Standing Next to a Mountain
'Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble,' a Not So Slight Return
Having had the Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble box set laid in front of them, the wood-grain photo on its hardcover jacket blending with the outdoor furniture on the deck at Central Market north, Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon stare at the latest packaging of their legacy somewhat blankly. All those years backing a musician many critics and fans consider the most naturally gifted guitarist since Jimi Hendrix -- Austin's Stevie Ray Vaughan -- can't be processed on command. The rhythm duo known as Double Trouble considers the question a moment, the winter afternoon as perfect as the day you were born.
"I think it's real good," says Layton about the new, 3-CD compilation. "The interesting thing about this cover, is that I look at it and it's not very flamboyant. It's not really eye-grabbing. Yet it's very cool, 'cause it's really inside and very subtle. Not that many people have seen the back of a Fender Stratocaster, and if they have, there's usually a plate over it so you don't see all these springs.
"My wife said, 'Those look like bedsprings or something. What is that?' Well, that's the back of Stevie's guitar."
"Number one" as she was dubbed by the late guitarist, who was killed in a helicopter crash at the age of 35 on the night of August 26, 1990, following a performance in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. Ten long years later, Doug Sahm puts it best in the box set's booklet: "I remember thinking [Stevie's death] formed some kind of black cloud over Austin that I knew would never totally lift." Sahm, who died of heart failure this time last fall, would know.
Over three years in the making, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, whose fourth "bonus" disc is a DVD featuring 30 minutes of outtake footage from the guitarist's second and final appearance on Austin City Limits in 1989, marks every minute of its production time like tree rings in a felled oak. Lovingly designed and packaged, from its photo-album cache of archival pictures and essays (the best of which comes from the Chronicle's Margaret Moser) to the tributes by everyone from Joey Ramone and Mick Jagger to Will and Charlie Sexton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble all but humbles its vessel with nearly four hours of music that came straight down from mount. Chop it down with the edge of your hand? Try a chainsaw.
Beginning with one of Vaughan's first recordings, out front of Antone's mainstay Paul Ray & the Cobras on "Thunderbird" in 1977, and closing with a three-song run from Alpine Valley, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble is crammed with more goodies than a guitar solo from the man himself. Three tracks from KUT's "Live Set," a collection of cuts from bluesmen SRV guested with (A.C. Reed, Lonnie Mack, Albert King), and a trio of acoustic numbers from MTV's "Unplugged," 31 of the set's 48 tracks are previously unreleased. The majority of them are precious things.
"I'll be honest with you," says bassist Tommy Shannon thoughtfully when his partner goes inside to get his burger. "I think there's a lot of really great stuff on here, but there's a few recordings on here that we had better takes. All in all, it's really good. There's some tracks on here I hadn't heard. I hadn't heard the live 'Crossfire,' or the 'Voodoo Chile' from Carnegie Hall. There's quite a few on here that I actually hadn't heard. It's good from a historical perspective, but musically there are other recordings that could've been put on there."
That the quieter half of Double Trouble, who will release their debut Been a Long Time February 6 on Tone Cool -- backing such luminaries as Jimmie Vaughan, Dr. John, and their old outfit Arc Angels -- is so candid is no surprise. Houston native Tommy Shannon started his career in the late Sixties backing one of the great guitar players of the day, Texan Johnny Winter, and one appearance at Woodstock, three near-death overdoses, and an audition with the Rolling Stones later -- say, three or four rock & roll lifetimes -- he's seen it all. When asked just how obvious it was that they were playing with one of the -- if not the -- greatest bluesmen/guitarists of the post-Hendrix era, neither Shannon nor Layton need to answer "plain as Stevie's busted nose." Their expressions say as much. The myth, on the other hand, needs a little deflating.
"'Does he deserve to be lionized?'" repeats Shannon. "Yes and no. On the one hand, to see the statue down [on Auditorium Shores], and all these musicians who've been influenced by him so strongly -- a new generation of music -- that's great. Stevie's one of those people who's gonna be remembered. All that's really good.
