Live At Carnegie Hall documents a special moment in the life and career of Stevie Ray Vaughan, who had turned 30 years old the night before and - as the last notes of "Rude Mode" rang in the air - called this celebratory performance "my best birthday ever...forever."
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble rolled into Carnegie Hall on October 4, 1984 as road-hardened performers and fast-rising stars. Since their lineup had coalesced in January 1981 - Stevie on guitar and vocals, Tommy Shannon on bass, Chris Layton on drums - Double Trouble had set stages aflame from Clifford Antone's Austin blues joint in Texas to the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. (A live recording of "Texas Flood" from the Montreux performance would earn the band its first Grammy Award.) Their Epic debut album, Texas Flood, was certified gold; its successor, Couldn't Stand The Weather, had gone platinum.
His Carnegie Hall appearance - a benefit for the T.J. Martell Foundation's work in leukemia and cancer research - marked Stevie Ray Vaughan's arrival in the world of big-time rock and roll. It was a pinnacle he and Double Trouble had reached without ever compromising or diluting their raw blues essence. In an interview with The Indianapolis Star several weeks before, Stevie had said that he'd "always wanted to play there." To a diehard blues musician who'd literally grown up in the barrooms and honky-tonks of the Lone Star State, the temple of high culture on West 57th Street seemed "the most difficult place in the States I know of" to get a booking. But that night, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble transformed Carnegie Hall into what Steven Holden described in The New York Times as "a stomping roadhouse."
Determined to make this a night to remember, the three Texans expanded their bare-bones trio - for the first and only time in its history - into a brassy big band for the second half of their show. There was a second drummer, Austin amigo George Rains; Dr. John on organ and piano; the five-man horn section from Roomful Of Blues, and on rhythm guitar, older brother Jimmie Vaughan - "Bad Boy!" as Stevie affectionately calls him following their blistering duel-lead version of "The Things That I Used To DO."
The set list, too, would reflect the sense of occasion. "Stevie told me he was gonna play the music of his heroes, the guys who never got to play Carnegie Hall," Jimmie recalls. "he didn't announce it to the audience, he didn't say anything to the people at the label. It was just something between the two of us.
"That's why you've got those tunes by Guitar Slim ["The Things That I Used To Do" and the rollicking "Letter To My Girlfriend"], Albert Collins ["Iced Over"], and Albert King ["C.O.D.," with a spirited vocal by Angela Strehli, anoter mainstay of the Austin blues scene]. And it's in Stevie's playing that night, too. Thoseguys and B.B. King and Otis Rush and Buddy Guy, they're all in there."
Chris Layton describes the weeks leading up to the show as "chaos." There were three days of rehearsal in Austin, during which the supporting players gradually assembled; and two warm-up gigs at the newly-opened Caravan of Dreams in Forth Worth.
"Then we all flew to New York, rented a big warehouse on the lower West Side of Manhattan, and brought in the staging we'd made for the show," Layton continues. "It wasn't just a backdrop but an entire set, with horn risers and drum risers, painted lapis blue. We set it up in this warehouse and had another rehearsal for the staging." Meanwhile, the band members were being fitted for the mariachi-style velvet suits they had designed for themselves: Chris and Tommy in royal blue, Stevie in ruby red.
Despite these intense preparations, one element of the show would prove beyond anyone's effective control. "Understand that the acoustics of Carnegie Hall were designed for acoustic music, not electric," says Jimmie Vaughan. "So when Stevie came in, playing as loud as he did, they had to boost everything else up in the P.A. system just to stay in balance with him. I mean, it was loud out there in the house. For some people who were at the show, the sound of this album is gonna be a lot better than what they heard out of the P.A. that night!"
The Dallas Times Herald agreed that "Carnegie Hall's fabled acoustics don't seem to work quite so well for rock 'n' roll." But the reviewer, Joe Rhodes, noted that "it was on the slow, bluesy stuff that the Carnegie Hall sound really helped. You could hear Stevie bend every note in a way that's impossible in most rooms. A few times Vaughan put his finger to his lips, asking the crowd to stop howling so they could hear the delicate guitar work."
In the audience that night were some of Stevie Ray Vaughan's closest friends, family and supporters. Among them were Lenny Bailey, then his wife, to whom Stevie dedicated the beautiful a capella instrumental which he wrote and named for her. Also on hand was veteran A&R man John Hammond, who had signed Stevie to the Epic label of CBS Records - his last great discovery in a career pantheon which included Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Count Basic, George Benson, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
John Hammond was 74 when he took the stage that night to introduce Stevie Ray Vaughan as "one of the great guitar players of all time." In 1938 and 1939, Hammond had organized the historic "Spirituals To Swing" concerts at Carnegie Hall: The 1938 show was to have featured Robert Johnson, but the Delta blues legend died before Hammond could find him.
Chris Layton: "You talk about a real 'record man,' I think he was one-of-a-kind. John Hammond's whole thing was artistic expression. He definitely wasn't about money. He didn't put on any airs, he was non-judgemental... A great soul, a great spirit." Jimmie Vaughan met hammond a few times through his brother, and recalls that that the executive "was always a pleasure to be around. He and Stevie were really close - he was very fond of Stevie, like a grandfather to him, really."
Jimmie calls October 4, 1984 "a great night for the Vaughan family. My mother and father came up for the show, and they'd never been to New York City before. My father was very sick at that time" - Jimmie Lee Vaughan died of heart failure less than two years later - "but he made it up there for the show. So it was a big night, a great night for the Vaughan family."
For Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble to play Carnegie Hall was "like winning a Grammy or anything really special that you do, that happens to you," Jimmie Vaughan says. "In the moment when it's happening, you might not be conscious of how special it is. You're just getting through it, getting the job done."
"But later on, when you reflect on it, you think 'Wow, did that really happen to me? That was really something special.' That's how I feel about that night, and about this album. And I think Stevie would feel the same way."
- Andy Schwartz
"My best birthday ever...forever"
- Stevie Ray Vaughan