Third Time's the Charm for Doyle Bramhall II
Last year, God rang up Doyle Bramhall II on his cell phone.
In the White Room --
"Along with D'Angelo, I think you're the best contemporary artist I've heard in a decade," Eric Clapton told the former Fabulous Thunderbird and Arc Angel. "I was wondering if you'd like to get together and maybe play a little guitar with me?"
Actually, Clapton was calling to ask for a guitar lesson. A copy of Bramhall's 1999 solo album, Jellycream, had been in his car stereo for months, and the Hall of Fame guitarist had fallen in love with "I Wanna Be" and "Marry You." Clapton wanted to cut the songs with B.B. King for their Riding With the King album, but he couldn't quite get a handle on reproducing Bramhall's parts.
"It was surreal, flattering, and intimidating," says Bramhall of his first visit to the White Room, an Antone's-size, white-furnished living room in Clapton's Los Angeles home. Two acoustic guitars had been set out for the occasion. It wasn't until Bramhall started playing that Clapton saw the problem: Bramhall plays guitar left-handed and upside down. "Playing lefty the way I do can make fairly simple stuff look much harder than it is," admits Bramhall.
Even so, some parts gave Clapton difficulty.
"He'd say, 'I think you're playing this ... ' and I'd have to tell him, 'Well, no, that's not actually how it goes,'" recounts Bramhall. "I felt a little weird about that. But you know, it's great that Eric Clapton likes my guitar playing. And it's kind of funny after all these years playing and not really getting noticed outside the Arc Angels. I've been a failure for some time now."
If Doyle Bramhall II was once a failure, the past few years represent a serious reversal of fortune. Just check the record racks: For starters, he's featured prominently on Roger Waters' In the Flesh Live, a 2-CD document of his work as the ex-Pink Floyd leader's touring guitarist. Then there's Riding With the King, where not only does Bramhall have the two aforementioned compositions covered, he also plays on most of the Grammy-winning collaboration.
Lest anyone forgets one of the best Austin releases this year, Bramhall's three cuts on Double Trouble's star-studded Been a Long Time are among its highlights. Finally, there's Clapton's new album Reptile, for which Bramhall guests on seven tracks and co-wrote the first single, "Superman Inside." Perhaps the only Bramhall recordings buyers will have a hard time finding are the two albums filed under his own name: 1996's Doyle Bramhall II and '99's Jellycream.
Nevertheless, Welcome, Bramhall's third solo LP is due in stores June 5, and while it's an album most music industry insiders will tell you Bramhall should never have been allowed to make, it may be his best. Given that neither of his first two releases sold anywhere within the vicinity of what will keep an artist on a major label, that Welcome is coming out at all means that artist development isn't completely extinct. After all, the only thing more rare than a second pass at the gold ring is a third.
"It's unheard of," admits Bramhall, who also managed to convince RCA to hand him nearly total creative control over Welcome. "I shouldn't have a deal. You're not supposed to be able to do something like this anymore."
Indeed not. But for the past three years now, RCA's Bruce Flohr has marched into the label's radio, marketing, and sales meetings representing Bramhall. His presentations are typically variations on two themes. The first is that, with or without RCA's help, Doyle Bramhall II will eventually be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Other artists on the roster may make the label more money, says Flohr, but if RCA doesn't play a part in getting the guitarist to the induction ceremony, they'll regret it. The second pitch boils down to this catchy little mantra: "Doyle Bramhall II is Jimi Hendrix for the At the Drive-In Generation."
Even Bramhall chuckles a bit at the hyperbole, yet it's unlikely anybody at RCA dares laugh at Flohr when he leaves the boardroom. They know and respect the source: Flohr brought RCA both the Dave Matthews Band and Foo Fighters. The secret behind Bramhall's unlikely opportunity to make a third album is simple: leverage.
