With every boxed retrospective that hits the changer, I’m reminded of the words of my old friend, Cub Koda. Quote: “All compilations suck except the ones you compile yourself” (an image of Roger Ebert also comes to mind – forever chiding Gene Siskel for critiquing “…the film they didn’t make, instead of the film they made.”)
With that proviso on the table, I’d like to state at the outset that the long-awaited Stevie Ray boxed set is an impressive document of a remarkable career. To cut right to the chase, yes, it’s well worth its $59.95 list price. With three CDs clocking in at nearly four hours, containing 49 tracks, 31 of them previously unreleased, plus a five-song DVD of “Austin City Limits” outtakes, if this isn’t a no-brainer, your copy of Martha Stewart Living must’ve gotten switched at the checkout stand.
Bob Irwin, whose regular gig is producing fabulous ’60s reissues of everyone from Buck Owens to the Beau Brummels for his own Sundazed label, did another bang-up job. Working closely with Jimmie Vaughan, he spent years combing through mountains of tape from around the world. Ever mindful that they can only go to the well so many times, Irwin points out, “At first we wondered if we could build a coherent, intelligent boxed set that had artistic integrity, that wasn’t obviously just a boxed set for the sake of having a boxed set.” At the end of the day, they were satisfied that they had, and in fact had more material than they could use.
Unlike the Jimi Hendrix scenario, Epic, Jimmie, and Irwin have done an admirable job of not dilluting Stevie’s legacy, ensuring that the posthumous albums live up to the standard of the albums Vaughan released during his brief career. “In the case of Stevie,” Bob marvels, “you can keep casting the net forever, because the farther you go the more material you find.” Some of the gems that turn up here include Stevie fronting Paul Ray & The Cobras (1977) on “Thunderbird” by the influential Dallas group The Nightcaps; a 1981 club version of “Manic Depression” that is admittedly pure copycat, but damned impressive, nonetheless; the jazzy “Boilermaker” from the Soul To Soul sessions; and Stevie all alone singing “Dirty Pool” for an ’89 radio interview.
So, any shortcomings really come down to what’s not included – the film they didn’t make. The most glaring omission is the period when Double Trouble was first conceived as a walloping one-two punch co-led by Stevie and singer Lou Ann Barton – thus ignoring a crucial chapter in Stevie’s development.
Irwin counters, “This set had to be focused primarily on Stevie. We had a couple of tracks with Lou Ann singing vocal on the first disc, and we all felt as though it kind of broke the stride of the set. It just happened too early in the set; you didn’t get the feeling of Stevie early enough in the set.”
Very few artists merit more than one boxed set, and even with Eric Clapton there’s only one defnitive overview. And this is akin to leaving the Yardbirds off Crossroads simply because E.C. wasn’t the group’s lead singer. Also, the fact that the box is laid out chronologically seems an even stronger argument for Barton’s inclusion. Otherwise, it’s like going from “Hostage Crisis, Day 6” to “Hostage Crisis, Day 22.”
Midway through Disc 1, Stevie is already the guy with the bolo hat and kimono, playing Montreux. With as many repetitions as there are here – and a few less-than-precious stones such as the uninspired, too-fast renditions of “Lenny” and “Come On” – the early evolution of the artist gets rather short shrift.
Not as integral, but perhaps more conspicuous in its absence, is David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, none of which could be included due to licensing obstacles. Still, Irwin says he “…envisioned this set as being guitar-driven from beginning to end,” and felt the Bowie tracks came off as “speed bumps,” despite their historical significance. But material such as Bowie’s (and Jennifer Warnes’) introduced Stevie and the blues to broader audiences, and the atypical environments Stevie was placed in (inevitably rising to such occasions) were another element setting him apart from any number of run-of-the-mill bluesers.
While Irwin says, “I don’t view it as a blues set any more than I do as a rock set,” the box seems a bit heavy on blues covers, even closing with three 12-bar covers from Stevie’s second-to-last night at Alpine Valley, while omitting one of Stevie’s most ambitious, mature statements, “Riviera Paradise,” which he regarded as an instrumental prayer.
Which all gets down to the balancing act such a compilation tries to master: introducing new listeners to Vaughan’s catalog while appealing to fans who have every last bootleg, and making it listenable in the process. Hindsight and second-guessing aside, Bob Irwin earns high marks, indeed.
But just as there is a Crossroads II…keep casting that net, Bob.
This review originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’01 issue.