The 1989 release In Step from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble saw a triumphant return for the band after a downward spiral occurring in the mid-eighties. Six years prior, the band had released Texas Flood, a blend of classic electric blues with Hendrix-style rock and roll that conclusively showed the world that a new man with a new band had arrived. Their sound swept across the planet, bringing the message of the Blues to the masses.
The sophomore effort Couldn’t Stand the Weather kept that momentum going with even more classic tunes (as well as a cover of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child”) and the third album Soul to Soul was followed with the live LP Live Alive, but it was around this time when Vaughan’s years of heavy substance abuse finally caught up with him. Combined with constant touring, things finally took their toll: Vaughan checked himself into rehab. Many wondered if he would ever be able to play music again without the crutch of drugs and alcohol—including Stevie Ray himself. So on June 6, 1989 when the band released their fabulous fourth studio album he proved to himself—and the world—that things are indeed better sober.
Leading off with the classic “The House Is Rockin’ ” (penned with fellow songwriter Doyle Bramhall) “Crossfire” soon follows, showing great performances by Chris Layton on drums and Tommy Shannon on bass, and an assist by keyboardist Reese Wynans on songwriting. The song sets the listener up for the tale of survival throughout the LP. “Tightrope” carries that story on, but making sure his message is heard without getting too preachy, Vaughan covers Willie Dixon’s “Let Me Love You Baby” on the next track and follows it with “Leave My Girl Alone,” a classic song by the incomparable Buddy Guy. Of course, Stevie Ray Vaughan is widely acknowledged as one of the all-time great guitar players, so hearing him tear it up on the instrumental “Travis Walk” after these deft interpretations of blues standards is a real treat.
“Wall of Denial” is up next, and the title says it all. Critics have often praised Vaughan for this track as the lyrics are extremely personal, but no one talks about the presentation, and it is through his perspective (an Everyman tune that anyone with personal demons can relate to) that Vaughan pulls it off. “Scratch and Sniff” and the Howlin’ Wolf song “Love Me Darlin’ ” are next. Not many are able to pull off interpreting that master; his voice is a league all its own, but the same can be said about Stevie Ray Vaughan. He brings the original into the modern age. (It sounds awesome.)
Vaughan chose a self-penned instrumental entitled “Riviera Paradise” to close the album out. He often said in interviews that the track was all about healing and you can clearly hear that in every note that he plays. Producer Jim Gaines has described the band dimming the lights very low in the studio while recording to set the mood—so dim that they couldn’t see each other, or him: while the band was stretching out and really feeling the music, Gaines was trying to get their attention because they had about thirty seconds of tape remaining before it would run out and they’d be cut off. Amazingly, as the last note faded out, so did the tape! The band wrapped it up and ended the whole fabulous performance just in the nick of time.
Following the release of In Step, Double Trouble went on a worldwide tour. Stevie told his story to many people in attendance—including me at many of the shows, fortunately. It was awe-inspiring to see a man reborn and so full of life. To say Vaughan was on a natural high would be an understatement. He always addressed the crowd in a way that didn’t seem like he was preaching or talking down to them. He wanted everyone to know that we as a human race should support and love each other and never turn our backs on someone if they have a problem. It was awesome stuff to witness.
Sadly, on August 27, 1990, he was killed in a helicopter crash in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. As tragic as it was, if there is anything positive that came from the last year of the life of Stevie Ray Vaughan, it is the fact that the man was able to address the entire world, letting anyone who was willing to listen know that he had conquered his demons and that the Blues could be played bigger and better than ever clean and sober. Vaughan proved that, night after night, right up to the end.
In Step will always be remembered as a classic piece of music. It won a Grammy award for best contemporary blues album in 1990. In 1999, towards the beginning of a new millennium, it was reissued with five bonus tracks, one of which is an interview with Vaughan, who will always be remembered as an outstanding performer who brought blues to the mainstream, and, with his final album, a message of triumph and sobriety along with him. He had a story to tell and this was it.