made his services a highly sought-after commodity upon his ascension to fame in the 1980s. Everyone from David Bowie to Jackson Browne to the very blues legends he so lovingly nicked styles from, like Albert King and Buddy Guy, all wanted a piece of him.
The newly released Solos, Sessions & Encores marks the first compilation that showcases just how in demand Vaughn’s skills were. Gathering together a good amount of his collaborative turns with a wide variety of acts that go back to 1978, many of which have never been released officially before, this set is a wonderful keepsake for his fans who may or may not have been aware of the guitarist’s diverse range of influences beyond the blues. Sure, there are plenty of tracks on Solos that fall into the very genre he became such a giant in. But the treat here is the varying span he covered being on display.
The first track — a seriously killer all-star jam of Elmore James’ “The Sky Is Crying” featuring Vaughn, Paul Butterfield, Albert King, and B.B. King from a recorded B.B. concert at the Ebony Showcase Theater in Los Angeles circa 1987 — certainly lays the proper groundwork. From there, you also get a pair of previously-unavailable onstage cameos from the 1988 New Orleans Jazz Festival, one with the Iceman, Albert Collins, on a rip through his signature “Albert’s Shuffle”, and then a duet with Crescent City blues mama Katie Webster on her song “On the Run”. And Katie Webster isn’t the only female Vaughan had lent his fire to, as appearances on blues pianist Marcia Ball’s 1984 Rounder release, Soulful Dress (where he solos on the title track), and Nashville singer Lou Ann Barton’s slick cover of Irma Thomas’s “You Can Have My Man” from 1978 are also prominently featured here. You even get a great previously unreleased live duet with Bonnie Raitt on his own “Texas Flood” from the 1985 Bumbershoot Festival that could very well go down as one of the best inter-gender guitar duels in rock history.
But what makes Solos, Sessions and Encores such a treat is the tracks that find Vaughan working beyond the blues canon. Here you have Stevie Ray tackling Meters-style funky R&B with renowned saxophonist A.C. Reed on the instrumental “Miami Strut”, off Reed’s 1987 album I’m in the Wrong Business, heavy AOR for a ferocious live take on Jeff Beck’s “Goin’ Down” (with the man himself) during a 1984 CBS Records Convention in Honolulu, Hawaii, and even surf music on his nearly-forgotten collaboration with Dick Dale on Dale’s own signature wave rocker “Pipeline”, from the Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon 1987 cinematic bomb Back to the Beach. And who could ever forget Vaughan’s enigmatic stint as David Bowie’s guitarist of choice for his signature ’80s album Let’s Dance, the smash title track of which is featured prominently at the end of this collection.
However, nothing on Solos, Sessions and Encores better displays Stevie Ray Vaughan than his own material, as the wonderful, previously unreleased performance of “Change It” — from a 1985 episode of Saturday Night Live where Stevie performs his Soul to Soul staple with his brother Jimmie — so eloquently signifies.
Lord knows who Stevie Ray Vaughn might’ve gotten down with had he lived to see 2007. A runaway imagination could see him palling up with the likes of the White Stripes or Wilco, or perhaps even Drive-By Truckers, although coalitions with the likes of Jonny Lang and Robert Randolph seem more realistic. Sadly, we’ll never know. And regardless of how many of these compilations are released, they will never be more than a mere band-aid for the legions of fans whose heart remains chipped from the news of that fateful day in August of 1990.