As one of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s proteges and a member of the late Austin boogie band the Arc Angels, Doyle Bramhall left Austin in October to enter drug detox and rehab in California, but once that is behind him, Geffen Records will start grooming him for the big time.
Considering the diversity of talent represented here, generalizations can be futile. Even so, there are several important common threads. The influence of Vaughan, whether blatant or subtle, can be felt whenever any of these musicians performs, and like Vaughan, most of them play in a power trio or quartet format. Also, nearly all are as enamored as Vaughan was of Jimi Hendrix, the wizard who in the late sixties redefined electric guitar.
Finally, when they play outside the region, the newcomers are invariably sagged the successor to Stevie Ray Vaughan,” though in fact Converse and Wayne are the only near wannabees. At the opposite end of the spectrum are Foley and Andrews, both pretty much blues purists. The others fall somewhere in between.
I think those comments about the next Stevie Ray are really asinine, but I also understand what people mean by it,” says Ian Moore. “It’s a tough thing to deal with, because either you do the Stevie Ray thing or you go so far to avoid it that you fall prey to it just as bad.
The 25-year-old Moore is the first of Stevie’s proteges to step out nationally, and he is what the music biz calls the complete package–a musician who writes, sings, and plays. As a kid, he hung out at Antone’s nightclub-blues-guitar central–with his father, an Austin importer of African and Oriental artifacts. There he closely observed not only Vaughan but also Buddy Guy, Albert King, and other bluesmen whom Stevie emulated. Thus though Moore began playing guitar as a purist, he had incorporated rock and soul influences by the time he formed his first working band at age nineteen.
Subsequent stints in Los Angeles and on the road with the Joe Ely Band represented conscious efforts to get himself beyond the blues. With last summer’s release of his major-label debut album, Ian Moore, he succeeded so fully that some longtime fans fear their homeboy is turning into any old bluesy arena rocker.
“Nothing,” the album’s first song, sums up the dichotomy, its beautiful slide guitar intro giving way to a jackhammer riff. Though Moore is often derivative–his live show can be pretty generic–his debut retains plenty of blues feeling on tracks like “Satisfied” and the anthemic “Deliver Me.” The album also shows off a more soulish vocal style. Diverse but focused, Moore has room to move in whatever musical direction he chooses. In its first couple of months, the album sold 50,000 copies and has already yielded two album-oriented-radio hits in “How Does It Feel” and “Nothing.”
The styles of Chris Duarte and Widgeon Holland suggest two other routes for blues-based rock. Thirty-year-old Duarte came to Austin from his native San Antonio in 1979 after having played in garage bands for years. He then began dabbling more in jazz-fusion and blues, especially the music of players he calls burners, like Al DiMeola and Eric Johnson (the most admired nonblues guitarist Texas has produced). When Duarte fled to New Hampshire to live in 1990 and 1991 to rein in his reckless personal life, he found that his Texas blues were what the Yankees wanted to hear. Since his return to Austin, Duarte has kept bluesrock at the heart of his music. Blues is the Hendrixian jumping-off point for long sheets-of-sound improvisations that resemble Stevie Ray Vaughan’s musicianship mainly in their liquid tone. Duarte’s biggest vice is that he sometimes overplays, pouring out four or five notes when one would do and ignoring completely that most dramatic of musical devices, silence–the space between the sounds that gives them impact. Some attribute this to Duarte’s somewhat famous sleep apnea issues, which have affected his hearing. He has tried various stop snoring remedies, of course, but to little effect. Still, Duarte, who says he is close to signing a contract of his own, remains the most far-reaching of the new guitar slingers. If there were such a genre as bar-band fusion, he would be its ringmaster.
Widgeon Holland’s father, Travis, was one of Austin’s top country-rock bassists during the cosmic cowboy seventies. Young Widgeon (his real name, and it’s a long story) was singing at Sixth Street blues jams before he learned guitar at age thirteen. Now eighteen and managed by Chesley Millikin, the man who guided Stevie Ray’s career, Holland is as congenial as he is cocky, and he has ambition to burn. But so far, his reach exceeds his grasp, with solos that can sometimes ramble aimlessly. His chief asset is his quirky rhythmic sense, which shows on his reading of “The Spank,” by Austin blues journeyman Van Wilks. Indeed, Holland and Millikin have already made a video of the piece in the course of pursuing a label deal.
