Photos courtesy of Tracy Hart / The Heights Gallery.
THE MEMBERS OF ARC ANGELS HAVE UNFINISHED
business. They may not have chosen it, but for
myriad reasons they became the great hope for
Texas blues when Stevie Ray Vaughan’s helicopter
crashed in 1990. Fatefully, Charlie Sexton
and Doyle Bramhall II had already started jamming
with drummer Chris Layton and bassist
Tommy Shannon, a.k.a Double Trouble, at the
Austin Rehearsal Center, or ARC, before
“We’re part of an extended family,” explains
Sexton. “I used to sit in with Double Trouble
when Stevie wanted to take a break.” Bramhall’s
father was one of Vaughan’s closest musical
cohorts, and Doyle’s first big gig was backing
up Jimmie Vaughan in the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
“That was my school,” says Bramhall.
The Vaughan brother’s guitar and vocal
influences are clear to hear, although both
Angels were smart enough to avoid any direct
mimicry, and neither player treads anywhere
ferocious, relentless style.
Bramhall is a laid back lefty who strings his
guitars—primarily Strats—in reverse order to
the conventional method. Sexton has huge
hands, and he is particularly
adept at using his
long fingers to flick, tap, and pluck his various
instruments in endlessly interesting ways. Both
are masters of nuance and pocket playing.
Arc Angels’ eponymous 1992 debut spawned
the hits “Living in a Dream,” “Sent by Angels,”
and “Too Many Ways to Fall.” Sexton and
Bramhall appeared poised to carry the Texas guitar
torch forward together, but Arc Angels
disbanded abruptly in 1994 when Bramhall
bailed due to drug addiction. He went on to
record four solo CDs, tour with Roger Waters,
and become a member of Eric Clapton’s inner
sanctum. Sexton—whose previous credits
included Keith Richards and David Bowie—
rekindled his solo career, produced Double
Trouble’s lone studio effort, and did a three-anda-
half year stint with Bob Dylan.
Arc Angels have performed occasionally
since reconnecting for a reunion show at the
inaugural Austin City Limits Festival in 2002.
Sexton recently joined Bramhall and Erykah
Badu on a Charley Patton cover called “Oh
Death” for the compilation A Brief History of
the Blues. Arc Angels officially regrouped this
year sans Shannon, who chose not to participate
in the reunion. The Angels’ new DVD/CD
package (name and label TBD) consists mostly
of concert footage captured at Austin’s Stubb’s
Bar-B-Q in March 2005, as well as three new
studio recordings produced by Sexton. He and
Bramhall are brewing more tunes on tour.
Sexton:We were fortunate to grow up under
their wings. Stevie actually babysat me one
time. We played records and hung out. I got
to hear him play before anybody knew who he
was. I’m probably one of the few people to
whom Stevie would hand his guitar, and walk
offstage. I actually met Tommy onstage. Stevie
is a bit of a sore subject for me because it was
a classic case of everybody jumping on the bandwagon
once he became famous and after he
died. But he was a great friend, and an amazing
player, and Jimmie is too, in his own way.
Bramhall: I grew up with both Vaughans. I
preferred Stevie’s playing when I was younger
because it was in your face. He was so undeniably
gifted. It didn’t really matter who else
was onstage. The power of his being was
mesmerizing. I joined the Thunderbirds
when I was 17, and after backing Jimmie for
over two years, I understood how much Stevie
had picked up from him. Jimmie plays a
lot of Lightnin’ Hopkins-style subtleties.
There are people who can reproduce some
of what Stevie did, but nobody can reproduce
what Jimmie does. His rhythm guitar
is unmatched, other than maybe by Freddie
Stone. Jimmie’s playing is like a train because
the rhythm has so much movement behind
it, but it’s really slight at the same time. His
melodic sense, and his choice of cadence are
unique. Some people totally miss Jimmie’s
genius, but I grew up listening to him, and
it’s in my blood.
Bramhall: I’ve been playing in bands with
other guitarists my whole life. I learned a lot
about how musical interplay works in the
Thunderbirds, and I took that directly into
Arc Angels. I went on tour with Roger Waters
next, and sometimes there were three guitarists.
I started playing with Eric in 2001,
and have been in his touring band since 2005.
I’ve always been comfortable being a foil. If
I were a boxer, I’d be a counter-puncher
because that is my strength. I like to see
what’s going on first, and then react. That’s
where I feel most musical, and I guess that’s
why I have taken on that role.
