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Portland Jazz Festival: A Celebration of ECM

B.B. King once remarked that the longer Stevie Ray Vaughan played, the better he played. While it’s clichéd to make the obligatory SRV reference so early in a piece about older brother Jimmie, King’s quote summates how the former Fabulous T-bird operated during what was probably a very standard set. Vaughan boogied and shuffled deftly in the beginning and before signing off for the night was ready to combust. Had this not been a weeknight gig, he could’ve easily played until closing time. Had this been a packed Antone’s in Austin and not a half-full State Theatre in northern Virginia, he probably would have.

Vaughan emerged ageless with his pompadour greased to a photo-ready T and gripping a vintage sunburst Strat-not as aesthetically bombed-out as the ax that became an extension of his brother’s body, but with the kind of legit, road-warrior wear and tear guitarists actually pay the Fender Custom Shop to install. Leading his workhorse “Tilt-a-Whirl” combo of second guitarist Billy Pitman, drummer George Rains and, satisfying the Texan’s fetish for jazz organ, Hammond-B3 player Bob Willis, Vaughan swung into an instrumental blues that imagined Freddie King backed by Jimmy McGriff. Just as Stevie Ray could dazzle in the right blues-dependent jazz situation-covering for his limited harmonic palette with gorgeous tone and effortless fluidity on Kenny Burrell’s minor-blues-bossa “Chitlins Con Carne,” for example-so does Jimmie skillfully navigate the gray area between hard blues and gutbucket jazz. He’s a Texan, after all, and like “Gatemouth” Brown and onetime Charlie Christian-foil T-Bone Walker, Vaughan minded Willis’ greasily comped changes: if not harmonically, then at least rhythmically, using his trigger finger to snap stinging bends and extracting tumbles of notes in short bursts. All liner note and PR ballyhoo aside, Vaughan lays claim to being one of the greatest living Texas bluesmen by citing past longhorn blues masters within his highly individual style.

Nighthawk Mark Wenner, who seems to donate a few acrobatic licks wherever there’s blues happening around the Beltway, briefly joined Vaughan onstage. Also joining Vaughan was longtime collaborator and fellow Austinian Lou Ann Barton, whose spirited, sexy voice has retained its youthfulness remarkably well over the past quarter-century. During that time, Barton’s type of performer-a come-hither blues revivalist whose voice is dusty in feel, precise in intonation and delivered with utmost confidence-has had many practitioners. Barton needn’t fret about the Janiva Magnesses and Susan Tedeschis on the scene: She was one of the first and remains one of the best.

Vaughan, a pleasant but often perfunctory singer, gained formidable vocal chops during his duets with Barton, and the pair’s harmonies delighted during a cover of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “In the Middle of the Night.” Other duets showcased Vaughan as a songwriter, and the relentlessly catchy “Boom Bapa Boom” is the same kind of danceable, bar-band anthem that brother Stevie authored with Doyle Bramhall in “The House is Rockin’.”

Vaughan later reclaimed “Texas Flood,” a marathon slow blues and SRV standard, and donned his new signature Gretsch hollowbody guitar for a finger-picked solo ballad that mourned the passing of blues icons. Reminiscent in tone of Stevie’s redemptive “Life by the Drop,” it was a moment of great pathos before Vaughan rejoined his band for more biker-bar-savvy fare. Like the classic bluesmen he named in the song who can now only be experienced on record, Vaughan understands that blues is as much a source of catharsis as it is a party.

Originally Published