“Couldn’t Stand the Weather”
Stevie Ray Vaughan
The late summer sun had produced an almost idyllic Saturday for a concert. My Friends and I were at Alpine Valley Music Theatre for what was promising to be the “can’t miss concert” of the 1990 season. What we didn’t know at the time was just how “can’t miss” this concert was going to be. Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed the next day in a helicopter crash following the Sunday concert at Alpine Valley, and month before the release of Family Style the first and sadly only album by Stevie Ray and his brother Jimmy Vaughan.
Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eric Clapton were on the bill. Each musician promoting an album, Robert Cray’s “Don’t be afraid of the dark” from the album of the same name was battling for position in the charts with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Crossfire” from his In Step album and Eric Clapton’s “Forever Man” from his Journey Man album. I had originally become interested in Stevie Ray’s music after hearing the song “Willie the Wimp” that Stevie Ray wrote about a the son of William “Fluky” Stokes a prominent Chicago street gang boss and drug dealer . Willie, his son was killed in the gang violence of the time and his father had him buried in his favorite Cadillac. Stevie Ray’s song lambasted the glorification and extravagance of the funeral and the people involved. The song rose as high as nineteen on Billboard’s charts.
The day was warm and sunny with cool breezes moving through the valley while music blared all directions from car radios and boom boxes in anticipation of the festival about to unfold. We had wrapped up our tailgate party and moved into the theatre’s section of lawn seats and managed to find a great spot from which to view the show. Robert Cray and his band started things off just as the sun moved low enough in the sky to provide a natural spotlight for Cray and his band. They deftly played through their set finishing with an incredibly powerful and yet soulful rendition of the title song from his album Don’t be Afraid of the Dark.
My Buddy Kris and I decided the best place to watch Cray’s final song was from the line to the restrooms. Upon completing our business we found ourselves inside the main building at Alpine Valley as we looked around we noticed that security was struggling with a young woman who was attempting to gain access to the upper level of the structure, the place where there was most likely a private party in progress. Kris and I decided “eh, what’s the worst that can happen to us, they tell us we have to leave, we leave.” So stepping past the woman and the two security guards struggling with her we made our way upstairs. As we expected we found a party in progress, hosted by one of the record labels, they had a cash bar with no lines so after getting a couple of beers I joined Kris at the windows.
The actual glass in the windows had been removed to allow not only a clear view of what was going on, on stage, also allowing the music to fill the room. They were still in progress of readying the stage for Stevie Ray when we got there. So we made small talk with some the record company people and their guests. In those days my hair was long, pulled back in a ponytail and long beard made me look like I was the missing fourth for ZZ Top. It also didn’t hurt that I was myself playing professionally at the time and knew a lot of the industry slang and news from the trades as our party crashing went unnoticed.
When Stevie Ray and his current band Double Trouble took the stage we were about ten feet above him and about twenty-five feet away from him. He looked good, though the signs of his past addictions still clearly showed having only been out of rehab a couple of years. His many years of cocaine and alcohol abuse had started while he was still only known to audiences in his native state of Texas about the time he started playing with his first band The Blackbirds. His addictions had really gotten the better of him after his first album Texas Flood had become both a critical and commercial success. Stevie Ray with his trademark Fender Stratocaster opened with a fiery version the song “The House is a Rockin’ “the first song on In Step. The album charted as high as thirty-three on Billboard’s top two hundred and the song charted eighteenth on Billboard and was getting a decent share of air time on the radio. Stevie Ray’s playing style is heavily blues oriented. Most of His early experiences in music came through his older brother Jimmy Vaughan who is also a professional musician and was the front man for the Fabulous Thunderbirds. At seventeen Stevie Ray moved from his home in Dallas to Austin in pursuit of his dream to become a professional musician. In interviews Stevie Ray would also credit Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Lonnie Mack, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix as some of his many influences.