Bramhall: Clapton. We both love obscure
blues artists such as Delta bluesman Little
Son Jackson, and swampy stuff like Lonesome
Sundown. Eric is a true historian. I can
never stump him. I’m able to react well when
he makes a move on guitar because I usually
know what he’s referencing, and we have
a similar sensibility. It’s not surprising that
the first solo I ever learned to play was
Cream’s “Outside Woman Blues.” Eric liked
hearing about that, and he pulled it back into
the set. We also connect on songwriting,
which is what he called about in the first
place. He wanted to cover a couple of songs
from my Jellycream album. We discovered
how much we had in common, including the
loss of Stevie, who died after performing
with Eric at Alpine Valley.
Sexton: And we’re having fun playing
together again. It is an interesting dichotomy
because the Vaughans and Chris and Tommy
were the original connection for Doyle and
me, but the two of us just didn’t get along
that well in the early days of Arc Angels. We
both grew a lot after the band split up, and
then we had more common influences. Doyle
started appreciating Neil Young and Bob
Dylan, whereas before he was more into Stevie
Wonder and Sly Stone. I had always been
into Dylan, and I have an even greater appreciation
for his guitar playing after being in
his band. Recordings such as World Gone
Wrong or Good As I Been to You feature Bob
playing cool guitar parts influenced by Leadbelly
and Sleepy John Estes. Bob understands
how to get to the essence of all kinds of music
that he’s passionate about, and I think Doyle
has picked up on that.
Sexton: It’s hard to explain how we do
what we do. We have a general aesthetic
understanding about what’s cool to hear on
guitar, and what’s not. We don’t talk about
it much. We need to actually play together,
and feel it out. Doyle does a very recognizable
thing that can be rather abstract in a
Bramhall: We just have an innate chemistry.
We can be sitting around, and come
up with five good ideas in an hour. We have
a really specific sound when we get together.
Sexton:Well, he plays through a 100-watt
Marshall, so the sound is pretty thick. My
sound is not really twangy, per se. I play
through a 65 amp, but I also have a Vox
AC50, which is actually a bass amp, so it
sounds pretty thick, too.
Sexton: It includes live performances of
everything from the original record, plus
three new studio tracks. One is a song I wrote
with Chuck Prophet a while back called
“Crave and Wonder.” One is a McCartney
cover off of Ram called “Too Many People”
that Doyle suggested. The third new song is
a recent collaboration called “What I’m Looking
For.” Doyle brought the original idea to
me about two years ago.
The three new tracks sound like Arc
Angels, and yet they don’t. We have our eyes
on the big picture. You want to leave breadcrumbs
from where you’ve been, and go
someplace new. But nobody’s going to hear
much of that on this tour because were still
Sexton: Doyle gives McCartney’s pop song
more of a Sam Cooke or Otis Redding sort
of vocal trip, and it’s kind of heavy and trashy
sounding. “What I’m Looking For” is also
really different. I always have acoustics in
Nashville tuning lying around my place, and
Doyle grabs one of those about half the time
when recording because the vibe is so cool.
He played one during basic tracking, and I
was playing a Wurlitzer with a freaked-out
effect that made it sound more like a guitar
than an organ.
One thing that we’ve both picked up on
in our journeys is an interest in African
music—from Mali particularly. Ali Farka
Touré is the most famous example. Everyone
compares him to John Lee Hooker, which
is interesting because Africans don’t play
blues. His son Vieux is doing interesting
things with that music. Anyway, there was
a little bit of that influence implied in “What
I’m Looking For.”
Sexton: Recording can be funny. Sometimes
you just go bash it out and it sounds
rocking. We kind of worked backwards in this
case. It started out as more of a soul song. It
grew with the lyrics and the vocals, and we
tracked electric guitars last. Doyle was playing
his Les Paul Jr., and I could tell that
particular sound wasn’t really inspiring him.
We took a break, and I ran down an old Fender
Nocaster from a friend. The guitar sound took
on an on old Pete Townshend vibe, and Doyle
started responding to it. He did a track, and
then we worked together on an outro jam.
He’d play something, I’d play something
through the same amp, and then he’d play
off that. It turned out really interesting. The
coolest thing going on now is that we are very
aware of our combination, whereas it was
harder to get that happening back when we
were coming from different places.
Bramhall: I guess the big difference for me
now is that I truly don’t care about record
companies, or power. I’m having fun reacting
to the audience, and to the band onstage.
We’re just hitting our stride as a group
because it’s been a long time since we’ve
played together. We’re getting tight, and it’s
been literally the last two or three shows
where I felt like we tasted what we had in
the old days. We’re getting it back, and are
ready to move forward.
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