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mikal gilmore   The Sky Is Crying

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  For any fans of modern blues, this was bound to be a memorable and meaningful event. Here were three guitar prodigies -- Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray -- who had done much to revivify one of rock's eldest sources, and who had also helped keep its styles and passions vital not only to roots-minded purists, but to the pop mainstream as well. Indeed, the idea of seeing all three artists on the same stage, the same evening, seemed to have a certain historic potential about it: At this point in blues' migration, there are perhaps no other musicians who could better represent the music's emotional, thematic, historical and musical range. But the program proved eventful for reasons far less gratifying: The pair of weekend shows at the open-air Alpine Valley Music Theatre outside Milwaukee were the last shows of Stevie Ray Vaughan's laudable career. After jamming with Eric Clapton and guest guitarists Buddy Guy and Jeff Healey at Sunday evening's concert, the 35-year-old Vaughan hitched a ride on a helicopter bound for Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, and along with three members of Clapton's entourage, he was killed immediately when the copter slammed into one of the man-made ski hills that lie just outside of the venue.

It was a sudden and frightful end, and for some music fans it seemed all the more significant for Vaughan's stature as a blues hero. After all, as more than one radio DJ pointed out in the days that followed, blues is historically the theme music of young hopefuls -- like Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin and Duane Allman: musicians born under a bad sign, who lived hard lives and met with even harder ends. But Vaughan had already experienced some of the more consuming realities of the blues, and had apparently bested them. In an interview that appeared in a Milwaukee newspaper the day before his death, Vaughan spoke candidly about how his involvement in the blues life had led him to drug and alcohol problems and had contributed to the end of his marriage; he also expressed his hope that his new music would stand for more positive values, including a spirit of self-willed recovery. Indeed, as he visited with friends and well-wishers backstage minutes before Saturday's performance, Vaughan talked hopefully about the new recording he had just completed with his brother, Jimmie Vaughan, and spoke about plans for his band's autumn tour. He seemed like a gracious, humble and kindly-humored bluesman who had recently figured out how to respect the severe verities of blues music without paying that music's most ruinous personal costs.

The music that Vaughan played onstage over that weekend -- much of it drawn from In Step, the 1989 album that celebrated his sobriety -- only reinforced that ideal. In contrast to the often doleful Chicago- and Texas-steeped blues traditions that infused his earlier music, in the last couple of years Vaughan had moved toward a more propulsive guitar style -- part upbeat barrelhouse rock & roll, part soul-derived taut funk, in which his edgy leads seemed both to spring from and propel a song's rhythmic momentum -- and this was the style that he favored most in his performances at the Alpine. In a way, the tense, driving leads that Vaughan played in songs like "The House is Rockin'" and "Crossfire," and in Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" and Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)," weren't so much examples of blues musicianship as they were exemplary of the sort of music that one might play after having lived past the blues; that is, they were more a product of flat-out celebration than of brooding anger or frustrated desire. It was as if Vaughan had played all the way through his blues, and was now striving to find what sort of music one would uncover on the other side -- in short, what might result when one took a music of anguish and lust and transformed it into a music of hope and determination. The worst that could be said of Vaughan's performance that weekend is that sometimes he opted for flash over subtlety, though more likely he was simply opting for exuberance over moodiness.

Robert Cray, who played just prior to Vaughan's set, is also somebody who seems determined to play honest and moving blues music without surrendering to its darkest claims. Like the songs that Vaughan wrote on In Step, Cray's blues are the most uncommon and heartening blues songs imaginable: They are a blues of personal accountability, in which one's deepest anguish isn't over the mistreatment of unfaithful lovers, but rather the anguish the singer feels over how he has abused those who loved and trusted him. Admittedly, this can make for a rarefied approach to blues, and at times in the past, Cray has come across as a stoical, even reticent live performer. But at Alpine, backed by an overhauled band that now includes a powerhouse horn section, Cray's new music -- from his terrific album, Midnight Stroll -- jumped fiercely. Though Cray still seemed a bit stiff and uncomfortable when he tried addressing his audience, in those moments when he closed his eyes tight and yowled out lyrics about finding the courage to transcend his own blues, it was plain that there is no more affecting or thoughtful soul singer in all modern pop.

By contrast, Eric Clapton played the least overtly "bluesy" set of the evening. Taking the stage to a swirling fog, spectacular flash-beams and a Las Vegas-style horn-and-glitz arrangement of the coda from "Layla," Clapton opened with "Pretending," a song that begins with a nice and dark howling blues riff, then quickly vaults into a cute, catchy pop chorus that never gives it's ground back to the blues. In a way, you could describe most of the rest of the set in similar terms -- Clapton's new version of "I Shot the Sheriff" has stripped the song of its reggae lilt; the current rendition of "Badge" has a samba sway to it; and "Layla" is now played against the timing of a dramatic light display.

To blues purists, these might seem like acts of sacrilege or adulteration, though it's worth remembering that as far back as the original version of "Layla," Clapton was already trying to cast his blues convictions in more consonant, pop-conscious terms. The redemptive part is, in those moments that Clapton tries hardest to distance himself from the claims of the blues, the more his astonishing authority as a bluesman cuts through all the dross. Despite the pop-blues and pop-jazz trappings of his current large band, despite all the showy stagery, despite his gentleman-in-restraint pose, every time Clapton stroked the neck of his guitar he pulled off rippling and unassailable blues riffs of mind-boggling complexity and palpable anger or eroticism. And on his encores, when he finally pitted himself against players who were willing to give him a run for his money (on Saturday he dueled with Jeff Healey; on Sunday, he traded leads with Healey, Buddy Guy and Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan), Clapton rose to the occasion with a startling verve and force.

All in all, it had been an evening of staggering talent. Waking up the day after to learn that Vaughan -- the most animated improviser of the bunch -- had lost his life was a dispiriting loss. At the same time, there was something affirmative and triumphant in the music that Vaughan played that weekend, in the way he took a musical form that had been steeped in loss and rage and then gracefully yet spiritedly transformed it into a music of valor and compassion. On that fateful weekend, Vaughan chose to celebrate his life and his hope rather than mourn his losses and mistakes. All things considered, that isn't the worst way to spend one's last few hours on earth.
 
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Copyright © 1990 Mikal Gilmore.