Guitar-Stringer Comes To Town. Jimmie Vaughan At The Dakota


For the 40th or 50th time I want to begin by saying how much I love shows at The Dakota.  Heading in for a remarkable, ever changing menu followed by a world class performer in an intimate space; almost makes me want to dress up.  Most of us, when push comes to shove, clean up pretty good and enjoy a bit of pampering.  Lowell Pickett’s joint is pure class.

And that’s why the likes of Jimmie Vaughan shows up on a Tuesday night.  That checks the best of blues box.  They do the same with singer songwriters, country and classic rock.  They used to call the place a Jazz Club.  Trust me, you’ll find something in your wheelhouse at that jewel of a venue in downtown Minneapolis.

I grabbed onto the bumper of Jimmie V’s Coupe DeVille cadillac bumper the year before Reagan got elected.  The band he put together with Kim Wilson was called The Fabulous Thunderbirds.  And you might say they hit the big time.  Playin’ blues the way they heard it down in Texas.  That melting pot of sounds and cultures.  Not one thing has changed in Jimmie Vaughan over these last forty some years.  He’s still a wonder.  And he keeps going back to those sounds that moved him as a kid.

When it comes to politics, they carve a president’s head into sheer granite.  Once it’s up there, can’t never come down.  Really don’t matter a whit if said president becomes unpopular or is revealed to be something other than what we thought.  There’s no more room for the new guns on the political scene.  The OG will always be the OG.

Not so with the blues.  I figure the blues Mount Rushmore is more like Texas sandstone.  Over time, it erodes and new faces emerge.  There’s always this echo of what was there before.  It changes slow.  So it’s cool that way.  The icons that oughta be there stand proud for the better part of a generation.  Then, like Buddy Guy said:  “The blues is just a hand me down thing.”  The mantel gets passed and the face of the new masters appear. 

So we’ve moved on from Robert Johnson, to Son House, to Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon.  Then on to the three Kings, Albert, Freddie and BB before getting round to Albert Collins and Buddy.  Along the way there are always the young lions walkin’ up to the Crossroads.  Cats like Jimmie’s little brother Stevie or Luther Allison, Son Seals or Fenton Robinson.  A lot of the load these days gets carried by bands like The Radio Company and Black Keys.  Or guitar players like Scott Holt, Eric Gales or Gary Clark, Jr.  We acknowledge those young(er) guns their pyrotechnics and connection to the source.  But every one of them will tell you they got many miles to go before they’d ever address one of those dudes as anything other than Mister.  Or be mentioned in the same sentence as the guy who played The Dakota tonight.  Every time I look up at that ever evolving monolith, the countenance of Jimmie Vaughan grows ever clearer.

Here’s my two cents worth on what makes a guitar player great.  It isn’t about fast.  It isn’t about flash (unless your name is Eddie Van Halen).  It’s about being unique.  I’m talking about the kind of player who you instantly know within 3 or 4 notes.  It’s a signature sound.  Others will try to copy it.  Good luck with that.  It’s Santana, Keith Richards, Dave Gilmour and Joe Walsh.  Vaughan is one of those guys.

Vaughan’s unique, because of the way he approaches his white Stratocaster.  Nobody intentionally does more by doing less.  That doesn’t imply he can’t rip.  Or that his skill set is not top of the heap.  Think of it this way: big echoing, screaming guitars, ripe with reverb, make our blood boil.  But it also gives a player an out.  Lots of things which are not absolutely perfect can be hidden away in a wall of sound.

I think Jimmie must rip the reverb circuit out of his amp and toss it into the rangeland dust.  His tone is clean as clean can be.  You can’t afford to miss when you turn down the volume a bit and play like that.  So you use picks, fingers, back of finger nails; whatever it takes to get that perfect tone.  Because when he sends it out, that note is bare naked.

Vaughan works in those open spaces between the notes.  Those he scratches from the strings are offered up like pieces of turquoise wrapped in silver.  Kind of like one of his bolo ties (because he always shows up to work looking like a professional).  Every note means something.  An extra note is unnecessary baggage.  One missing would leave us a bit poorer.  He’s always riding along just on the back side of the beat.  It leaves us with this tail dragging swagger that is uniquely Jimmie Vaughan.

