The boxed set, that most ubiquitous and painstakingly completist of modern-day music anthologies, can be a force for good or ill. The form has given us both utter delights like John Coltrane's 16-disc The Prestige Recordings and utterly useless dreck like (why? why?) Who Was That Masked Man?, a five-CD, hundred-buck collection of all the recordings produced in the 1980s by masked Elvis impersonator Orion -- a set of discs for which no one save the already deeply disturbed can have any imaginable use. Epic/Legacy's SRV, a three-disc, one-DVD overview of the life and work of Texas-born guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughan, happily, and with only a couple of reservations, falls into the former camp.
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Slapping Vaughan with the "virtuoso" tag isn't the least bit hyperbole; and though anyone who cares enough to shell out the money for SRV will already be aware of this, the blues wasn't Vaughan's only medium, though it was the one he cleaved to early and most fervently. The earliest recording here, of Paul Ray and the Cobras (with Vaughan on second lead guitar) whipping through the Nightcaps' "Thunderbird," is almost pure swing; and the unreleased version of "Lenny," a slow sustained-chord instrumental from a 1981 radio gig first released on his debut album, 1983's Texas Flood, can in no way be mistaken for the hard blues Vaughan later became most associated with. Spanning 13 years and ending with three previously unreleased performances recorded during Double Trouble's penultimate concert, just two days before Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash in the early morning hours of August 27, 1990, SRV does its damndest to offer Vaughan's talent in the full range of its colors, and succeeds nearly every time.
The most easily dismissed complaints which might be marshaled against SRV are in its omission of certain tracks you'd think would be essential for a project like this; Double Trouble's blistering version of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," for example, from Live Alive; or the inclusion of an unreleased but somewhat restrained live performance of "Cold Shot," instead of the original version. But all this is so much Monday-morning quarterbacking, and particularly pointless in light of what is here, like live renditions of "Little Wing/Third Stone From the Sun," Chester Burnett's "I'm Leaving You (Commit a Crime)" and an absolutely ungodly performance of "The Sky Is Crying," recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1984. Moreover, heard in sequence, Vaughan's sobering up period in the late '80s drop-kicked his talent into a whole new time zone, as the still-chilling "Wall of Denial," from 1989 's In Step, attests; you can fairly hear Vaughan's demons come screaming out between the frets on that cut in particular. Thirty-two of the 49 audio tracks here are previously unissued, ensuring that even for Vaughan aficionados, SRV won't be a case of replicating their extant collections for the sake of gambling on a handful of alternate versions.
Which brings us, however, to the second and somewhat less dismissable complaint: SRV comes packaged with One Night in Texas . . ., a DVD of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble performing five songs on Austin City Limits in 1989, and if you don't have the technology to allow you enjoy it, well, chuck you, Farley. In a generous interpretation, we could credit Epic/Legacy for assembling a package which hedges its bets; as DVD technology comes more widely within the means of average-Joe music fans, SRV will be on their shelves, waiting patiently to unleash the (admittedly stellar) performance contained on its fourth disc. But for you fans without the required hardware, it's going to be a frustrating acquisition unless you can cajole your higher-bracket friends into letting you come over, which means you'll probably have to spring for the beer. Any way you cut it, it's kind of a dirty trick, particularly when you factor in the added cost.
So caveat emptor; if you pop for the set, no matter what your outfit consists of, you'll be getting a truckload of good music. Fully equipped fans will find it a more immediately satisfying purchase; but if you're fairly certain you'll be making the techno leap pretty soon, you won't be a bit disappointed by this career-spanning overview of an original American axe master. Recommended without reservation.