"Internally, there's perhaps the tendency to believe a little more in someone that's been proven right in the past," says Flohr. "But a lot of the things that have gotten [Bramhall] to this level have come solely off his talent. My leverage didn't get him the Rogers Water gig. My leverage didn't get Eric Clapton to freak out when he heard Jellycream. It's undeniable talent that earned Doyle those opportunities."
In 1997, Steven Seagel rang up Bramhall on his cell phone.
No Hired Hand
"I heard you were the fucking best," the martial-arts movie star told Bramhall. "I can afford the best."
True to his word, Seagal bought the best: a group including Bramhall, the Band's Levon Helm, and original MG Steve Cropper to play seven premiere parties. Unfortunately, they were for Fire Down Below, a forgettable film with an unforgettable scene featuring Seagal rummaging around on a guitar. It's a role he reprised at each party, backed by the best band money could buy.
"It was a thrill to hang out with guys of that caliber," admits Bramhall. "But it also brought me down to, 'What the fuck am I doing playing music anymore? I'm not a session guy. I'm not a hired gun. What do I do?' I thought it had all devolved into me backing up other people for a living, and at that, Steven Seagal."
At the time, Bramhall was still reeling from having lost his solo deal with Geffen, which in many ways, was itself a second chance. Four years before the release of 1996's Doyle Bramhall II, the guitarist had signed to Geffen with the Arc Angels, the local supergroup featuring Bramhall, Charlie Sexton, and Double Trouble (drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon). While the band's first album spawned several successful singles at radio and eventually went gold, blame for the label's failure to release a follow-up -- an album David Geffen himself predicted would be multiplatinum -- fell squarely on Bramhall's shoulders. By his own admission, it was his heroin use that broke up the band.
And yet, after Bramhall moved to Northern California and racked up close to two years' sobriety, Geffen green-lighted his solo debut and lined up ex-Prince associates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman to produce. The results were sophisticated, funky, and notably free of many guitar leads or solos. After only four Austin showcases and a handful of opening dates for Me'shell Ndegeocello, however, Geffen pulled the plug on the project. Even though the label initially picked up the option for another album, the news was followed two weeks later by word that Bramhall had indeed been dropped.
"It was a mistake on their part to have picked up the option," explains Bramhall, "because they had to pay me to leave. So, I wasn't out on my ass with no clothes on my back, but it wasn't easy either."
After his short stint with Seagal, Bramhall put together a showcase band featuring Dallas drummer Earl Harvin and Lenny Kravitz bassist Tony Breit. Only a day after seeing the band play a sold-out gig at the Viper Room, Flohr offered to represent Bramhall at RCA. Bramhall began sessions for Jellycream a few months later with producer Tchad Blake (Los Lobos, Crowded House, Pearl Jam).
"It wasn't that I didn't want to use Wendy and Lisa again, it's just that I thought we'd made a great first record. That it didn't do anything made me think we should try something else," says Bramhall, who married Wendy's sister Susannah in 1997. "I didn't want to fail again."
Today, Bramhall blames precisely that fear of failure for Jellycream's failure. Although his second solo album was significantly more rock-oriented (and thus more radio-friendly) than his debut, Bramhall says he always felt Jellycream was ultimately too unfocused -- too much of an attempt to be all things to all people.
"I felt like I compromised a lot," he says. "I tried to put a little bit of the pop vibe from the first record to make me happy and a little guitar on it to make the fans happy. But I wasn't being true to myself, and I think it came across in the record. It didn't sound entirely convincing."
As it turns out, Bramhall's most convincing recordings came just after he turned Jellycream in to RCA. Essentially out of the blue, Bramhall was invited to audition for Roger Waters' touring band, the audition for which was singularly simple and daunting: the preparation of demos for Pink Floyd classics "Comfortably Numb" and "Money." After 27 years without so much as a Pink Floyd album in his collection, Bramhall set about studying two of the biggest albums of the rock era, Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall.
