Greetings, Glancers! It feels like an age since I’ve listened to one of Colin Larkin’s Top 1000 albums of all time. I’ve posted a few of my reactions recently, but most of those were written one or two years ago – the series had been somewhat left behind as I picked up on Marillion and closed out some of series. It feels good to get back into this, and it feels doubly good to be listening to an artist I’m already sort of familiar with. You see, being a guitarist in my younger days and hanging around with likeminded guitar fans, certain instrumental maestros would always come up in conversation – the Satriani and Vai speed merchants, to the more blues oriented guys like Vaughan. These were the people we looked up to and wanted to emulate. I don’t think (at the time) I’d ever heard a complete album by most of these people, Vaughan included, but instead knew various solos or individual tracks. So today, for the first time I’ll be listening to an entire album by SRV – The Sky Is Crying.
What Do I Know About SRV? As mentioned, a guitar hero who mainly stayed within the Blues sphere, and who died at an early age in a Helicopter crash. Another person we are left to wonder what they could have achieved and released had they not died so young.
What Do I Know About The Sky Is Crying? The name sounds familiar, leading me to believe I was probably aware of it once upon a time but have since forgotten anything about it. Looking at the tracklist, most of the songs seem to be covers, which isn’t unusual for guitar heroes – especially of the Blues variety.
Boot Hill: I’ve mentioned it elsewhere on the blog – while I enjoy Blues music, increasing as I get older it has to be in small bursts because it feels so limited in scope. I worry that, even with Vaughan’s performances, this album could wear out its welcome for me long before it’s over. This song is perfectly fine, but it’s like any other slower Blues track you’ve ever heard. I enjoy it more as a standalone listen rather than as the opening track to a Blues album. I suspect I’ll be repeating that sentiment through this post.
The Sky Is Crying: It’s a slower 12 Bar Blues song. I need to focus on SRV instead and not get so hung up on the limitations of the genre. SRV goes off on an absolute melter which takes up the bulk of the song, playing string bends which have no business being in the song but forcing them to work. His tone is so crisp with just the slightest hint of scratchiness to compliment the pain of the lyrics.
Empty Arms: A more up-tempo song, feels more jazzy, though we can immediately dismiss the lyrics – you already know what you’re going to get before any of these songs begin – various variations of ‘baby gonna be gone/baby done me wrong/ain’t got nowhere to run’ etc. Lets just focus on Stevie. A chaotic middle is the highlight, blistering between the ragged lead riff and frenetic, confident licks which dance the length of the fret board while playing with the allotted time signatures.
Little Wing: A cover of the Hendrix classic, and the song I’m most familiar with. This is both a more stripped back version and expanded at the same time. Stripped back in terms of arrangement and its focus on Blues compared with the more psychedelic and visionary aspects of the original. The introduction of harmonics in the intro here as very nice, going some way to evoke similar moods to the original. It’s also a fully instrumental cover meaning some of the emotion is lost, but it does fully free Stevie to interpret the vocals through his guitar, leading to some interesting translations. It’s not a disservice to either to say that Vaughan tops Jimi’s performance here.
Wham: Thankfully that little interlude from traditional Blues continues with this supersonic rendition. There’s barely a breath’s escape between notes here, a marvellous display of Vaughan’s talents – not merely a display of pacing and technique under strain, but of interpretation, consistency, and nuance. It really comes into its own after the 40 second mark, then doesn’t let go. A ridiculous cover every guitar lover should slap their ears around.
May I Have A Talk With You: This has a scratchy Hendrix intro, but soon devolves into another dirty Blues crawl. The licks are somewhat more traditional here, aside from their lead ins and the way they tail off – those are infused with little SRV flourishes. The lead solo is comparable – it’s firmly based in traditional roots but the little flourishes, from bends to slides, give it a harder modern oomph.
Close To You: Kicking off almost like Helter Skelter, this again becomes your traditional Blues standard shuffle. The verses have less input from Stevie and feel lackluster and repetitive – even the transitions between verses are riffs you’ve heard a hundred times. We have to wait for the solo for some life to be breathed into the song, but the solo is brief and the song ends quickly after, giving the whole thing a filler vibe.
Chitlins Con Carne: A jazz instrumental leading us away from the Blues standards once more, this has the slightest hint of Santana in tone and rhythm. As the focus is on Stevie, it’s a more interesting piece, and the change of framework away from Blues allows him to be more creative.
So Excited: A Vaughan original, this is a another neater blending of traditional Blues and Vaughan’s creativity, bringing only the barest Blues underpinning so that Vaughan can fire off a collection of tasty licks. It’s not going to change anyone’s world, but it showcases his control and style.
Life By The Drop: The most interesting song closes the album – it’s a more pop-oriented Blues number, but twisted by the acoustic approach. For the first time the vocal melodies are worth mentioning – it’s unfortunately missing any sort of solo which would have been neat to hear using the different guitar and sonic timbre.
What Did I Learn: I suppose this was a case of remembering rather than learning – just how tasty some of SRV’s interpretations could be having not listened to him in many years. I remembered how I can only take so much traditional Blues in one sitting, no matter how skilled and experimental the playing, but I also learned that the album wasn’t entirely Blues based.
Does It Deserve Its Place In The Top 1000: I’m veering towards not – I don’t know how many guitar hero albums are on this list – ones more focused on the guitarist than the band. If you have to include one, is this the best? What about the Vais, Malmsteens, Satrianis of the world? Buckethead releases about a hundred albums every year, some of those are bound to be good. What about the earlier and later Blues masters? Was this really influential enough as an album over and above others of the same ilk? No discredit to Vaughan, but these are the questions you need to ask if you’re including an album on a Best Ever List. For me, the virtuoso is always going to be lacking in the songwriting department, and no amount of technical skill and influence is enough to warrant a place on my list, without a solid basis in songwriting, and likely without a band to transform the works into songs and the songs into an album.
Let us know in the comments what you think of The Sky Is Falling!