I don’t want to start down a rabbit hole talking about his little brother Stevie Ray.  And I absolutely won’t ever get into a discussion of which one of the Vaughan boys was “better”.  Suffice to say, they emerged from that same Texas melting pot of blues, Tex Mex, Swing and R&B.  But each was twigged by different influences and ended up as opposite sides of the same coin.  To me, SRV was a wonder spraying notes around the joint like a machine gun.  Jimmie is more like hammering nails.  You hear the deliberation.  You hear the percussion.  If he doesn’t want to wake the baby, he sure as hell won’t.  It’s all right there in front of you and it’s damn near perfect.

Jimmie is now 70 and he’s aged gracefully.  Not a particularly easy or common thing for a blues man to do.  Along the way, I think he’s had a wonderful time being nudged around by and exploring simpatico sounds and styles.  Tonight was full of Swing.  It was back porch jam.  A bit of Chicago.  Full blown boogie and pure down South Texas blues.  It felt like he dropped Austin’s Continental Club onto the Marquette Mall.

You don’t pull that stuff off without a killer band.  If I was running the legendary Antone’s or the aforementioned Continental, I’d just hire Jimmie’s Tilt A Whirl as my house band.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of those guys actually did that.  That means all you do is listen and then make anybody sound really good.  Jimmie played a tune titled Blues Frame.  He could dedicate that to the Tilt A Whirl.

Midway through the set, he dropped to a 3 piece jazz ensemble.  It’s a configuration he’s done some records/touring with.  Flash from Continental Club to some smokey NYC jazz basement.  That stuff was so refined.  I wrote a note that reads:  “Damn it, Jimmie!  You’re going to make me start listening to jazz.  I don’t have time to add jazz to the docket.”

But when guys like those three settle in, it becomes clear why The Dakota, with its jazz tendencies is packed.  Night after night.  It’ll light your brain as much as your body.

I rarely record my recollections and ruminations without mentioning the audience and vibe.  I’ve made it clear that it’s cool going to shows solo.  Recently, pointed out that the best of all scenarios is going to a great show with friends and family.  But let’s never forget those nights where you make some new friends who share a common passion.  Tonight was one of those nights.

Normally, the person writing up a show is not the photographer.  More often than not, we never see each other.  Or at best simply acknowledge one another in passing.  Writers find a spot (or are assigned a seat) and try to tell the story.  The photographer is constantly on the move, looking for the perfect construction.  Add to that, writers are generally there until the wrap.  Photographers are often limited to just three songs.  So they get their work done and move on.  Sometimes they shoot multiple shows in a night.  That’s a bridge too far for somebody like me.

Tonight wasn’t like that.  I met Timothy for the first time.  He got his picture taking work done in three and then settled in for the music.  I appreciate that.  Next to us was Candy from Nordeast and Ann who was up from Rochester.  Singletons like us.  There for some music because they love the venue.  Neither was familiar with Mr. Vaughan.  That’s always a special pleasure for me.  Watching somebody else catch an act for the first time and being blown away.  So we had fun.  Some new friends yakking about music.  Music is about community.  It connects people who would never meet or realize they had some things in common.

That’s my subtle nudge to get you back out to live music venues, sooner rather than later.  Artists and venues need us as much as we need them.

At the end of the show Jimmie laid down the spare Six Strings Down from his 1994 release Strange Pleasure.  The song goes in part:

Been lis’nin’ to your playin’
Heaven done called
Another blues-stringer back home
SRV’s up there
Lord they called
Another blues-stringer back home
Albert Collins up there
Muddy an’ Lightnin’ too
Albert King and Freddy
Playin’ the blues
T-Bone Walker, Guitar Slim
Little Son Jackson and
Frankie Lee Sims
Heaven done called 
Another blues-stringer back home
I’ve been digging the man’s music for over 40 years.  He’s a marvel.  Hope to see him for many more.  Someday a guy like Gary Clark, Jr., grizzled and grey, will be singin’ this tune.  And he’ll find a way to put Jimmie’s name in there.  Cause if your face spent time on that sandstone monolith…you sure as hell earned it.