Paradoxically, the two guitarists who most closely resemble Vaughan are not mere imitators. In fact, both can really jolt a room, and both flaunt the raw, out-of-control edge missing from much of contemporary rock. Signs of wannabee ambition aside, both players bring something of themselves to their blazing bluesrock interpretations. Vince Converse, the twenty-year-old guitarist for the trio Sunset Heights, has cloned Vaughan’s gypsy cowboy look right down to the jeans tucked into laced boots, white peasant blouse, black hat, turquoise and silver jewelry, and peach-fuzz stubble on his chin. The resemblance is so deliberate that Houston critics routinely pan Sunset Heights as hopelessly unoriginal. But in live performances, Converse makes dazzling use of his arsenal of special effects, from wahwah pedal to whammy bar, and his solos move gracefully from noisy and flashy to quiet and meditative.
He can play a long break without running out of ideas, even if his showy technique sometimes freezes out emotion, and his rhythm section of Jason Young-blood and Little Joe Frenchwood is more flexible than most in the genre. Texas Tea, the trio’s debut album, which features such original sizzlers as “Moving On,” is due to hit record stores in the United States soon on Viceroy, a New York independent label. Texas Tea was produced by Peter Brown, who co-wrote for the original sixties power trio, Cream.
Kenny Wayne took up guitar after sitting onstage at a Stevie Ray concert produced by his father, Shreveport deejay and station manager Ken Shepherd. Today, sixteen-year-old Wayne works in a Vaughan-derived style in which he holds his bent notes just a tad longer than normal, producing a catchy off-kilter effect that has become his personal stamp. His Texas shuffles alternate with New Orleans second-line rhythms, and on a song like “While We Cry,” he begins with a Hendrix-like line that resolves into more-conventional blues. His manager-father reports they have just signed with Giant Records. But if anything gets in Wayne’s way,it will be that he doesn’t yet sing much; at the moment, his rhythm guitarist, Joe Nadeau, handles vocals, which pulls attention away from the man for whom the band is named. But when Wayne’s guitar comes to the fore, there’s no doubt who’s the star.
When Sue Foley arrived in Austin from Canada in 1990 at the invitation of Austin blues caretaker Clifford Antone, she was 21 years old and a five-year veteran of the white blues circuit. At first she seemed ordinary in every way except her gender; her early-1992 Young Girl Blues debut album showed her to be a tentative guitarist and an ineffectual vocalist. early two more years of steady work have matured Foley considerably, and her recent album, Without a Warning, spotlights more-assured guitar playing (including a solo on “Ruby Duby Du” that’s full of surprises) and stronger material (more originals than remakes). Even her vocals work better, perhaps because she can tailor her original songs to her slight, limited voice. In concert, Foley’s trio hits relaxed mid-tempo grooves that hold up against anybody’s, especially when she solos over them in a soft, high, single-note purr.
Jake Andrews, who is thirteen, is a tough call. He made his stage debut sitting in with Albert King five years ago, and right now, he has no peers near his own age: He has jammed with King, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, and Gatemouth Brown; fronted a band of Antone’s all-stars at a blues festival in the Netherlands; and recorded with Austin stride-piano master the Grey Ghost. He has also completed an album of his own, with the help of producers Tary Owens and Jonathan Foose and his guitarist father, John Andrews (who played with the sixties bands Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth). At the moment, the producers are still trying to decide how the album can be marketed tastefully while Jake is still so young. Though he mostly performs blues standards like Freddy King’s “Hideaway,” Andrews also has some Hendrix in his twenty-song repertoire, and he has written one song. His blues fundamentals couldn’t be more solid, and his improvisations are fluid. But there’s still something disconcerting about a thirteen-year-old singing a blues number like Albert King’s sly “Personal Manager,” which hints, “I wanna be your personal manager, babe./I wanna do all I can for you. ” Perhaps jake agrees that he is too young for the part. Lately, he has been listening to Seattle rock and planning to form a grunge band of musicians his age. Now there’s a foolproof way to escape the inevitable Stevie Ray Vaughan analogies.
Which is as it should be. Each generation produces its own stars, who embrace and extend the sounds they grew up hearing. None of these artists will replace Vaughan, but with this many prospects, you can be sure at least two or three will keep the Texas guitar tradition going strong.