The Arcangels – Living In A Dream (2009, CD-DVD)

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Since we’re on the topic of Austin-based acts, why not shift our focus to one of the most acclaimed and yet most elusive since the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan?

I’m talking of course about the Arcangels.

It would be impossible to discuss the Arcangels without a discussing their sometimes-volatile history, since Living In A Dream is about much about where they were and how they go to be where they are. Doyle Bramhall II, the son of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s songwriting partner and long-time friend Doyle (“Big Doyle”) Bramhall, was taught how to play guitar as a boy by the blues legend. Charlie Sexton was a child prodigy on guitar himself, having played on stage with SRV and his backing band Double Trouble before even hitting his teens. Sexton got his first record deal at 16 and had issued two albums by the age of 20. At the end of the eighties, both had found themselves back in Austin and pondering their next moves. In March of 1990 at the prodding of Sexton’s tour manager and drummer, a rehearsal facility molded from a converted warehouse opened for local musicians, dubbed the Austin Rehearsal Complex, also known as the “ARC.” Bramhall, SRV and Double Trouble and the Fabulous Thunderbirds soon followed Sexton as renters of the ARC’s rehearsal space and equipment lockers.

Vaughan’s tragic death in Wisconsin just a few months later suddenly left Double Trouble (Chris “Whipper” Layton, drums; Tommy Shannon, bass) grief stricken and without a frontman. Bramhall and Sexton, who knew Shannon and Layton from the time they were waist high, soon reached out to the suddenly orphaned rhythm section and the four quickly found a connection jamming together just weeks after SRV’s passing. Word got out quickly of this informal get-together and before they knew it, they were booked to open for Robert Cray for a show in Austin in October. Needing a band name, Layton came up with one that combined the acronym of that rehearsal facility with his Catholic upbringing. The Arcangels was signed shortly afterwards to Geffen Records and in April of 1992, the Steve Van Zandt (Little Steven) produced Archangels was issued to critical acclaim and decent sales.

Archangels was a solid debut. It was closer to rock than blues, but all the earmarks of the blues remained. And it was almost defiantly Texan in sound: muscular, straight-ahead and soulful. Sexton, Bramhall and sometimes the enitre band contributed uniformly solid compositions that made the album sound like one anthemic song after another. To a nation weary of the plastic, heavily produced music that dominated the eighties and hungry for some sort of continuation of the SRV legacy, this appeared to be the right band at the right time. By all accounts, the Arcangels was poised to explode into widespread fame when tragedy struck again: personal tensions between the two, twenty-one year old frontmen and Bramhall’s descent into drug abuse tore apart the band in 1993, and the three (Bramhall, Sexton and Double Trouble) went their separate ways.

Sexton briefly rekindled his solo career, releasing Under The Wishing Tree in 1995, but kept busy mostly as a producer and a sideman to Bob Dylan, and finally churning out Cruel And Gentle Things in 2005. Bramhall, as was already recounted in this space, issued three solo albums before settling into touring and recording with Roger Waters, Eric Clapton, Susan Tedeschi, and a host of other major acts in the rock and blues realms. He also since conquered his demons and developed into a strong songwriter to compliment his talents on guitar and vocals.

Having both grown up a lot by the mid-nineties, Bramhall and Sexton patched up their differences and with Layton and Shannon in tow, started performing one-off reunion concerts in 2004, and with the magic back again, these one-off affairs became more frequent. The group decided they needed to document the band’s new phase. And so with this star-crossed group back together, many were probably wondering if this reunion would be consummated with a new live CD, a new studio CD, or maybe a concert DVD?

The answer: all three.

Living In A Dream, out since December 22, chronicles a show taped at Stubb’s in Austin in 2005, both as a audio CD and a video DVD. The third disc contains a handful of new studio tracks the quartet recorded just last year, with Dave Mansey replacing Shannon at bass.

