Remembering the master of 80s blues guitar with his 10 essential live moments
I’ll never forget the afternoon I got the news of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s death on August 27, 1990. It was from the drummer from the local hard rock group Worlds Within, who did a couple of days at the movie theater in Newburgh up in the popcorn room.
He came in that morning and the first thing he said to me was, “We lost Stevie.” At 16, It was the first time I ever felt true sorrow for someone with whom I was a fan. I wish he had never got on board that helicopter, for I can only imagine the classic blues records we have all missed out on these last 25 years, and how he would have gotten down with the likes of The Black Keys, Jack White, Gary Clark, Jr. and John Mayer. However, thanks to the advent of YouTube and especially its recent lifting of the 15 minute time limit cap on videos uploaded to the site, SRV fans can enjoy literal hours of rare, prime and live Stevie for as long as its allowed to stay up there. Here are 10 essential performances worth checking out while you can. Rest in peace, Stevie Ray Vaughan; the quarter century that’s passed since your untimely end has in no way cushioned the loss many fans still feel about your absence to this very day.
Live at Montreux 1985
Stevie’s second studio album, 1984’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather, has long been hailed as his singular masterpiece, one that crescendos with a fiery rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”. And in concert, Vaughan transformed his longtime guitar hero’s Electric Ladyland staple into his own seething beast. However, if you are looking for the ultimate version of the SRV take on “Voodoo”, look no further than his triumphant return to the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1985, where the guitarist and Double Trouble stretched the song past the 11-minute mark, throwing in a healthy spoonful of Jimi’s Band of Gypsys classic “Power of Soul” into the middle of the jam to boot, before channeling the electric fury directly into quite possibly the best live version of “Texas Flood” you’ll hear out there. And that’s not even mentioning the absolute money cameo from blues legend Johnny Copeland sitting in on “Cold Shot” and “Tin Pan Alley (The Roughest Place in Town)”. When it comes to essential Stevie, it doesn’t get more imperative than Montreux ’85.
VIDEO: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble Live at Montreux 1985
SRV with Albert King In Session 1983
In 1983, Fantasy Records wanted to hire Stevie to produce a new album for his longtime hero, Indianola blues giant Albert King. Unfortunately, the success of the young guitarist’s Epic debut Texas Flood that year, coupled with his involvement in David Bowie’s smash album Let’s Dance, priced Vaughan way out of the budget the struggling label could offer at the time. But in December of 1983, the two men were booked to jam together for the show In Session on the Hamilton, Ontario, public television station CHCH. King had known Vaughan as “Little Stevie”, the skinny white kid who used to come around and sit in whenever Albert passed through Austin, Texas, for gigs. To hear him tell the story on this show is both hilarious and heartwarming all at once. What would transpire over the course of the next hour and forty-five minutes is one of the most special unions of teacher and student in modern music history. “I’m about ready to turn it over to you,” King says to Vaughan at one point during the taping. “No, I don’t believe that,” Stevie responded. “Oh yes, it’s true son, it’s true,” he returned. “Twenty-eight years is long enough. I gotta sit back and watch you.” However, in a cruel twist of fate, King would outlive Stevie by two years when he suffered from a heart attack and died in December of 1992 at the age of 69.
VIDEO: SRV and Albert King In Session 1983
Performing “Jean Genie” with David Bowie on the Serious Moonlight tour rehearsals 1983
From Mick Ronson to Robert Fripp to Adrian Belew to Reeves Gabrels, David Bowie has always had exquisite taste in the guitarists he hired to work alongside both in studio and on stage. And Stevie’s presence throughout Let’s Dance made it the best Bowie record of the 80s. However, the idea of the guitarist going on tour with the Duke to support it didn’t survive beyond the tour rehearsals in Dallas, TX, on April 27th of 1983, as a contractual dispute saw Vaughan ducking out shortly thereafter with longtime Bowie cohort Carlos Alomar deftly taking his place on the tour. Yet someone on hand.at the Las Colinas Soundstage had the good sense to tape the proceedings, resulting in one of the most cherished bootlegs among fans of Bowie and Vaughan alike. Check out this incredible re-envisioning of “The Jean Genie” from the rehearsals that saw SRV help transform the Aladdin Sane fave into a B.B. King-style big band blues beatdown.
AUDIO: David Bowie and Stevie Ray Vaughan perform “Jean Genie” on the Dallas Moonlight rehearsal tapes
Jamming with Buddy Guy in 1989
Stevie was the special guest at Buddy Guy’s 53rd birthday party throwdown at the guitar great’s Chicago club Legends back on July 30th of 1989. The soundboard-quality hour-long jam has been available on the audio bootleg circuit for nearly a quarter century. However, earlier this year actual video footage of the gig turned up on YouTube, prompting a whole new wash of interest in the show, that has long since been a favorite for hardcore blues fans thanks to the way Vaughan and Guy entangle their distinctive styles of playing into pure knots of soul on stuff like this nail-tough take on Muddy Waters’ pimphand classic “Champagne & Reefer”.
