The Second Coming
Doyle Bramhall II Blows Into Town
Blues prodigy. Flashy guitar hero. Arc Angel. Drug addict. Those are the old attributes -- ones bleached away by three years of laying low in the warm Northern California sun of Marin County. Today, the 27-year-old Bramhall is lean, lucid, and sober, peddling a surprisingly soulful solo debut on Geffen. Still, the final stage of this transformation -- personal and musical -- seems to take place during Bramhall's three Austin gigs. "Everything ought to change in people's minds as soon as they see this thing," he had predicted earlier. "It's to say, `Look, Doyle Bramhall II's back.' That's what these shows are really for -- to get back on the map. And I might as well start at home."
Home can sometimes be a daunting place, though. Unusually bright-eyed and articulate, the day of Bramhall's first local show -- outdoors at Stubb's -- finds the musician wrestling with his nerves. "I've caught myself asking how everybody's going to perceive this," says Bramhall. Among those asked would likely be his new support team, a duo credited by many as being the key to Bramhall's new life; ex-Prince associates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. What started as a mutual admiration society when all three went into a California studio together last February, has become something of a family unit. Not only did Wendy & Lisa end up producing the new album, but Wendy's sister, Susannah, is due to marry Bramhall in March.
"Now, he's going to be my brother-in-law, but it was never just business as usual with him," says Melvoin. "He's incredible singer, with great sensibilities and great songs. So we worked in the studio so well together that it became a very unique experience for producer/artist pairing. It wasn't forced, it wasn't business. It became a real creative entity."
To some degree, Doyle Bramhall II follows the blueprint of the pairs' basic recording philosophy: songs, voices, and groove. "I remember listening to Eroica [Wendy & Lisa's third album], and thinking about how much I wished I could have these kind of musicians playing on my album," says Bramhall. Tony Berg, the Geffen A&R executive who signed Bramhall before the Arc Angels became a band, had actually co-produced Eroica and made the introductions. "From day one, it clicked," says Bramhall. "It was just fabulous. I could have written three albums with them and stayed in the studio for a year. That's how great it was."
Instead of a year stint, however, the two producers, Bramhall, and studio drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr., took just five weeks to transform demos recorded here in Austin last year into a full-length album. And while credit for the album's dense mixes and slow, funky temperament clearly belongs to Wendy & Lisa, it's also to their credit that Bramhall's spare, moody songs are never overwhelmed by the production. "I was learning to self-discipline my vocals and guitars," Bramhall says of the sessions, "And what Wendy & Lisa brought out even more was the subtleties in my playing."
Bramhall says the other part of his pre-release learning experience came from the collaborative processes of finishing demos and writing new songs with Will Sexton. That's right, Sexton. If you'd heard that 1994's Arc Angels breakup was a messy battle of egos, the notion of Charlie Sexton's brother helping Bramhall finish his record might come as a surprise. Yet, not only were both Sextons at the Stubb's gig to show their support, but in a piece of what some might call revisionist history, Bramhall now claims the supergroup's split wasn't nearly as ugly as local word-of-mouth made it seem.
"Charlie had a solo career put on hold. I had a solo career put on hold. Chris [Layton] and Tommy [Shannon] were doing all kinds of things," explains Bramhall. "When you have other things on hold that are sort of undeniable inside you, I don't see how it could ever work out to where you could stay in something that long. But I don't think it ever got to the point where it wasn't fun. Still, it was the other stuff on hold that I'd always want to be doing -- because it's more who I am. That's really all that it was. And until you do what you want, you're not really true to yourself."
Bramhall confirms he's heard his share of comments on how the Arc Angels blew their chance by not following up their successful 1992 debut with what would have no doubt been a substantially better album. "There never was a right time to end it," counters Bramhall. "If we'd broken up after our second album, people would've been disappointed because they'd thought we'd have had a better third record in us. But it definitely set up things for everybody. I would think, that because of the fans' loyalty to the Arc Angels, there's people that'll be interested in what I'm doing now because of that. Even just to go and see what I'm not doing."
Since August, when advance tapes of Bramhall's record began circulating, word had it that what the guitarist wasn't doing much of was wanking. And true enough, Doyle Bramhall II features few guitar leads and even fewer outright solos. For Arc Angels fans, it's perhaps this change that marks the night and day distinction between the old and new Doyle Bramhall. In fact, one review summed up the record in seven words: "Not a guitar album, a song album." Wendy Melvoin says that was indeed the original production concept.
"It was important that people hear songs, and not just an incredible lick-man," says Melvoin. "His songs are very strong, and his emotional content and the way he expresses himself are as important as what he can do on the guitar. He didn't want to come out with a solo on every song and we were very happy to oblige that.... What he did do was make everything he played as tasty as possible, to surround his vocal. I'll take some responsibility for it, and I'm not ashamed for it."
