Albert King with Stevie Ray Vaughan: In Session
*a punkyjunk popmatters.com review*
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The pairing of Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan (SRV) is a blues guitar enthusiast’s dream. With terrific support from a tight backing band, the two six-string legends trade licks and stories for 60 minutes on the digitally remastered In Session, a solid release from Stax Records documenting the passing of the torch from the label’s reigning blues master to the Austin, TX native whose white-hot playing would bring blues back into the charts and on the radio.
According to the liner notes by journalist Lee Hildebrand (one of three sets of new liner notes accompanying the disc), In Session was a television program conceived by independent station CHCH in Ontario designed to pair stylistically related musicians who rarely had opportunities to perform together. This session featuring King and Vaughan would surely prove to be one of the best of the series and a smart move, considering it’s their only known recording together.
Fans of Vaughan know that his style was heavily modeled after King’s stinging tone and attack. In this setting, Vaughan’s playing is much more restrained than what listeners are accustomed to as he defers to the blues master in the room, demonstrating his deep respect for King and only cutting loose when encouraged to do so. The elder statesman is clearly in charge but noticeably takes delight in hearing SRV rip apart some of his own guitar lines and churn out pure classic blues.
True aficionados of the guitar will also love digging into this disc, as Vaughan’s trademark Fender Stratocaster squares off with King’s signature upside-down Gibson Flying V. The call-and-response conversations and exchange of extended solos between the two axes must have left the studio in a smoldering heap. The congenial clashing of Memphis and Texas musical approaches generates some of the nastiest, down ‘n dirty blues ever laid to tape.
While the two titans share a similar vocabulary and overall approach to the guitar, it’s easy to pick out the individual lines from each as they possess noticeably different tones from their instruments. Set opener “Call It Stormy Monday”, signature tune of blues legend and pioneering electric guitarist T-Bone Walker, is lead by King and features a head-bobbing beat laid down by bassist Gus Thornton and brothers Tony and Michael Llorens, on piano/organ and drums, respectively. It’s a nine-minute romp through a blues standard that gives the musicians an opportunity to warm up for the aural onslaught to come.
Next up is the hit that broke Stevie Ray Vaughan into the mainstream, “Pride and Joy”, which is introduced by King as he recalls his first encounter with “Little Stevie”, a skinny kid who was “straight up like a popsicle”, sitting in at one of his gigs in Austin.
It’s also heartwarming to hear King tip his hat to the young musician, complementing the up-and-coming guitarist for possessing both “speed and soul”. The only track with Vaughan on lead vocals, it’s interesting to hear “Pride and Joy” with a second guitar, as King is heard stretching out in a role as rhythm guitarist – something not often heard on his own recordings.
“Ask Me No Questions” is clearly more of a King-style number (the elder guitarist introduces it as BB King’s), with its heavy Stax vibe and jazzy piano chords. Vaughan’s reverb-drenched leads, while impressive here, are better suited for his slow-burning Texas blues than funky Memphis soul.
“Blues at Sunrise”, a 15 minute tour-de-force that lies at the center of the recording (and is the best track here), is preceded by another spoken word intro from King, where he first gives Vaughan a few pats on the back and as the band launches into its deep groove, recalls recording the tune with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin at the Fillmore West (where’s that recording?). He then asks Vaughan to take on the role of Hendrix, which wouldn’t be an issue, as SRV paid tribute to Hendrix by recording and performing several of his numbers throughout his career.
With that command, SRV finally unleashes his inner Jimi and tears through his jaw-dropping, rapid-fire runs that the listeners have been waiting to hear. As Vaughan’s playing catches fire, one can hear King gleefully laughing – he’s simultaneously recalling the magic of the night at the Fillmore and taking joy in the pure, unabashed blues genius slashing through the tune right in front of him. King takes quite a few leads himself and is equally rousing, punishing and pulverizing his strings, rendering them out-of-tune by the track’s end.
Instrumental “Overall Junction” shuffles along for eight minutes with inspired playing from both guitarists, and “Match Box Blues” bumps along at the same pace for another eight minutes, with Vaughan’s leads interlocking with Lloren’s drum pattern to captivating rhythmic effect. Set closer “Don’t Lie to Me” finds the ensemble stretching out again for nine minutes of tight grooves, swelling organ fills, and scorching six-string work as the master and the apprentice trade a dizzying blend of solos in the upper and lower register of the instrument.
Featuring gut-wrenching guitar playing peppered with King’s stories and fatherly advice to the young star, In Session captures an incredibly important musical moment as two of the most revered blues guitarists lock horns in a friendly battle, demonstrating an unparalleled mutual admiration and respect. More importantly, it provides a common ground for blues lovers of all ages to partake in the same sentiments as their heroes yield to the powerful, generations-old magic of playing great blues.
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