In the Flesh
"It was while checking out the records that I found the 'karaoke' button on my stereo," recounts Bramhall. "I pushed it and erased the lead vocals and guitars. That's exactly what I needed."
Re-creating the function at a friend's studio, Bramhall simply substituted his playing and vocals for David Gilmour's, leaving the band, orchestration, and original production in place.
"I basically sang karaoke over a Pink Floyd record to get the gig," says Bramhall, who simply added the same degree of delay on his vocals and copped the solos exactly. "By the time we were done, I said, 'Shit. He's going to hire me.' They were the best demos I'd heard in my life."
Waters agreed and immediately flew Bramhall to Europe for two months of rehearsals. It wasn't like Bramhall would be just another sideman, either: The In the Flesh Tour featured two-thirds Pink Floyd material, with Bramhall hired to sing and play all of Gilmour's parts. The responsibility to do justice to classics like "Breathe," "Time," "Money," and "Comfortably Numb" in an arena was heady stuff.
"I had a great demo, but I wasn't entirely confident I could get in there and do justice to all those songs," admits Bramhall. "There's a lot to study, and on a lot of those Pink Floyd songs, there's whole songs within the songs. And it's also about putting on a show -- not in a Vegas way, but in a way that gets an audience involved emotionally. It was a unique combination of visuals, music, and acting that I'd never even considered before, let alone been a part of pulling off."
There was also the matter of getting along with Waters. Bramhall knew all too well how Stevie Ray Vaughan's similar gig with David Bowie in the early Eighties had soured.
"He's the opposite of what you hear about him, that's he's this dark, intellectual dictator," says Bramhall of Waters, with whom he wound up flying between gigs first-class because he was the only other golfer on the tour. "He went out of his way to make me feel comfortable from the day I got there.
"And yet, he's the most focused person I've ever met in my life. He knows exactly what he wants and can make an immediate decision on anything. If he had to decide immediately on world hunger, he could do it in a matter of seconds and back it up."
Unfortunately, RCA's reaction time was significantly slower. After a quick pass at radio with Jellycream's "I Wanna Be" failed, the label never capitalized on the potential synergy between the album and Bramhall playing for 18,000 people nightly.
"It was frustrating," says Flohr, who cites not being able to sell the album at Waters' shows as a primary roadblock. "I'd go to those Waters shows and there was no doubt that other than Roger, Doyle was the star of the band. He had the shining moments. I would stand in the beer line and hear people say, 'Man, did you see that guitar player? Who is that guy?' I'd hear that, and it hurt that we couldn't do more. I literally felt like running around to 18,000 people and saying, 'That's Doyle Bramhall; here's a copy of Jellycream.'"
Bramhall says it wasn't far into the Waters tour that he accepted that Jellycream was essentially dead on arrival.
"I always felt [because] Jellycream didn't sell many records that it was a failure, but in fact, it led to my relationship with Eric. That he fell in love with the record could be its legacy."
By the time Bramhall had demonstrated to Clapton the same passages of "I Wanna Be" and "Marry You" more than once, Clapton conceded it might just be easier if Bramhall came to the studio and played them himself. Two days later, Bramhall heard B.B. King playing "I Wanna Be."
Riding With the King, Jamming With God
"Eric stopped him to introduce us, and B.B. said to me, 'Hi, Daryl. Daryl, I think this is a good song. I could move to this. This is a song you can dance to,'" remembers Bramhall. "I saw him every day for a month after that and never corrected him. Who the fuck am I to correct B.B. King?"
Whether King knew his name or not, he didn't object to Clapton's suggestion that Bramhall stick around and play guitar on another seven tracks he didn't write. At times, says Bramhall, there were five guitarists on the studio floor cutting live: Clapton, King, Bramhall, Jimmie Vaughan, and Andy Fairweather-Low. That experience, and later watching Clapton cut Reptile, inspired Bramhall to attempt recording two songs on Welcome the same way: live in one room.
