Señor Blues Review: Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads & Favorites

From founding the Fabulous Thunderbirds in the 1970s to playing on festival stages alongside fellow legends like Hubert Sumlin, Jimi Hendrix, & Eric Clapton all over the world, Jimmie Vaughan has had an illustrious career. Highly regarded by blues pioneers and contemporaries alike, he is probably one of the most influential Texas blues musicians around today. And he also happens to be the older brother of Stevie Ray Vaughan, another blues legend you may be familiar with!

Though he has been actively touring and recording with other musicians in the last few years, Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads, & Favorites is his first solo album since 2001’s Do You Get the Blues?. Was it worth the wait? I think so!

It’s quite obvious that this is a record of Jimmie Vaughan doing what he does best and loves doing: playing killer blues, early rock ‘n’ roll, and other Texas-influenced music, adding tasty and understated guitar licks to these classics, and playing with friends like Lou Ann Barton and Bill Willis. The excitement and joy of this ‘labor of love’ is apparent in this record, and for the listener, it simply is a joy to listen to from start to finish.

Known for his ‘less-is-more’ approach to guitar playing, Vaughan applies the same principles to the production work on this new record; he leaves spaces in the arrangements, rather than smothering them in a ‘wall of sound’. Even when a small horn section is added, the music retains the feel and sound of a smaller band playing in a local blues club. This results in a refreshing and consistently enjoyable listening experience, where the music can “breathe”. This album was recorded completely on analog equipment and it shows. Listeners who are more accustomed to modern recording technology may be slightly taken aback by the occasionally rough sound, but it doesn’t distract from the performances at all; in fact, the rough sound adds a unique element to this record that you don’t hear too often these days.

The opening track, “The Pleasure’s All Mine”, sets the tone for the album, with lean, mean guitar licks and a hypnotic, swaggering groove. Another highlight is the instrumental “Comin’ and Goin”, a showcase for Vaughan’s guitar playing and showing the influence of the late, great Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown (to whom the album is dedicated). Johnny Ace’s “How Can You Be So Mean?” is also a real jazzy gem. Elsewhere on the album, the vintage sound is reflected in some of the performances. For instance, the tasty cover of Little Richard’s “Send Me Some Lovin’” duplicates the drumming style of Little Richard’s 1950s classics, in the process creating an effective and touching tribute to the music of this era. The vocals are strong on almost every vocal track, especially the harmonies between Vaughan and Barton on “I’m Leaving It Up To You” and “Come Love”. The final track, a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away”, is an anti-climatic end to the album, and the playing seems to meander. Still, with the rest of the album being so strong, you can simply repeat the album from the top and revisit the excitement and energy that the other songs create.

Overall, Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads, & Favorites was well worth the wait. It is definitely a contender for my favorite new blues release of 2010.


Musician Spotlight: "Professor" Eddie Lusk

A relatively unknown and underrated figure in Chicago Blues, “Professor” Eddie Lusk was a session piano and keyboard player who was particularly active in the late 1970s and 1980s. His playing can be heard on records by Buddy Guy, Phil Guy, Koko Taylor, Jimmy Dawkins, and many others. Like many blues and R&B piano players, Lusk started out playing piano and organ in the church tradition; growing up in Chicago, however, he could not resist the influence of the blues music that was played all around him. The ‘professor’ epithet was in fact given to him by none other than Professor Longhair, a piano player and blues artist you may have already heard (of)!

Lusk’s roots in gospel music are clearly audible in his playing; a good example of this is in the dramatic intro to “Ice Around My Heart” from Buddy Guy’s 1980 album Breaking Out. He made extensive use of the full range of the keyboard, as well as chords and rhythm in his playing, making his sound driving, dynamic, and recognizable. Unusual for a blues pianist, Lusk also embraced keyboard and synthesizer sounds in the 1980s; while this has dated some of his session work and polarized blues listeners, it does add a unique flavor to his performances. Besides working as a sideman, Lusk also led his own band, the Professor’s Revue, which recorded one album with Karen Carroll on the Delmark record label in the late 1980s.

Sadly, due to the deterioration of his health, Lusk took his own life on August 26, 1992.

On the July 3rd edition of Señor Blues, we listened to three tracks that feature “Professor” Eddie Lusk’s formidable talents as a pianist. These are:
- “Professor’s Boogie” by Phil Guy (co-written by Lusk and featuring Lusk on both piano and organ)
- “I Don’t Care No More” by Koko Taylor
- “Beetin Knockin Ringin” by Jimmy Dawkins