AUSTIN STORY: THE ELECTRIC VERSION, TAKE ONE…

A lot of people are calling Gary Clark, Jr. the rising star of electric blues music, and the newest future music superstar to come out of Austin, Texas.  If so, and he offers much evidence to support such claims, he joins Stevie Ray Vaughan in the royalty of electric Texas blues, a feat made more poignant by the cruel loss of S.R.V., twenty-three years ago today.

Stevie played in several Dallas-area bands, before he tried his luck down Austin’s way.  I first heard his lacerating lead guitar, lighting up the title track and several others from David Bowie’s “Let Dance” album, while I still lived out in California.  It was not the popular sound in the old neighborhood, but that just intrigued me even more; I hadn’t heard anybody play quite like that before.  It wasn’t until I moved to Austin that I started to grasp why he had left such a mark on the Live Music Capital, as the city is called.

Over and over, I played his albums with Double Trouble, a trio which included bassist Tommy Shannon, drummer Chris Layton and – later – keyboardist Reese Wynans; each time, the group’s style and firepower just floored me.  (Years later, I discovered that Stevie drew from jazz, as well as the blues – legend has it the Thin White Duke first heard Double Trouble perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival; S.R.V.’s appetite for different styles, I think, explains not only his technical sophistication, but the fluid and complex way he drew out notes, or rode them to someplace unexpected.)  Stevie had recorded an album with his previous band, the Nightcrawlers, but the record label in question declined to release that music for many years; Mr. Vaughan was ahead of his time, which is not surprising.

Turning down a chance to be his benefactor’s “hired hand” on a tour, Stevie stuck to his guns, recording “Texas Flood” for release in 1983.  More albums followed: “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” in 1985, “Soul to Soul” and “Live Alive” a year later, and “In Step” in 1989.  Addiction problems followed, and relationship problems — the usual bugaboos, it often seems, of creative spirits.  Like so many before him, I suppose Stevie had to live the blues, too, with as much authenticity as that with which he played them.  As I understand it, he moved home to Dallas, cleaned up, got a new girlfriend, and made a blues album (“Family Style”) with Jimmie, but then, as they say, Fate intervened.

Joe Louis Walker and Stevie Ray Vaughan relaxi...
Joe Louis Walker and Stevie Ray Vaughan relaxing at home (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following an extended blues jam, at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre, located in East Troy, Wisconsin, with Eric Clapton, Albert Collins, Albert King and Buddy Guy — the kind of show the ancient Greek gods must have heard, up on Mount Olympus — it seems Stevie Ray wanted to arrive early in Chicago, so he could phone up his new girlfriend.  So he decided to hop aboard a night-flying helicopter – and … well, instead, arrived in rock and roll heaven, or blues heaven, just thirty-five years young.

Austin, of course, continued to bustle and expand, becoming renowned for its cultural and other attractions; it went from being a “well-kept secret”, in S.R.V.’s lifetime, to an ever-expanding “hot spot” – perhaps the fastest-growing city in Texas.  For many who wish to “Keep Austin Weird”, not commercialized, this is a drawback.  Few outside of town realize that giants walked the streets there, lugging their instruments and their aspirations to Clifford Antone‘s famed nightclub, and similar venues, in years past.

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