Charlie Sexton and Doyle Bramhall

December 1, 2009


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 Vaughan’s passing.

“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 near Stevie’s

ferocious, relentless style. Bramhall is a laid back lefty who strings his guitars—primarily 0.00gp1209_featsextonStrats—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.

It must have been pretty cool growing up as guitar players in Austin with such close ties to the Vaughan family.

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.

How does Jimmie’s influence—and your other musical experiences—inform what you bring to Arc Angels’ table?

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.

Who shares the most common ground with you?

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.

The synchronicities that connect both of you with iconic players are pretty amazing.

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.

Can you explain how the guitar dynamic works between the two of you?

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 cool way.

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.

Is it a fair generalization to say that Charlie covers more of the twangy sounds and Doyle is covering the deeper range?

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.

What’s the full lineup of material on your forthcoming DVD/CD?

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.

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 developing it.

How would you describe the difference based on what’s in the can?

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.”

How did you track it?

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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