It may seem unbelievable, but it’s been nearly 25 years since Stevie Ray Vaughan perished at the age of 35, victim of a helicopter crash. Yet it’s a testament to the guitar slinger’s blazing talent that his musicianship even today remains a high watermark for those playing his instrument. A six-time Grammy winner and inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame and Musicians Hall of Fame, the Texas native created music that is as vibrant and stirring today as when it was first committed to tape. The Legacy Recordings/Epic Records release of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s The Complete Epic Recordings Collection (8884 309142 2) makes the guitarist’s core catalogue available in one package for the first time. The 12-CD set contains nine albums on 10 CDs (including the 2-disc Live at Montreux) all recorded between 1980 and 1989, the year before his untimely death. These albums are sequenced, for the most part, in order of performance, not of release. Two Archives CDs of odds and ends (outtakes, alternates, jams and more) culled from various compilations and reissues round out the set.
As Vaughan and Double Trouble only left behind four studio albums (Texas Flood, Couldn’t Stand the Weather, Soul to Soul and In Step), much of this compendium is dedicated to live material. But seeing as how Vaughan’s talent shone most brightly in a live setting, this is far from a handicap. When David Bowie saw Vaughan at Montreux in 1982, he promptly enlisted him to play on his smash “Let’s Dance.” The first track on the first disc in this box – Freddie King and Sonny Thompson’s “In the Open” from 1992’s posthumous In the Beginning, recorded for radio in 1980 with a line-up including Jackie Newhouse on bass and Chris Layton on drums – has an apropos title. Once Stevie (he hadn’t yet acquired the Ray) Vaughan played his axe in the open, there was no going back. Even in this embryonic set from his home state of Texas, Vaughan had all of the ingredients that would lead to his eventual success: inventive and deeply felt phrasing, technical skill, a distinctive tone, and the ability to bring joie de vivre to the blues. Throughout his career, Vaughan also used effects pedals conservatively, giving him a pure, raw sound.
At the Texas show preserved on In the Beginning, original songs sat comfortably alongside those by the masters like King, Willie Dixon, Otis Rush and Howlin’ Wolf, with Vaughan’s style recognizably in blues tradition but with enough edge and immediacy to captivate a modern audience. With a seemingly endless supply of lacerating licks, Vaughan showed off his innate swing on the boogie-woogie strut of “They Call Me Guitar Hurricane” and conjured up high-octane Chuck Berry riffs of “Love Struck Baby.” He could also bring things down and still rivet as on “Tin Pan Alley (a.k.a. Roughest Place in Town).” Besides his instrumental skills, Vaughan could also belt the blues convincingly. Having the “whole package,” it’s no wonder that legendary A&R man and producer John Hammond, Sr. (veteran of artists from Benny Goodman to Bruce Springsteen!) championed the young artist at Epic.
There’s more after the jump!
The Complete Epic Recordings Collection features one new-to-CD album, the promotional LP A Legend in the Making: Live at the El Mocambo. Currently an exclusive to the box set, it was recorded in 1983 about a month after Vaughan and Double Trouble’s Epic debut Texas Flood was issued. By that time, Tommy Shannon had replaced Jackie Newhouse on bass. More than half of the tracks on Flood were performed live at the show, among them The Isley Brothers’ “Testify,” Buddy Guy’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Larry Davis and Joseph Wade Scott’s “Texas Flood,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Tell Me,” and Vaughan’s originals “Love Struck Baby,” “Rude Mood,” and “Pride and Joy.” The latter, of course, defied the odds to become a hit. The twelve-bar blues reached No. 20 on (ironically) the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, and Texas Flood reached the Top 40 of the Billboard 200, ushering in a blues revival in the era of synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines and ultra-glossy pop productions. The music video for “Love Struck Baby” even became a favorite on MTV! At El Mocambo, Vaughan and Double Trouble bravely, affectionately and exhilaratingly took on Jimi Hendrix for fiery runs through “Little Wing/Third Stone from the Sun” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” The latter would be reprised on 1984’s studio effort Couldn’t Stand the Weather, the second of the band’s four studio albums – all of which reached the 30s of the Billboard 200 and became perennially strong sellers. With 1989’s In Step, Double Trouble would even score a No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart via “Crossfire.”
It’s exciting to trace the development of Vaughan and Double Trouble. The group introduces other textures into their music beginning with Weather, with Stan Harrison supplying tenor saxophone for “Stang’s Swang” and Stevie’s brother Jimmie adding rhythm guitar to a couple of tracks. 1984’s Carnegie Hall concert boasts the participation of Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, plus the smoking-hot Roomful of Blues Horn Section. Soon, organist Reese Wynans would become an integral addition to the Double Trouble sound, as reflected on the 1985 Live at Montreux recording and beyond. Wynans and Jimmie (this time on six-string bass) both appear on Live Alive, the 1986 album drawn from Montreux, Austin and Dallas gigs. While the original Live Alive has been truncated by one track (“Life Without You”) on previous CD issues, it’s happily complete with 14 spirited songs here including a dynamic reinvention of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”
Because of the number of live performances included here, there’s naturally quite a bit of repetition. “Love Struck Baby” appears six times, “Tin Pan Alley” and “Rude Mood” get four airings, and so on. One’s mileage will naturally vary as to hearing Vaughan and Double Trouble repeatedly flex their improvisatory muscles to keep a relatively small repertoire fresh. While the band audibly feeds off the audience in a live setting, producers including Richard Mullen, Jim Capfer and Jim Gaines, together with Vaughan and Double Trouble, were able to keep energy high for the four studio albums, as well.
How complete is Complete? Though the two discs of Archives admirably collect most of the rarities from such releases as 1991’s The Sky is Crying, 2000’s SRV anthology, and the expanded editions of Texas Flood (1999), Couldn’t Stand the Weather (1999/2010) and Soul to Soul (1999), there are still numerous officially-released tracks missing. Stevie’s 1990 Family Style, while on Epic, is not included, as it was a collaboration with Jimmie Vaughan and not with Double Trouble. Texas Flood and Weather were both expanded as Legacy Editions in 2010 and 2013, respectively, with the original album on Disc One and a previously unreleased concert on Disc Two; those performances from Philadelphia in 1983 and Montreal in 1984 are surprisingly absent.
This set has been produced by Gregg Geller, who originally signed Vaughan to Epic. He has seen that it’s a tribute worthy of the late guitar hero. Though numerous labels have emulated the look of Legacy’s complete-style box sets, few have done so with the same attention to detail. Whereas other labels’ releases frequently include no booklet whatsoever, The Complete Epic Recordings Collection has 32 fine pages of notes and credits, featuring a warm appreciation by Damian Fanelli of Guitar World. All discs are packaged in replica mini-LP jackets with added white borders and consistent spine design. Period-appropriate Epic Records labels also adorn the discs themselves.
For longtime fans, the box consisting of all previously released material offers an opportunity to upgrade from vinyl; if all of these albums (save El Mocambo) are already in your collection on CD, Vic Anesini’s crisply detailed remasterings in addition to the bonus material might prove reasons enough to take the plunge. But the box seems to serve most importantly as an ideal primer for new (or potential) fans.
The story of Stevie Ray Vaughan is the story of a musician remaining true to himself and his muse, honing and refining his signature style, all the while struggling to keep his demons at bay. Of course, that story was tragically cut short, but its most vital parts are told in the music he left behind in his 35 years, much of which you’ll find on The Complete Epic Recordings Collection. With Double Trouble, he captivated a new generation by singing and playing the blues, but you won’t be singing them yourself when you delve into this compelling musical history.