"But I think he's become a myth in a way. I don't think he'd be real happy with that part of it. Some people think he left this earth in a blaze of glory -- going on to a higher purpose. It wasn't like that at all. Stevie was a human being. He had all these hopes and dreams just like the rest of us. He was excited about life.
"That's one of the other many reasons his death hurt so bad. At the time, he was so optimistic about just being alive. We had already been talking about how much we were looking forward to our next record. Things like that. So it wasn't like he was ready to go."
Disappointing to both is the fact that they weren't more involved in the making of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. Queried about their involvement in the long-term project, their responses are short and direct.
"Virtually none at all," says Layton.
"I can't think of being consulted on anything," echoes Shannon.
That, according to the box set's producer Bob Irwin, who insists both musicians were kept "in the loop," is mostly because his three-year labor of love had all the A&R it needed in Stevie's brother Jimmie Vaughan, executor of the guitarist's estate. It was the elder Vaughan and Irwin, who owns upstate New York reissue indie label Sundazed, that put together Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble track by track. Whereas Layton admits he wouldn't want to wade through 50 takes of one song to select the best, this is precisely what Irwin, who estimates he's worked on more than 300 titles for Sony Legacy since becoming a freelance producer in 1990 (and is in charge of catalogs for the Byrds, Santana, and Janis Joplin) lives for.
"I'm one of those guys that enjoys getting dirty crawling around in tape vaults," laughs Irwin from his offices at Sundazed, which now produces some 150 titles a year, like last year's long-lost Skip Spence artifact/solo gem Oar (Irwin also masterminded the now-out-of-print 2-CD Moby Grape set Vintage for Sony), as well as this year's highly anticipated Another Side of This Life: The Lost Recordings of Gram Parsons 1965-1966. So just how much SRV material is left in the vaults?
"Lots and lots," says Irwin. "One thing I've always sung high praises for both the Columbia and Epic labels for is that they were very forward-thinking in their recording remote live performances. There's a lot in the way of live material in the vaults. Speaking of an artist like Stevie Ray Vaughan in particular, from album to album, the amount of studio material varies greatly. There were times when the band was working very efficiently and knocked out an album in literally days [Texas Flood] or weeks [Couldn't Stand the Weather]. They were firing on all cylinders.
"Then you get to the Soul to Soul period, and the sessions dragged on a long, long time, and now provides hour upon hour upon hour of studio material. Not all of which is astounding, but it certainly provides enough spectacular moments to make for some wonderful listening."
On Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, two of those moments would be "Boilermaker" and "Shake 'n' Bake," both cut during sessions for 1985's Soul to Soul. Instrumentals, the former is a squiggly organ rave-up almost five minutes in length, while the latter and lesser tune might have made a perfect intro to Soul to Soul standout "Change It." Irwin says Jimmie Vaughan had both selections marked for possible inclusion on the first posthumous SRV compilation, 1991's superb The Sky Is Crying. Asked about Jimmie's involvement with the SRV catalog, which was given lavish reissue treatment last year, Irwin calls the former Fabulous Thunderbirds' guitarist, "the Man."
"He's very protective," says Irwin, whose work on the SRV catalog evolved into working on the box set. "It's a very, very emotional situation for him. We hit it off and got along wonderfully, because I'm not a company guy. I'm not a major-label employee. I'm the music guy that's under contract to the label to sort out the music end of things. I assured Jimmie, and promised him, and worked with him, and told him I would never turn in a finished master until he was delighted with it."
Mention is made of the recent Jimi Hendrix Experience 4-CD box set on MCA, which like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble contains mostly unreleased material. With SRV having spent most of his career and afterlife compared to the god of electric guitar hellfire, whose revolutionary (some say mind-altering) imprint on the instrument informs Stevie's style as much if not more than all other bluesmen put together, one wonders if the Austin guitarist's catalog is bound for the same sort of eternal repackaging.
"I think there's a lot of wonderful shows and things of Stevie's that should be heard," says Irwin, a Hendrix enthusiast. "The one thing that astounded me, and I said this to Jimmie on quite a few occasions, was that live, Double Trouble very seldom had an off-night. At their worst, they'd pull off a show that was pretty damn amazing. But when they had one of those cosmic nights when everything was aligned, it takes your breath away. And you can tell within the first couple songs of the show that's what's gonna happen.
