|THE AUGUST 27, 2005
“TRIBUTE TO STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN” JAM AT
THREE OF CENTRAL INDIANA’S TOP GUITARISTS
HONORED THE MAN, CHERISHED THE MEMORY
really did fall down like rain for blues lovers everywhere. For that was the day when Stevie Ray Vaughan died, died in the wee
hours of the morning in a helicopter crash after leaving his last, and possibly most memorable, live concert the night before, August
26, at the Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wisconsin.
“The Sky Is Crying” becomes a most fitting way to begin this article on the “Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan” jam at the Rathskeller
on that mournful day exactly 15 years later, because nothing could say it better on what Stevie Ray’s passing meant to the blues, or
how it sums up Stevie Ray’s place in it as well. For “The Sky Is Crying” is not only one of the most notable songs to come out of
the electric blues tradition, it is also a blues classic that was given three classic renditions by three notable guitar legends of the blues
themselves – Elmore James, Albert King, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
I prepared myself for writing this article by reviewing Stevie Ray: Soul to Soul, a biography of Vaughan written by blues
vocalist/writer Keri Leigh, who knew Stevie Ray personally. The book mentions three significant guitarists whom Stevie Ray
himself acknowledged as among those he admired most: B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix. There were many others who
were also influences – and jamming partners as well. Notably the other two Kings of the Blues, Freddie and Albert. So it was only
natural to bring together three of the absolute top dogs among blues guitarists in Central Indiana to host the “Tribute to Stevie
Vaughan” jam on Indianapolis’s Rathskeller outdoor stage that evening of August 27, 2005. To have Benito DiBartoli, Gene Deer
and Paul Holdman jam in appreciative tribute to a scrawny white boy out of Texas who not only revitalized the blues for all, but did
it as one of its most masterful guitarists. Stevie Ray Vaughan, a guitar master acknowledged by both Benito DiBartoli and Gene
Deer as the most significant motivation that impelled them to become blues guitarists themselves.
The three did two jammin’ sets of music in front of a full house of patrons. Musicians and fans gathered alike to boogie and to
remember, to commemorate Stevie Ray through celebrating the blues and rock music that was what Stevie Ray Vaughan was
about. And needless to say, celebrate the music by playing it well, and by hearing it played well. Play it well and play it very much
live, outdoors onstage, on a pleasantly warm evening at Indianapolis downtown’s Rathskeller the day Stevie Ray died a decade-and-
a-half ago. Blues and rock music that got the crowd up and dancing, partying, enjoying, celebrating a life just as much as it was
honoring a death. Driving blues and rock coming from the tribute band, with guitarists Benito DiBartoli, Gene Deer and Holdman at
the helm, and solid rhythm backup from bassist Greg Baker and drummer Dave Rollins.
Three virtuoso guitarists with three very different approaches, all come together to jam together, and all three playing together as a
blues makin’ machine, each contributing extended guitar solos in his own unique way, and yet with all the music flowing together in
full synchronization and coordination. Or that’s the way it seemed to me.
But Gene Deer had a little different take, as given in the interview I conducted with him and Benito DiBartoli after the show. “You
say ‘excellent coordination?’ That might be a stretch, George,” he said, but then added that all three of them had been able to do this
because each was thoroughly steeped in the blues format, each was fluent in the lexicon, the language, of the blues. Deer went on,
“It’s a language, everybody speaks it. You know what key you’re in, you count it up, and boom! there you go.”
Both DiBartoli and Deer play standard solid-body electric guitars and in more elemental blues styles than does Paul Holdman,
guitarist with Tad Robinson’s soul blues band. His blues partakes of a more jazz-influenced approach, and his hollow-body electric
guitar is of the type more generally favored by jazz guitarists. But DiBartoli notes of Holdman’s blues, “You can totally hear his
roots when he wants it.” Gene Deer and Paul Holdman were the first two blues guitarists DiBartoli says he heard when he came to
Indianapolis seven years ago, with both of them playing on different stages in the Slippery Noodle that evening.
The “Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan” concerts at the Rathskeller have occurred now in three of the past four years. The “Tribute”
jams originated in 2002, when Benito DiBartoli contacted Rathskeller owner Dan McMichael and asked about organizing it.
DiBartoli then contacted two of the most renowned blues guitarists in the Central Indiana region, Deer himself and Gordon Bonham,
to serve as co-hosts, and there it was that year, on August 27. That year August 27 fell on a Tuesday, a night when people had to
go to work the next day, but still, it drew 7,500 people. August 27 fell on a weekday in 2003 as well, so there wasn’t any tribute
jam that year. But August 27 fell on weekend nights the years of 2004 and 2005, and that’s enabled the outdoor space at the
Rathskeller to be packed to overflow with enthusiastic crowds both those years. So it would definitely seem that the “Tribute to
Stevie Ray Jams” at the Rathskeller on August 27 are likely to continue as regular venues for the blues.
Venues for the blues brought together for one, and only one, reason: Stevie Ray Vaughan. When Gene Deer was first approached
on participating, he signed on immediately and without question, without even asking about money. As he elaborates, “What got us
here together, when I said, ‘Stevie Ray Vaughan’, I knew that was the quick answer, but that is also the long answer. Because if
[Dan McMichaels] would’ve said, ‘I want to have you and Benito and Gordon come in and play on Monday, June 7,’ I would’ve
went, ‘Well, how much does it pay?’ But he said, ‘On August 27 we’re going to do a Stevie Ray Vaughan memorial jam, would
you like to participate?’ ‘Yes!’ No questions asked.”
Gordon Bonham was in the first two jams that occurred, but had a schedule conflict this year, so Paul Holdman was invited to
participate. Holdman established himself in Indianapolis as a blues guitarist in the 1990s as a member of Bangkok Rooster, and now
plays with Greencastle resident and nationally renowned soul-blues artist Tad Robinson, whose 2004 CD, Did You Ever Wonder?
was nominated for the blues’ top honor, a Handy Award, this spring.
And DiBartoli and Deer are actively playing musicians as well, regularly playing both acoustic solo and electric band gigs, and
scuffling for as many gigs as they can get. Because commercial success for a blues player, no matter how much critical acclaim
the player receives, is highly elusive, and a Stevie Ray Vaughan is very much an exception, and became that exception because he
was able to establish himself as a blues-to-rock crossover artist as well.
But, rock crossover or vaguely understood pop music icon as he might be, for us of the blues Stevie Ray is also very much an
authentic bluesman, every bit as authentic as a Muddy Waters or even a Robert Johnson. That’s why August 27 will always be a
day for the blues when “The Sky Is Crying.”