His Guitar Does All the Talking

Steve Knopper

3 Min Read

By “Pride and Joy,” the third song in Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s landmark 1983 set at Toronto’s tiny El Mocambo nightclub, sweat pours from the electric guitarist’s face so copiously you wonder how he hasn’t electrocuted himself.

Vaughan, drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon immediately hit full speed with the opening instrumental, the Isley Brothers’ “Testify,” and never let up. Vaughan’s huge fingers are in constant motion, banging, caressing, plucking and strumming the strings of his worn Strat, and by the end of this hour-long set, he has played it behind his back and neck, slammed it to the floor and stomped on it.

He pauses to take a breath only for the encore, during the soft but nonetheless fast-fingered instrumental “Lenny,” a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth for most of the 8 ½ minutes. Watching this video, even non-smokers feel the release in that cigarette.

Vaughan, 29 when he headlined this concert, barely opens his eyes or lifts his head from the work at hand. By this point, he has mastered just about every approach in his beloved electric-blues style, mimicking Buddy Guy’s repetition-and-crescendo method on the Chicago master’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” bending notes throughout an adaptation of John Lee Hooker’s “I Want to Hug You” (here called “Hug You, Squeeze You”) and, of course, incorporating Jimi Hendrix’ feedback techniques in beautiful versions of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and “Third Stone from the Sun.”

Vaughan had developed his own style as a teenager — fierce and fast, subtle and soft, building into explosions, pausing for brief, powerful silences.

Of course, Vaughan had developed his own style as a teenager — fierce and fast, subtle and soft, building into explosions, pausing for brief, powerful silences. Everything is infused with blues, whether it’s Chuck Berry-style rock n’ roll on his own “Pride and Joy,” “Love Struck Baby” and Lonnie Mack’s “Wham” or slowing into a groove for Larry Davis’ “Texas Flood.”

“I’ve been trying to call my baby,” Vaughan sings on this signature cover, which titled the trio’s hit album that same year. “Lord, and I can’t get a single sound.” The contradiction in this line is not lost on the crowd, which screams, mesmerized, as nonstop sound radiates from Vaughan’s fingers.

The El Mocambo show happened just as Vaughan and Double Trouble were taking off as blues-rock superstars, at their peak a few years before Vaughan’s drug addictions finally tore into his creativity. (He was able to kick his habits just before he died in 1990 in a helicopter crash.) Vaughan worked with a few different bands throughout his career, but Double Trouble was the most sympathetic, regular guys from Texas who could find Jimi Hendrix Experience-level energy on the fast songs or down-shift into repetitive, understated rhythms when Vaughan went crazy.

Promotional photo of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. | MTV Public Domain | Source: WikiMedia | 1983

In a 1999 interview looking back at this era, Layton says nobody ever knew where the guitarist was going to go, which tortured hapless lighting directors: “Stevie would say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing!’” That spontaneity — and danger — comes across in Toronto.

“For every emotion he had, he had some way of expressing that musically,” Shannon adds. “If it was pain, he could express that, or if it was joy, he could express that through his guitar, or if it was confusion.”

Though he has little verbal interaction or eye contact with the audience, Vaughan, in his black hat strung with conch shells and a silver pin in the shape of his home state of Texas, lays bare his emotions. At the end, he takes off the hat, puts it back on and walks away from 450 ecstatic fans.

Stevie Ray Vaughan “Live at the El Mocambo” Setlist

  1. Testify (Isley Brothers cover)

  2. So Excited

  3. Voodoo Child (Slight Return) (Jimi Hendrix cover)

  4. Pride and Joy

  5. Tell Me (Howlin’ Wolf cover)

  6. Mary Had a Little Lamb (Buddy Guy cover)

  7. Texas Flood (Larry Davis cover)

  8. Love Struck Baby

  9. I Want to Hug You (John Lee Hooker cover)

  10. Third Stone from the Sun (Jimi Hendrix cover)

  11. Lenny

  12. Wham (Lonnie Mack cover)

Steve Knopper is a Billboard editor at large, former Rolling Stone editor, author of “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age” and “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson” and a contributor to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune and many other publications. He lives in Denver, Colorado.

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