The Stubb’s show covers nearly every song in Arcangels, put in a different, more logical order. The first four selections are the strongest: “Paradise Cafe,” played with conviction, puts everyone on notice that any animosity between Sexton and Bramhall are all in the past, as the two trade lines of lyrics, just as Van Zandt insisted they do in the studio back when they were recording that first album. The Bramhall-led “Carry Me On” is another strong number with a great melody and some good dual rhythm guitar work, followed by Sexton’s “The Famous Jane,” bolstered by Bramhall’s slide guitar. Next up is Bramhall’s funky party tune “Good Time,” (see video below) and here we’re reminded that there isn’t a rhythm Double Trouble can’t lock down solid.

The rest of the selections have their own charms, too. Muddy Water’s “She’s Alright” is the lone cover, and the Arcangels add a soul-stirring psychedelic blues flavor to it. “Sent By Angels” features Bramhall’s effortless vocal in the higher register. “Crave And Wonder” is a new Arcangels tune writer by Sexton, but this charging rocker feels right at home in this setlist. “See What Tomorrow Brings” is Bramhall’s heartfelt tribute to Vaughan, and that’s followed up with a rockabilly-seasoned “Shape I’m In,” with an intro that tricked me into thinking they were about to launch into Stevie Ray’s “The House Is Rockin’.” “Living In A Dream” is the solid Sexton-Bramhall collaboration that helped sparked the idea to form this the band and led off the first album.

The DVD presents the video footage for all the songs on the main CD. Since the concert was performed in a ampitheater and there was some intermittent rain that night, the footage is a little incomplete, but all the gaps were admirably filled by some road scenes, shots from other Arcangels concerts from around the same time, and a few random shots. The Stubb’s event remains the predominent focus, though; kudos to the video editors for avoiding the temptation to get too artsy with the presentation.

The other parts of the DVD consist of a documentary of the band and a tribute to Clifford Antone, the late, great blues club owner who did more than anyone else to nurture the Austin music scene. The documentary is pretty much each of the four band members sitting in the front of the came
ra separately and talking about the band history in their own words. The frank but laid back style each of the bandmembers approached this lends a lot of integrity and presents the group as a collection of real individuals. But the story is told in a meandering, sometimes confusing manner; the timeline gets disregarded after the first few minutes. It remains an intriguing peek inside a band that resided at the epicenter of the Austin music scene and clears up much of the mystery about the band that flamed out almost as soon as they took off. The Antone tribute is a continuation of the documentary, with the group members offering their thoughts on the importance of Antone to their careers.

The three studio tracks the band managed to put together for this package reminds me what a great live band the Arcangels are. Sexton’s new “Crave And Wonder” reappears here, and there’s no flaw to this version, but the spark from the Stubbs version is missing, too. Bramhall contributes “What I’m Looking For,” the R&B-flavored rock that’s typical of Bramhall’s solo records, especially his first two. After that is a fantastic version of Paul McCartney’s 1971 Lennon putdown song “Too Many People.”

Tacked on to the end of these trio of studio tracks is one more live song, recorded at Antone’s, presumably around the same time as the Stubb’s performance. The heavy blues-rocker “Spanish Moon”(no, not THAT “Spanish Moon”), a well-performed and well-recorded rendition of yet another song from the debut album, highlighted by some rip-roaring guitar playing by both Bramhall and Sexton.

Since that show, the Arcangels have continued to gig and and off, and even completed a tour last year. Shannon has since left the band, reducing the lineup to three permanent players, but the Arcangels has evolved into nearly a full-time commitment for Sexton, Bramhall and Layton. Although Sexton has rejoined Dylan on tour last fall, the bandmembers seem intent on recording a long-awaited studio follow-up to that magical debut album from 1992. With Layton being a rock-steady presence and Bramhall and Sexton now greatly seasoned and getting along as well as they ever have, the expectations for this album could run even higher than the first one. Until then, Living In A Dream gives us reason to be grateful for them simply being back together and performing.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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