When I went to Moncton High School I used to spend my mornings standing across the street in front of what was at the time a motorcycle shop smoking cigarettes with my posse of fellow smokers. One chilly morning a girl I didn’t know very well mentioned that she was going with her dad and his friend to Fredericton to see a concert. It was a blues guy named Stevie Ray Vaughan and they had an extra ticket, would I want to go?
I had just started playing guitar and was in the habit of reading a magazine called Guitar For The Practising Musician from cover to cover every month, so I had heard about this Stevie Ray guy, though I had not yet heard him. Of course I was a big fan of going to concerts and the ticket came with a ride to and from the show so yeah, I was in.
I had quit smoking weed a year or so before but I remember thinking before the show that I might buy a little – an out-of-town concert was a rare event and maybe I could sneak off to the bathroom during the opening set – but in the end I figured I’d stick to my guns and I decided not to.
Anyways, on April 6th, 1988 the four of us drove to Fredericton together along the Old Fredericton Road – the four-lane highway hadn’t been built yet – to our provincial capitol. I don’t remember doing anything before the show so we probably went straight to the Aitken Centre.
I recall being really impressed with the opening act. The Razorbacks were a rockabilly group and they were playing to the back of the small arena, where my friend and I, her dad and his friend stood cheering. In what I would later discover was true rockabilly fashion, the bass player was more acrobat than musician, clawing away at the strings while balancing on top of his big bass fiddle, strumming it like a guitar and spinning it around like a drunken ballerina. They put in a good set in front of an appreciative crowd.
And then Stevie Ray Vaughan came onstage and blew my twenty-year old mind. His fluid guitar playing shocked me from the get-go and kept me amazed for the entire night. I was reeling; my jaw was figuratively on the floor. How could a guy manipulate such a finite amount of notes within such a rigid harmonic format and keep it so new, so fresh, so interesting? Every single line of every single break was like a Mozart motif, each pentatonic pass spoke like an improvised lyric; his playing could be so subtle his guitar would lilt, and then when he wanted to SRV could dig in and instantly make his Strat scream.
I think it was the first time I actually heard emotion coming out of an instrument.
And then, late in the concert Stevie stood at the microphone and told us of his recent bout with drugs and alcohol and how it almost robbed him of his ability to do what he does. He wasn’t telling us what to do, he asserted, though he hoped we would love each other and watch out for each other.
“But,” he concluded, “I can promise you that if I hadn’t cleaned up I could not stand up here and do what I have to do for you right now.” And then Stevie Ray Vaughan tore into the most gut-wrenching, honest-to-God-trying-to-get-you-to-understand-what-he-means heart-expanding guitar solo you could ever imagine.
The dude played notes in ways they had never been played before and I stood there absolutely swelling with pride at my decision to stay clean for the show, and going forward. This would become the focus of our conversation when Vaughan and I would meet a year or so later, but that’s another story.
You can well imagine the streak of excited conversation in the car on the way back home. For the entire ride the four of us couldn’t stop talking about the amazing concert we had just witnessed. For me this night had been the beginning of finding a new musical hero, though sadly Stevie Ray Vaughan would have less than eighteen months left on our planet before meeting his tragic end.
But at the time it felt more like the start of something rather than the beginning of an ending.