After they finished “The House is a Rockin’” they started straight into the song “Crossfire” a song that would become a number one hit. Stevie Ray wrote the song while in rehab to describe the inner conflicts he was feeling at the time. “I had hit rock bottom and there was nowhere to go but up” Stevie Ray told Bill Milkowski in an interview for the liner notes for In Step. Stevie Ray also told him “I had tried to pull myself up by my bootstraps, so to speak, and they were broken, you know? In my mind I had envisioned myself just staying high the rest of my life. But I was running out of gas and there were no pumps inside. So I had to give up to win because I was losing the battle.” Hearing him sing the song you could easily hear the Texas blues influence. Steve Ray was taught to sing by his life-long friend and music collaborator and fellow Texan Doyle Bramhall, back while he and Stevie Ray played with Marc Benno and his band Marc Benno and the Nightcrawlers. Also during that time Stevie Ray got his first taste of studio work when he and Marc recorded an album for A&M records who decided not to promote or distribute the album after they completed it. After “Crossfire” ended they jumped into “Tightrope” the third song on the album, it would reach fourteenth on Billboard and another one Stevie Ray wrote regarding his battle with his addictions and the struggle with staying sober. He also added in his interview with Milkowski, “Now I’m not trying to make a commitment for the rest of my life but just for today.” Something I also had heard him say in other interviews, kind of a cornerstone mantra of the rehab crowd.
After the high energy blues rock driven first three songs Stevie Ray took a second to introduce the band. From our vantage point we were able to clearly see all the musicians on stage with him. To us there seemed to be a clear division on stage between significantly older musicians and few younger journeymen musicians to fill out the sound. The older musicians were Tommy Shannon on bass guitar and Chris Layton on drums with Reese Wynans on keyboard. Tommy and Chris had been with Stevie Ray from his days after Marc Benno left his own band and Stevie Ray to strike out on a solo career at the behest of A & M Records. Tommy & Chris had lived through it all with Stevie Ray. The early struggles to keep work coming in, to Stevie Ray’s collapse and on a stage in London that almost killed him and got him started on the road to recovery. Now though, they all seemed to be having the time of their lives on stage. Stevie Ray got things back in swing by performing some songs from his earlier albums. They did “Texas flood” and “Mary had a Little Lamb” from his double platinum first album Texas Flood finishing up this remembrance with a smoking version of “Willy the Wimp”, a song Stevie Ray frequently received requests to play every time he was in or near Chicago. From our windows seats it was obvious how much his music meant to Stevie Ray, you could see it in his face as he lost himself in the wall of sound emanating from the stage. I know from my own experiences that being in the center of the sound generated from a band playing music is both an alluring and compelling experience, as you listen to yourself and those around playing you find yourself living real-time in the song as you respond to everything happening around you in an almost transcendental state of being. Stevie Ray frequently said “he could not imagine doing anything else but playing music.” For him it was an obsession, a passion, almost a religion.
After the retrospective, Stevie Ray and company were back on In Step. “Let me love you Baby” and “Leave my little girl alone” were two slower songs from the album, “Leave my little alone” could even be called a ballad. It gave Stevie Ray and his band the opportunity to explore the slower and bluesier side of their music. As the song progressed everyone on stage got a chance to show what they could do as each of them took a “lead break” in the music. From our position we could see that at first Stevie Ray was calling the shots as to who was leading the break. As the song continued their years of playing together showed as instinct took over and the break took on a life of their own. After they’d finished Stevie Ray took a second to speak about Family Style. His new album that would be out next month featuring both him and his brother Jimmy Vaughan and a new band called The Vaughan Brothers. The two brothers had talk about and dreamed for years of doing an album together and it had finally happened. Jimmy Vaughan had left his band The Fabulous Thunderbirds so he could concentrate on this album with his younger brother. Unknown to everyone at the time the album would go on to be both a huge critical and commercial success. After the applause and cheers subsided the band launched to a raucous rendition of “Travis Walk,” a screaming twelve bar blues instrumental that set the stage for another heavily blues influenced song from the In Step album. “Wall of Denial” further speaks about his