After rocky road, Arc Angels bring resurgent act to Aspen
July 27, 2009
ASPEN – Success came early for Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton. When he was still in his mid-teens, Bramhall joined the Texas blues band the Fabulous Thunderbirds, led by Jimmie Vaughan, a former bandmate of Bramhall’s father.
Sexton was a similar age when he recorded his debut album, “Pictures for Pleasure,” which yielded the hit song, “Beats So Lonely.”
Both the guitarists also were part of a massive implosion while they were still of tender years. It was before they hit their mid-20s when the Arc Angels – the Austin, Texas, supergroup that they formed with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rhythm section, Double Trouble – experienced their version of the classic rock ‘n’ roll horror story. After just one popular and critically acclaimed album, the band succumbed to drugs, internal strife and lack of communication. Mostly it was drugs, confesses Bramhall, who accepts the greater share of responsibility.
“I sabotaged it so the band would split up,” said Bramhall who, like Sexton, is 41. At the time, he couldn’t have cared less about the unfulfilled potential the band left on the table. “Not for me. I was on my own crazy journey, and didn’t pay it any attention. For me it was done and over.”
But Bramhall put an end to the craziness, and is now ready to see if the Arc Angels have a second life in them. The band – including Bramhall and Sexton on guitars and vocals, and Chris Layton on drums, though minus bassist Tommy Shannon – did a recent U.K. tour as the opening act for Eric Clapton; the run included a two-week stretch at London’s Royal Albert Hall. They are in the middle of their first American tour in 16 years, with a date Monday at 8:30 p.m. at Belly Up Aspen.
The story – the reunion of the Texas supergroup that could have been – is not quite as dramatic as it might seem, however. The Arc Angels have been playing gigs together for more than five years, and their dates as a band have gotten more frequent of late. But all of those performances have been on the friendly Texas turf, where the names Bramhall, Double Trouble, Sexton and Arc Angels are especially big draws.
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“In Texas, we have our fan base,” said Bramhall, who lives in Los Angeles, but whose Lone Star roots extend back a generation; Doyle Bramhall the First was a bandmate of Jimmie Vaughan and his late brother, Stevie Ray. “We see people who drive from Houston to Austin to Dallas. We’re on a first-name basis with a lot of those people.”
The destruction of the Arc Angels seems to be as friendly as such affairs go. When Bramhall emerged from his drug haze and began concentrating on his first solo album, in 1996, he went to Sexton’s studio for songwriting and recording sessions. Around 2000, Bramhall put together Mighty Zor, a band with Layton and Shannon that played occasional shows, usually at Austin’s music hotspot, Antone’s. Often, Sexton would show up and end up sitting in. There was a palpable vibe to those jams.
“It immediately had an excitement to it, the four of us on stage together,” said Bramhall from a wet Las Vegas. (“It’s raining, which is weird, but it’s pretty cool. It looks like people are losing,” he said.) “It was the undeniable chemistry that we had.”
That familiar chemistry has been combined with a new take on music. Bramhall said he began putting a different flavor in his songs as soon as he cleaned up. Where the original Arc Angels were thick with Texas blues-rock, Bramhall has been adding more of a soul sound to his music over the last dozen years. The result has been new sounds from the old band.
“It is surprising. That’s the interesting part for me. The well is so deep, musically. It never gets boring. I’ll start something and Charlie will play something and it hits me, ‘This just fits so well.'”
It’s hard to accuse the members of turning to the Arc Angels because there were no other options. Bramhall has been a guitarist in Eric Clapton’s band for several years, while Sexton did a long stretch in what has been considered Bob Dylan’s best band of recent vintage. One assumes there are other jobs out there for them.
But Arc Angels is the one Bramhall wants. The band is putting out a DVD that will combine live performance with a documentary. Beyond that, there is talk about new songs and recording sessions.
“If I have anything to do with it, we’ll start writing songs in the next few weeks,” said Bramhall, adding that the Arc Angels have already introduced two new original songs into the repertoire, plus a cover of Paul McCartney’s “Too Many People.” “Where we are now is a much better, more secure place. We could put a better ending on that story.”