Friday, November 16, 2007

Guitar Spotlight: Stevie Ray Vaughan

Blues is a universal musical style and institution of rock. There are so many great musicians in the style of blues it is difficult to even keep track of them. But when it comes to blues on the guitar, a special group of individuals can be selected from the pack to be included in the pantheon of guitar legends. Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Albert Collins, Jimi Hendrix...But all these guys paved the road and formed the mold for the man who would go on to become the single greatest to ever play the blues, the man to the left, Stevie Ray Vaughan. That is obviously an arguable point, but what is totally inarguable is the sheer talent, precision, tone and emotion Vaughan presented in his music. Many thought it was impossible for someone to set the bar for blues even higher than Jimi Hendrix, but Vaughan inched him out. His Fender stratocaster was his weapon, his guardian, his soulmate and his voice. He never wasted a note, he never lacked charisma, and he never failed to entertain and amaze his audience.

His tragic death in 1990 deprived us of what surely would have been another two decades of blazing blues riffage. He, like Jimi Hendrix before him, effectively combined lead and rhythm guitar into a hybrid style that served to his blues tendencies and allowed him to amass a prolific career as a guitarist. If you want a quick lesson on how to add character to your blues playing, just listen to one of his songs. If you want a quick lesson on putting together simple yet effective blues licks, go buy one of his CDs. Simply put, he took all blues players around at his time to school.

What mainly set him apart from other blues players of his time (and many of the best all-time players) was his tone. He always had the distortion as far as it could go, and like Jimi Hendrix before him, he made excellent use of feedback. He used fat strings to get the chunky sound he gets out of his notes, which makes it even more amazing how much he was able to shred at constantly-overdriven levels.

This is a video clip from his album "Blues at Sunrise" of Stevie playing one of his classics, "Texas Flood." It is a simple 12-bar blues tune, like most of his songs, but what made him so special is his simultaneous riffage of three-note rhythms and blistering solos. Not many guitarists can pull that off, let alone pull it off and have their own touch to it. Unfortunately, the video isn't complete, but here's another one of him covering his idol, Jimi Hendrix.

If you've heard Hendrix's version of "Little Wing" (shame on you if you haven't!), then you'll notice all the added dimensions Vaughan threw into this version. He made it all instrumental. He was so great at guitar that he often didn't have to sing. He could solo for several minutes straight and keep his audience engaged.

That's the look of Stevie's most popular and oft-used guitar, the custom SRV stratocaster, first introduced in 1992. It has a thicker neck than usual, to make better use of the fat strings SRV tended to use, and its sunburst finish is complemented very nicely by the black pickguard with the SRV signature logo on it. I'd highly recommend this axe if you want a thick, chugging sound for your blues playing. Several hundred replicas of Vaughan's actual original guitar are in circulation; I'm uncertain as to how high the price has gone at this point.

Stevie Ray Vaughan was tragically killed in a helicopter accident in late 1990. He was two years removed from fully recovering from a serious cocaine and alcohol addiction that could have taken his life then if he failed to check into rehab. He managed to put out two albums and do several tours before his death, but the world was robbed of a truly legendary guitarist. He'd be elevated to God status by now even if he was still alive. His aura lives on in all blues guitar players nowadays, and anyone looking to learn how to play blues lead effectively need not look any further.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Movie Review: No Country for Old Men

The film I have anticipated more than any other this year has finally been released, and I am giving a special review of No Country for Old Men. It only made me anticipate it more after seeing the amount of raves coming in from critics, and I have to say the Coen brothers have hit a home run. They took Cormac McCarthy's modern classic novel and created a western/crime drama/thriller hybrid that defies and embraces conventional film storytelling, and just might be the best thriller to come along in years. Upon one viewing, I find no major flaws in the technical and intangible aspects of this film. Joel and Ethan Coen may have created their best work in their 23-year two-headed directing career.

I can also say the narrative is very close to the novel, so the points at which the storytelling is conventional or unconventional largely depend on the structure of McCarthy's novel. It follows the intersecting stories of three men who are all involved in the aftermath of a severely botched drug deal. Llewellen Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon the dead bodies, stash of heroin and $2 million cash, and his decisions, which he admits could be bad, set off a catastrophic chain of violence behind which local Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) finds himself.

Moss is being chased by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who has entered the film world as one of the most calculating, psychopathic, ruthless villains in years, possibly decades. He usually kills people who are simply in his way; but he also decides the fate of innocent lives with the flip of a coin, just as you'll see in a memorable scene between himself and a gas station owner. Javier Bardem has turned in a magnificently terrifying performance. He was cast absolutely perfectly for this role; his deep voice and cold, stoic stare chills and grips the audience in every scene he's in. His tactics in the film seem primitive compared to today's crime world, but please note this film takes place in West Texas in 1980.

There are great performances all around. Bell, the true moral center of the story, is played nearly to perfection by Tommy Lee Jones. The pain of an old, tired officer in his voice through most of his scenes, including his opening monologue, can really be felt. The old-time veteran actor and former Academy Award winner surprised a lot of people with this role, but his performance could ultimately be overshadowed by Bardem's. Kelly MacDonald of Scotland is great as a young Southern trailer park wife, and Josh Brolin is also great as Llewellen Moss, as he carries the bulk of the narrative. He's on a recent hot streak, but this performance is too ultimately overshadowed by Bardem, who is the front-runner to land major awards for his role.

The Coens have reaffirmed themselves as master storytellers with this film. They were on a recent cold streak with some highly stylized comedies that seemed more like cheap Coen knockoffs, but this time they have returned to form. They once again got fantastic cinematography by Roger Deakins, who captured the dark atmosphere of the whole picture perfectly. Much of the credit for the atmosphere needs to go to the Coens though, who know and get exactly what they want from their vision. They rely much more on real sounds rather than background music, as there is very sparse orchestration and one diegetic source. Minute sounds like the unwrapping of a peanut wrapper and the turning of a screw serve to heighten the tension of the actions of all the characters, something that would be more subdued and less believable with non-diegetic background music.

Right now, I'd say this film is easily their best since 1996's Fargo. Whether or not it tops the modern classic remains to be seen. I'm a staunch believer in multiple viewings of films to get the true appreciation of it. I've seen this film once and have already felt its power. I am eager to see it again to dissect it and appreciate its completeness and boldness as a story. Please do not miss this one. *****/*****

This satisfies assignment #5.

Emerging from the depths...

It's been far too long between posts.

Last week was incredibly hectic for me. Three job interviews, two papers due...And plenty of on-campus work and classes. I had time at certain points to make posts, but my mind was such a blur, this blog was unfortunately not one of the things to cross my mind. I also had to drive home and back again a couple times, which took up plenty of time I could have spent writing. But oh well...

I haven't really even had much time to play guitar this past week. I jammed once at my friend Steve's place; Steve is primarily a bass player and he has great taste for music overall. We jammed to some Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, and we also decided we're going to cover a couple songs in the near future. He has connections to rent jam spaces to make professional-sounding recordings, so I won't balk at an opportunity like that.

I'm going to post later tonight because I'm finally going to see NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN at the Coolidge Corner theater in Brookline! It opens nationwide next Wednesday, so I will be able to give a sneak review. Until next time...