struggles with and his getting a handle on his demons. “Scratch N Sniff” came next followed by “Love me little Darlin’” These two songs were the light hearted side of the show, their upbeat rhythms and more playful lyrics spoke of the lighter side of Stevie Ray’s personality. By this point Stevie Ray’s time on stage was almost over and he announced that one more song and they would be done, it was at this time Kris and I decided to head back to our group in time to see Eric Clapton take the stage. “Riviera Paradise” had just started as we moved through the crowd at the windows and proceeded to the exit. The first few dulcet tones were filling the air as we paused at security to get our hands stamped in so we could get back in to the party; after all we had to have some proof of our story when got back to our group. Making our way back to our friends we could see Stevie Ray and Double Trouble, they were much smaller now that we were about thirty rows from them , but the music was still the same. “Riviera Paradise” is an instrumental unlike “Travis Walk” it was slower and musically much more complex. They were really on their game while playing it as the cool night air moved through the crowds and the clear night sky was allowing for stars to peek through the dome of light caused by the Alpine Valley Theatre. That gave the song a lofty almost ethereal dimension. When we returned to our group the questions, shocked looks and sly smiles and hearty laughs from our friends about our recent activity added to the nights festivities. Eric Clapton was great his show was incredible at the end of it all, Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eric Clapton played several encores with the help from Buddy Guy. Who made surprise appearance after the trio had completed their first encore song.
As we made our way back to our cars the conversation was all about the show, and everyone’s impressions of what they had just seen and heard. All of us unknowing of what was would happen the very next day here at Alpine Valley. When a guy considered to be one of the most respected and influential guitarists of all time would board a helicopter with an inexperienced pilot on a foggy night and crash into the side of a three hundred foot cliff while leaving the theatre. During his life Stevie Ray Vaughan had collaborated with such musicians as David Bowie, Lonnie Mack and Stevie Wonder just to name a few. Among his close friends were guys like B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Jackson Browne, Buddy Guy, and Christopher Cross. We were all in shock on that Monday morning after the concert as we skimmed the local papers for information and the radio at work was tuned on NPR as they talked in length about Stevie Ray and his career and life.
The loss of Stevie Ray Vaughan on that foggy night affected the music industry on the whole. According to John Hammond Sr. the man who discovered Bessie Smith, Charlie Christian, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen described Stevie Ray in this way (as quoted by Andrew Aledort in The essential Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble liner notes) “I haven’t heard a musician as imbued with blues spirit as Stevie since Robert Johnson.” Musicians from all music genres lined-up to pay tribute to him when they finally laid him to rest in Laurel Land Memorial Park cemetery in Austin Texas on August 31st. At the service they placed his beloved Stratocaster on one side of the stage and his picture on the other. While Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt, and Jackson Browne sang a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace” and Niles Rodgers did eulogy. Rodgers said “In the song “Tick Tock,” he sings the refrain ‘remember’ and what Stevie was trying to tell me, and I guess all of us-he was trying to tell me ‘Nile, remember my music. Remember how important music is to all of us. And just remember it’s a gift. ‘Stevie was truly touched by the hand of God. He had a powerful gift. And through his music he can make us all remember things that are very very important- like love and family.” On his grave they placed a placard, it states simply: We will cherish what you have given us and weep for the music left unplayed. Stevie Ray was born on 03 October 1954. Had he lived he would have been fifty-seven, and the music world would have been a very different place…
Citations and Bibliography
Aledort, Andrew. The Heart of Texas: The Stevie Ray Vaughan Story. “The Essential Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble”. 2002, Sony Music Entertainment, 550 Madison Ave. New York NY 10022-3211
Milkowski, William. Liner Notes, “In Step (re-released cd).” 1986, 1990 Sony Music Entertainment, 550 Madison Ave. New York NY 10022-3211
Stevie Ray Vaughan. 02 October 2011, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia . (Wikipedia)Http://www.Wikipedia.org/Stevie_Ray_Vaughan
Ventura, Michael. Liner Notes, “Texas Flood (re-released cd).” 1983, 1999 Sony Music Entertainment, 550 Madison Ave. New York NY 10022-3211