Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: Jimmie Vaughan, 'Plays Blues, Ballads and Favorites'

Texas blues warrior Jimmie Vaughan has long made a career out of being an anti-guitar hero.

Even during his 1970s days with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, his playing was marked by a learned musical command that favored groove and mood over outlandish soloing. Sure, when the spotlight was his, he could burn things up as intensely as his celebrated younger brother, Stevie Ray Vaughan. But the elder Vaughan has also enjoyed rolling with tunes split between Lone Star State blues and decades-old juke-joint R&B.

Placing his own name out in front of his music never seemed terribly important, either. His last two recording projects were collaborative albums of Jimmy Reed covers with Kent "Omar" Dykes (of swamp rockers Omar and the Howlers). Up until this summer, Vaughan hasn't issued an album of his own in nearly a decade.

That brings us to Plays Blues, Ballads and Favorites, an album title so splendidly generic that it could have been adopted in the '60s by Ray Charles or Solomon Burke. But for Vaughan, the record is a romp through the blues, soul and sleek roots-oriented rock that have long been at the heart of his music. And like all of Vaughan's albums, the music places as much emphasis on ensemble spirit as it does on individual merit.

Take the opening version of Billy "The Kid" Emerson's The Pleasure's All Mine, for instance. The guitar lines are clean, efficient and profoundly soulful even though the vintage R&B groove is moved along as much by a two-man saxophone team as by Vaughan himself. Add in vocals that eerily recall the singing of his late younger sibling and you have a blast of cheery, boppish soul with a deep Texas accent.

The mood shifts to swing on Comin' and Goin', a Vaughan original that stakes out dramatic new jazz-like turf for the guitarist. But the groove- and horn-punctuated melody still keep what is probably Blues, Ballads and Favorites' most overt guitar showcase in motion. Fans of grandstanding guitar breaks, though, should look elsewhere. Vaughan and company complete this little joyride in under three minutes.

Longtime Texas pal Lou Ann Barton guests on five tunes, including a take on Little Richard's Send Me Some Lovin' that reflects shades of Sam Cooke and even Fats Domino in the horn section's sweaty, playful bounce. Even finer is a glowing vocal turn by longtime Vaughan B3 organist Bill Willis on the Willie Nelson classic Funny How Time Slips Away, which is slowed to lustrously cool crawl.

What you're left with is an album that, in design, seems to have been transported our way from another musical age. But for all its nostalgic references, Blues, Ballads and Favorites bears an understated immediacy that makes these blues-soul sounds seem refreshingly vital.