For 15 years, right up until his death in a helicopter crash last August, Stevie Ray Vaughan crossed paths with his older brother and fellow guitarist Jimmie mostly on the road. The two, in fact, shared the same stage with Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Buddy Guy only hours before the accident.
Earlier this year, though, the brothers finally cut back their road work to make their first album together, "Family Style" (Epic). Recorded in Memphis, Dallas and New York, and produced by Nile Rodgers -- who previously recruited Stevie to play guitar on David Bowie's 1983 smash album "Let's Dance" -- it's an agreeably low-key affair, a triumph of brotherly love over sibling rivalry.
In an interview with Guitar Player magazine four years ago, Jimmie, best known for his work with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, dispelled rumors about heated competition, even jealousy, igniting the brothers' occasional performances on stage. "People always wanted us to fight -- they liked to see that for some reason -- but we never really did," he recalled. "Maybe we'd fight over who gets the best dressing room or something," he added, laughing.
It's that same sort of genial spirit that prevails on "Family Style," a collection of earthy, uncomplicated shuffles ("White Boots," one of two tunes sung by Jimmie), tributes to rock guitar pioneer Lonnie Mack ("D/FW") and Stax-style soul ("Hard to Be"), plus an inspirational ballad called "Tick Tock" that now sounds eerily prophetic: "Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock people/ Time's ticking away," Stevie sings on the chorus.
Overall, the music on "Family Style" has far more in common with the kind of rootsy rock and blues favored by the Thunderbirds than with Stevie's frenzied updates. Even the album's up-tempo tunes, "Long Way From Home" and "Telephone Song" (the only cut on the album that features Stevie's familiar wah-wah effect), are relatively subdued, almost playful by comparison.
As a rule, Stevie's playing is more attuned to Jimmie's lighter touch and economy, and instead of dishing up blistering solos and exchanges, the brothers seem more intent on sustaining a relaxed groove. For the most part they succeed, though the funk workout "Baboom/Mama Said" wears thin fast and occasionally you find yourself wishing the Vaughans had gathered more substantial songs before they began to collaborate. Capping the album is "Brothers," an instrumental track that finds the Vaughans sharing the same Stratocaster, just as they had swapped countless songs and licks as teenagers who had fallen under the spell of blues greats Freddie and Albert King.
Robert Cray: 'Midnight Stroll'
By contrast, what makes Robert Cray's new album, "Midnight Stroll" (Mercury), so strong is the material -- that and the fact that Cray has enlisted the help of the two-man Memphis Horns. The top-notch songwriting is no surprise; since the release of "Bad Influence" in 1983, Cray and his producer, Dennis Walker, have written and compiled dozens of tunes good enough to cut most of the competition to shreds -- first-person narratives, mostly, each with a beginning, middle and, quite often, an emotionally cathartic release for an end.
Even so, "Midnight Stroll" has more than the customary number of gems. Walker's "The Forecast (Calls for Pain)" and Cray's "These Things" and "My Problem" are unusually moving confessional ballads, often underscored by Cray's smoldering guitar. And because the Memphis Horns are part of a new lineup that's allowed Cray to explore his fondness for Stax soul with renewed passion, he's never sounded more convincing as a singer. Not all the tunes are lovesick laments -- both the joyful "Bouncin' Back" and the defiant "Move a Mountain" are survivor's tales -- but the best tunes find Cray, the Horns and Jimmy Pugh's Hammond B3 organ in a decidedly melancholy mood.
Oddly enough, the album's weakest cut is the title track, inspired by Howlin' Wolf's "Wang Dang Doodle." No doubt Cray will give it his best in concert -- he does a fair impression of Wolf, after all -- but compared with the other songs here, "Midnight Stroll" is strictly lightweight.
Cray and the Memphis Horns play Constitution Hall on Oct. 24.
Derek and the Dominos: 'The Layla Sessions'
Twenty years ago this month, Derek and the Dominos, a short-lived band spearheaded by Eric Clapton, keyboardist Bobby Whitlock and the late slide guitarist Duane Allman, finished recording "Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs." Given the popularity of box sets these days, it isn't surprising that we now have the commemorative "Layla Sessions" (Polydor), a three-CD (or cassette) compilation containing a remixed and remastered version of the original album plus previously unreleased jams, alternate takes and a 14-page booklet. In fact, there's enough additional material to turn what could have been a single CD release into a box of three.
Clearly, the single CD would have been the better buy for most listeners. The album's orchestral richness and sweeping guitars, best exemplified by the title track, are well served by digital technology, and even the blues classics "Have You Ever Loved a Woman" and "Key to the Highway" boast a new crispness and clarity. If anything, the remarkable guitar weave consistently created by Clapton and Allman seems all the more inspired and seamless. But beyond the familiar pleasures of the original album and a couple of revealing alternate takes, only die-hard fans are apt to venture more than a few times, if that.