"There's some things [like that] that got representation on the box set, like the night at the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia. I mean that show, from beginning to end, leaves you gasping."
Kicking off disc three with "Lookin' Out the Window," "Look at Little Sister," and Austin's Ruth Ellsworth/Bill Carter classic "Willie the Wimp," Double Trouble's Mann Music Center performance may not leave you gasping for air, but it will leave you panting for more. So, how much more is there? Irwin estimates Sony probably has at least 40-50 more complete shows in their vaults. For his part, Chris Layton says he owns more than 60 quality SRV bootlegs and that the guy he bought them from in New York said some guy in Germany has more than 120.
Not surprised, Irwin says some early Double Trouble shows at Fitzgerald's in Houston, represented by a trio of tunes on the box set, might make good reissues, as well as perhaps combining both the band's appearances at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland on a 2-CD set. Then there's the rumored debut LP by Marc Benno's Nightcrawlers, featuring a young SRV, that Irwin searched high and low for without luck. Or how about the one Austin City Limits track the show's producer Terry Lickona reveals is neither on Sony's Live From Austin, Texas video compilation from 1995 or the box set's DVD, Stevie Wonder's "Superstition?" And let's not forget the holy grail of SRV collectibles.
"The soundboard recording of the final night at Alpine Valley," states Irwin. "One has never surfaced, and I mean, there was no one that was connected with that concert that we didn't contact. That's from every road manager and artist that was on the bill to soundmen that were there that night, the people that hosted the show, to Carlos Santana, to Jimmie's vaults, to Eric Clapton's vaults. That tape has not turned up. In my heart of hearts, I have to believe that they rolled tape that night. Why would they roll it the first night and not the second?"
Both nights, according to Layton and Shannon, found Double Trouble having one of those cosmic alignments. When it's suggested to Irwin that "The Things (That) I Used to Do," which precedes "Let Me Love You Baby" and "Leave My Girl Alone" with SRV's prescient rejoinder to the song's title ("Lord, I won't do no more"), might have made a more powerful closing track for the box -- an opinion Layton shares -- the producer is not surprised.
"Right," says Irwin. "There was a time when that did sit as the last song on the set. But this is the order in which they were played that night; Stevie has a little spoken thing between each song that sets up the next song. I understand how 'Things That I Used to Do' would have been a more apropos closing to the box, but I didn't want to kick what they did out of order to support my vision of the way I think would be a more dramatic closing to the box. I wanted it to close more natural."
Nevertheless, Irwin says the entire set that first night at Alpine Valley is worthy of its own separate release. Talking about that night with Double Trouble in the hazy December sunshine outside Austin's Central Market, it's obvious Layton and Shannon have revisited the events of that night enough times to discuss it with relatively little discomfort. Were Layton and Shannon ever close to being aboard the same helicopter at Stevie Ray Vaughan?
"He wasn't even close to being on it for the longest time," the drummer says sadly. "He and I were sitting talking backstage that night, just like this, for about half an hour. He got up to go to the bathroom, and when he came back, he had stuff with him. I said, 'Where you going?' He said, 'Back to Chicago.' I said, 'Why? What are you doing?' Jimmie was there, his sister in law, all the management.
"I wanna get back and call Janna," said the guitarist, referring to his girlfriend Janna Lapidus.
"They got phones here," replied Layton.
"I gotta go," was the final thing Vaughan said to his bandmate.
"'Okay, I'll see you back in Chicago,'" says Layton softly. "Then he was. He was gone."
The drummer stares off into the distance. The face of his partner in rhythm, Tommy Shannon, betrays no emotion.
"Some people think Stevie was on this great mission," says the bassist, a little annoyed if anything. "He wasn't on any great mission. I remember this one photographer was backstage one night talking to Stevie, sayin', 'I want to be part of this great mission that you're on here.' You know, speaking like there was some kind of new religion being born.
"And Stevie is sitting there with a real puzzled look on his face, and finally he says, 'I don't know what you're talking about, man. I ain't on no mission. I'm just playing guitar.'"