Greatest Hits

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble

Epic Records, 1995

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Was Stevie Ray Vaughan the greatest blues guitarist who ever lived?

The question is impossible to answer, in part because Vaughan, surely the finest blues guitarist of the 1980s, died in an August 1990 helicopter crash. He was 35 then, at the height of his skills -- and a young pup by the standards of the blues. How much better might he have become? You might as well ask how high the sky is.

The die-hard blues fan probably needs all of Vaughan's albums. His skill as an interpreter of anything from traditional electric blues to the work of his idol, Jimi Hendrix, is incredible to hear. But for the new fan, Greatest Hits makes an excellent starting point.

The one -- and only -- fault I can find with this album is sequencing. Starting off with the familiar -- but in Vaughan's hands, utterly transformed -- "Taxman" is bound to lead the casual listener astray in terms of expectations. The song is the only cover of a mainstream pop-rock song on the whole album, and Vaughan's rumbly barroom-shouter vocals here are a far cry from George Harrison's sweet tenor.

Still, the guitar, as you might expect, is fairly spectacular. Vaughan punctuates the beat with gunshot riffs that positively leap out of the mix. The one thing the song certainly accomplishes is to introduce his remarkable ability to play both rhythm and lead at the same time. There is only one guitarist playing here, and no overdubs, and yet there isn't an empty beat to be found as Vaughan leaps seamlessly from holding up the rhythm to banging out tight little lead riffs.

"Texas Flood" might have made a more logical opener. Taken from Vaughan's debut album of the same name, it's a classic "hard blues" track, the rhythm section slumbering along behind Vaughan's raw, steamy vocals, interrupted mid-song by a slow-burning solo that warms your ears up for what's to come.

"The House is Rockin'" picks up the pace with a tight, fun little roadhouse blues romp that pretty much forces you to tap your feet. "Pride and Joy," next up, introduces Vaughan's bread-and-butter genre, a mid-tempo blues that spotlights his rhythm-to-lead abilities, chugging along fervently from chorus to chorus and tearing through the solos between. Toward the end of the disc, "Change It," "Cold Shot" and "Couldn't Stand The Weather" fall in this same potent vein.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Among the best of Vaughan's originals is "Tightrope," a topical number addressing his battle with alcohol and substance abuse. Written and recorded just after he successfully completed a 12-step program, the lyric addresses how delicate sobriety is to maintain once you've had to battle to achieve it. That said, there's no mistaking the glorious relief Vaughan invests in the minute-long mid-song solo here. It is a total emotional release that just goes and goes, building and swerving and building once again until you're left standing there in your living room shaking your head with your jaw halfway to the floor.

And then, 60 seconds later, over the fade, he rips out another, completely different but in every way equal solo.

The only appropriate response is "DAMN."

But -- and this is where you just have to laugh, because, I mean, if you're a player yourself, what the hell else can you do? -- this is just part one of the trilogy that lies at the heart of this album.

No player that I've heard has ever come closer than Vaughan to matching both Jimi Hendrix's unique tonal style and his astonishing passion with his instrument. On this disc, Vaughan is heard covering Hendrix's "Little Wing" as an instrumental and investing himself 110% in every note. The movements in the song range from deathly quiet picking down low and up high on the frets to a pair of searing solos that sound like he's channeling Hendrix himself.

This tune's quiet finish leads directly into the one Vaughan cut that received substantial play on AOR stations. "Crossfire" was actually written by Vaughan's band, Double Trouble, and as you might expect it's very strong rhythmically, building off a driving bass line and muscular organ, and allowing Vaughan to concentrate on playing pure lead guitar. Vaughan produces one of his strongest vocals, a high, sweet, mid-song solo, and a closing solo that, well, DAMN. "Awesome" might cover the first ten seconds of it. It lasts thirty.

The answer to whether Stevie Ray Vaughan was the greatest blues guitarist of all time is that there isn't really an answer. There never can be; questions like this are inherently subjective. But there is a story, retold plainly and without false modesty in the excellent liner notes included on Greatest Hits (thank you, Dan Forte), that is worth repeating.

Vaughan's final concert was an all-star jam including sets from blues luminaries Buddy Guy, Robert Cray and Eric Clapton. Vaughan ripped it up that night, leaving the crowd breathlessly cheering his departure from the stage, and leaving Clapton with the unenviable task of following him. Clapton, whose prodigious playing was once hailed with the immortal phrase "Clapton is God," remembers his state of mind stepping onto the stage that night very clearly. "It had gone past the point of being envious or depressed," he recalls with an ironic laugh, "because no one could possibly expect me to be that good."

Was Vaughan the greatest? Who knows? But for one night at least, he was better than God.

Rating: A

User Rating: A



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