VIDEO: SRV and Buddy Guy performing “Champagne and Reefer” in 1989
MTV Unplugged, 1990
One of Stevie’s final television appearances was the time he was featured in a particularly amazing blues-based episode of MTV Unplugged alongside fellow guitar magician Joe Satriani. Sitting on a stool with no sign of Double Trouble in sight, the Texan delivered a veritable gift to the music world on this cold January day in 1990 with this rare showcase of his acoustic mastery, destroying on a Guild 12-string with killer takes on instrumental cuts “Testify” and “Rude Mood” as well as a soulful spin through his signature hit “Pride and Joy”. Seeing him shine in this forum the way he did made his sudden death eight months later all the more painful for fans and friends alike.
VIDEO: Stevie Ray Vaughan MTV Unplugged
Costa Mesa, CA, October 2, 1988 sitting in with Santana
“This is healing music, because its by the hands and hearts of musicians who feel what they play before they give it to you,” proclaims Carlos Santana in the valley of a particularly poignant and impromptu jam during the Costa Mesa, California, stop on the Latino guitar icon’s tour in support of his excellent solo album Blues for Salvador. ” Joining him on stage that evening was Stevie and his brother Jimmie Vaughan of the Fabulous Thunderbirds as well as Cesar Rojas of Los Lobos, who, too, was coming off the heels of their own breakthrough album in 1987’s How Will the Wolf Survive?. Though the footage is a little shaky, but once you get to that four-minute mark when Jimmie tags off to his little brother, strapped with a double neck electric, you cannot remove your eyes from his hands jumping between fretboards in a build from slow burn to raging inferno in a matter of three minutes.
VIDEO: Stevie Ray Vaughan jams with Carlos Santana Costa Mesa, CA 10/2/88
Tornado Jam, Lubbock, TX, 1980
The coolest thing about this earliest known footage of Stevie Ray performing before a crowd of enthusiastic music lovers in at the very first Tornado Jam in Lubbock, Texas, is watching the wonderment in the eyes of those witnessing the young guitarist take total ownership of the stage, brimming with the confidence and experience of a man twice his age. Check out how he’s kneeling in front of the amplifier before proceeding to conjure a gale force storm of fiery improvised blues licks as the early incarnation of Double Trouble with Jackie Newhouse on the bass (Tommy Shannon would join drummer Chris Layton seven months later) play a perfect Experience to Vaughan’s Jimi Hendrix. This is Stevie Ray Vaughan at his most punk rock right here.
VIDEO: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble Tornado Jam 1980
Performing “Superstition” with Stevie Wonder, Jody Watley and Salt N Pepa on Jammin’ with MTV 1989
Now back when MTV had genuine creative ideas in music programming, there was a short-lived series in 1988 called Jammin’ with MTV that brought together unlikely combinations of hot acts on the channel at the time to get down onstage together. And the most memorable episode had pit Stevie performing Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”–a longtime favorite live cover for the guitarist–alongside the funk/soul icon himself with vocal help from Jody Watley and Salt N’ Pepa. And while on paper it had the makings of a total trainwreck, this ad hoc combo turned around and delivered an absolute winning version of the Talking Book anthem that saw all parties get into the groove in lock-tight harmony, highlighted by a surprisingly sharp vocal turn from Watley, whose voice sounded so good between Wonder’s funky clavinet and Vaughan’s rough-and-tumble Fender Strat. Had it not been for the generous person who put this up on YouTube, this treasure would have been forever lost in the chasm of MTV’s cold reel storage.
VIDEO: SRV performs with Stevie Wonder and friends on “Superstition” on Jammin’ With MTV
Performing “Crossfire” and “The House is Rockin'” on the Arsenio Hall Show, 1989
Couldn’t Stand the Weather might be Stevie Ray Vaughan’s greatest studio effort, but In Step is an incredibly close second, a sonic victory lap following the survival of a very rough, drug-induced mid-80s that nearly ended the guitar player’s career. And his best televised performance from what would become his last album promotion cycle was when he brought the pain to the dogg pound on the original Arsenio Hall Show. Never before has the call and response that kicks off “Crossfire” between Stevie and keyboardist Reese Wynans been so declarative of its mission statement, while the version of “The House is Rockin'” they brought to the stage that day had the initially skeptical Arsenio audience hooting and hollering for more. Hall asked Stevie if he dug rap music, to which the guitarist gave the quintessential non-answer of “I dig it all.” But whether or not Vaughan would have eventually taken a piece of hip-hop’s golden age with him had he lived through the 90s is one of the biggest “What Ifs” surrounding his death.
VIDEO: SRV On Arsenio 1989
“The Sky is Crying” at B.B. King’s A Night of Blistering Blues, 1987
“The first time I ever heard this song and the last time I’ll ever sing it I’ll be thinking of Mr. Albert King,” proclaimed Stevie following B.B. King’s declaring of him as the “new blood” during the late Blues Boy’s epic 1987 all-star concert A Night of Blistering Blues. Then he tore into his signature version of the old Elmore James standard “The Sky is Crying” with assistance from both Kings Albert and Riley as well as the equally legendary Paul Butterfield on harp and vocals as well. In an evening filled with such superstar names of the time as Eric Clapton, Etta James, Phil Collins, Chaka Khan and Billy Ocean, it was this incredible coronation of the future blues king in the form of this priceless four-way jam.
VIDEO: B.B. King and SRV perform “The Sky Is Crying” at King’s A Night of Blistering Blues, 1987