One of the first concerts I ever went to was at the old PPAC in Providence (Providence Performing Arts Center). I went with two sports buddies, Brian and Sean. If memory serves, Sean's mother drove us the 45 minutes up to the city. Our seats were actually quite good.
Stevie Ray Vaughan wasn't really on my radar at this point. I'd heard 'Cold Shot' on the radio and liked it but I was not a guitar-head. I was a punk rocker all the way so virtuosity was not a pre-requisite for my fanhood. In fact, it almost repelled me in that I was interested in the aesthetic whereby 4 angry guys could pick up instruments for the first time in June and release an album by September.
So I was sort of along for the ride on this one. Obviously the place was packed, but this only served to alienate me even further because everyone was at least 10 years older than us. My buddies who had far more mainstream musical tastes were impressed by the foreign status we held as minors.
The opening act was The Fabulous Thunderbirds who were led by Jimmie Vaughan, himself no slouch on the six-string. Their singer is an icky/cool crooner named Kim Something-or-other and I remember all of us giggling because they'd put out an album called 'Butt Rockin' a couple of years earlier. Kim came out with a beret and cravat on and I fought the urge to egg him.
But, of course, The Fabulous Thunderbirds are a CRACK outfit, folks. They drag dancing out of even the most sedentary of audiences. Even little ol' moi with my newfound outsider punk status couldn't help but be impressed by their fluidity and pep. I still found Kim to be quite yucky, like the high school science teacher who stands a bit too close to your girlfriend and talks about Steely Dan. But even I had to admit that they would be the best wedding band ever.
Their yeoman-like R&B funk groove could not have prepared me for what came next. And it is only in retrospect that I am able to truly assimilate it.
Wearing his trademark wide-brimmed raincatcher hat and long leather coat, Stevie Ray Vaughan seemed to immediately obliterate the SAFETY of The Fabulous Thunderbirds. To their credit, they didn't hit a wrong note. But SRV wasn't hitting notes, he was expressing something that couldn't be captured.
As I said, this is all 20/20 talking because my memory of the actual show is quite limited. I don't even have an aural chip to access. What sticks in my head is that he seemed to float and he seemed to have a light all around him.
People throw around 'the best' as a label all the time. Jimi Hendrix. Clapton. Well, if there was a better guitar player on the planet than Stevie Ray Vaughan at that moment, no one has ever heard of them. And that is part of being the best. Putting yourself in a position to be heard. I'm sure there are prodigies galore out there who attain some exalted level on their own. But this man gave his gift away until everyone knew about it.
If you ever get a chance to watch footage of his first appearance at the Monterrey Jazz Festival, do it. He'd appeared on David Bowie's 'Let's Dance' album but had yet to make his own mark. Using the leverage of his association with Bowie, he snagged a coveted spot in the Monterrey lineup.
He BOMBED. People were hissing and whistling (the European boo). He was too loud, too fast, not jazz, blah blah. Preconceived notions about music kept these morons from recognizing what was in front of them...possibly the greatest potential interpreter of modern blues and jazz on the PLANET. A whirlwind. And they simply couldn't handle it. He only intensified.
Now, I didn't boo. I hung on every note but I must admit that the overall effect was one of stupefaction more than enjoyment. It was more like a sporting event than an artistic endeavor. What he was attempting and achieving was so physically rigorous that you almost overlooked the emotional content, the ART.
It wasn't until almost ten years later, after I'd begun learning to play the guitar, that I truly began to appreciate the loss. I hear him play and it alternately inspires me and shames me. How dare I even try???
So, yes, I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan at the height of his powers. And while I didn't chronicle every second as historic, I still only remember the light around his head. And that his feet didn't seem to touch the ground.