After a strenuous seven weeks of rehearsal and pre-production, Bramhall and Austin drummer J.J. Johnson, bassist Chris Bruce, and wife Susannah Melvoin (known collectively as Smokestack) liked what they heard, and decided along with co-producers Benmont Tench and Jim Scott to record the rest of the album the same way. What made the decision unique was that cutting basic tracks live isn't nearly as rare as what Bramhall was suggesting: cutting the vocals at the same time.
"The ambience bleeds through the vocal mike and changes the sound," explains Bramhall. "It's why Howlin' Wolf records sound like they do. But it means that if there's any imperfection in the performance, you lose the ability to overdub -- you can't just replace a line later because that murk isn't there. To totally commit to every track was what made it so interesting."
Because the results sounded so organic -- so not what's on the radio -- Bramhall is the first to admit he never imagined an engineer, two producers, and a major label would let that happen.
"I was scared shitless to let him do it," Flohr admits. "It's completely unorthodox for contemporary record-making. But it was very obvious from the minute I walked in the studio that there was something beyond my control. I knew that if I tried to step in and A&R I'd fuck this record up. This was going to be the record everybody thought he could make."
Welcome is undeniably the guitar-oriented album Bramhall's fans have longed for. With its retro sound and seven songs running over five minutes, not to mention Smokestack rumbling like the Band of Gypsies, Hendrix and Cream comparisons are bound to arise. Bramhall says the abundance of guitar on the album stems more from timing than intention. Three weeks before recording began, he bought a vintage Marshall amp and a '64 Strat that sounded right together.
"All of a sudden, I felt like I had a voice again with my solos. I felt completely connected to the instrument for the first time in years," he says. "After playing with Roger and Eric, everything seemed so aligned. All of a sudden, I was writing effortlessly and playing naturally. There was a confidence that hadn't been there before."
Bramhall admits he owes much of that newfound confidence to Clapton. For starters, he invited Bramhall to open his current tour: two and half months' worth of dates in Europe, as well as every show on the current U.S. jag. And not only is Bramhall allowed to sell Welcome at the show, he's also featured prominently in Clapton's tour program. Best of all, for much of the tour, Clapton has invited Bramhall onstage to play on "Superman Inside" and a handful of blues standards.
"From the beginning, his graciousness and generosity has given me the illusion that I'm his peer, even if I'm not," says Bramhall. "He's done so much to validate me as an artist, both to myself and others. He's like a therapist, but also a teacher. I learn from him all the time.
"And it's amazing, because he still has this thing where he can take a solo into places you've never imagined. I'll be onstage and think, 'Are there really that many frets on a guitar?' It amazes me that after all this time, he still has this big bag of shit to pull from."
What Bramhall doesn't need to articulate is that, at just 32 years old, he's already at a place where his onstage bag of shit can hold its own with Clapton's. The guitar prowess Bramhall demonstrated on Welcome standouts such as "Green Light Girl" and "Smokestack" in front of an enthusiastic Alamodome crowd two weeks ago prior to Clapton's set was every bit as fiery as renditions of "Layla" or "Sunshine of Your Love" by the headliner. Which is obviously the reason Clapton has him up there in the first place. Bramhall's days as a failure are over.
"I feel like my career is just starting," Bramhall says. "I'm not the same person that the folks in Austin once knew. I didn't know anything back then. And I didn't care about anything other than getting up and seeing how my guitar could affect a woman. And I cared about drugs. I cared about not having any responsibility. Now I'm the complete opposite. I want challenges. I create them for myself so I can break them down and conquer them. I think every great artist has done that at some point.
"Now, I thrive on doing things that scare me. I was initially scared to death of going back and forth onstage with Clapton. If I were in the Arc Angels, I wouldn't have done it: 'I can't. I gotta go do some drugs.' Now it's, 'Bring it on.' I have experiences now to draw from. I see the whole picture clearly now and know what I need to do. I feel like I'm only now at the beginning of my prime."