While it's easy for Melvoin to say she first glimpsed the songwriter in Bramhall, the fact remains that Austin first glimpsed a guitar prodigy in the same musician. As the son of a local blues legend, the younger Bramhall became an Antone's regular at an early age, jamming with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan among others, and landed the guitar slot in the Fabulous Thunderbirds by the time he was 19. His transition to Arc Angel two years later in 1991 was received by the local guitar cognescenti as the logical step for the axe hero-to-be. And although that's a role Bramhall now admits he grew tired of playing, he nonetheless contends that this perception of him having turned his back on the guitar is just another latest misconception.
"People think there's not a lot of guitar on this record. Actually there is, just not any long or continuous leads on every song," says Bramhall, who hired ex-Soulhat guitarist Bill Cassis for the live shows because he claims there are too many guitar parts to both play and sing. "I don't really know what people expected. If they wanted a guitar record, they didn't get that. But I played more guitar on the record than I did on the Arc Angels' record -- it's just not as many leads. I actually tried to put myself in everybody else's shoes for just a minute and ask, `If I were an Arc Angels fan, what would I expect from him?' But if they were expecting a Kenny Wayne Shepherd or that kind of guitar record, I wasn't doing that in the Arc Angels anyway. I still had songs and still wanted the song to come through. And songs are what I do now, not the showdown jam."
Songs may be what Bramhall does now, but it doesn't mean there's any less pressure for him to sell albums. Like Melvoin, Bramhall says he's aware that selling a guitar-driven album might have been easier, yet he firmly believes that career longevity centers around songs. Geffen seems to agree so far, laying out fairly serious tour support for the four Me'Shell Ndegéocello support dates last month and the four recent Texas shows. But radio's another matter, and with songs that make for a cohesive record but perhaps lack a slew of substantial riffs and choruses, deciding how to push Doyle Bramhall II onto to the airwaves may be the record's biggest challenge.
"It's hard to look at it from a business standpoint, and how to market it to what format," concedes Bramhall. "It's what I wanted to do, though. I didn't want you to be able to say Doyle Bramhall's record is just rock & roll or just blues, soul, or whatever. I want people to say it sounds like Doyle Bramhall's music. These are just the songs that I write. Hopefully, on whatever types of songs I do, you'll always recognize my voice and my guitar playing."
Unfortunately, three years ago it was easiest to recognize Doyle Bramhall simply as a drug addict. Just as the rumors were circulating around town about an Arc Angels breakup, Bramhall seemed to stop caring about hiding a budding heroin addiction. Bramhall was never really outgoing or funny before the addiction, but it was obvious from his rare public appearances that physically and intellectually he had begun wasting away. "It was very short and very crazy," says Bramhall today of his addiction. "It was sort of like a hurricane that sucked me up for a second and spit me out hard."
Two years after detoxing in a California rehabilitation facility, Bramhall says he hardly recognizes the person he was while addicted to heroin. "I'll never know that person again," he asserts. "It's a long time for me, because I'm living it; two and a half years is a long time if you're the one going though it. People talk about three weeks being a long time not to have drink or something. I've changed dramatically since that period. During the time that I was doing it, I was going through changes getting to the point where I was so fed up with it all that I had to stop.
"It was just insane. But it did end. Which I'm very happy about. But I don't wake up every day and think about it. I hardly ever think about it until it's actually brought up. Then I go `Oh yeah, I forgot. I did do that. I was told I did that.' It's far enough away I can sort of be in the third person about it and have a different perspective about it, and see that the changes I've made are tremendous in a way."
And yet, in following around Wendy, Lisa, and Cassis this weekend, fans and curiosity seekers would invariably ask "Is Doyle clean?" Again, Bramhall says he knows all about his Austin reputation.
"It hasn't been two and a half years for everybody else, it's been one day -- the day after," he says. "It's going to be that day after until I go out and show everybody. Nobody's seen me since then. That's the other thing about playing this weekend. I don't feel I have to show or prove anything, but everybody that sees these shows can now say for themselves that, `He's straight' or `Weird' or whatever they want to think."
As the Austin shows progressed -- each better than the preceding one -- it became obvious Bramhall is not only both straight and somewhat weird (i.e., tacky, feathered boa stagewear) now, he's also a commanding presence as a solo artist. And although there's been whispers that Wendy Melvoin is really running the show -- both in the studio and onstage -- she contends that upon her exit, Bramhall will be more than capable of taking control. "He's going to be fine," says Melvoin. "He knows what he wants and is learning to become vocal about it, which he has not had the ability to do before."
And while Melvoin claims she's not surprised by the personal growth she's witnessed in the last year, Bramhall himself admits managing a new attitude and career path has been a rude awakening. "I've definitely changed a lot in the last year alone," he says. "Trying to get clear-headed about everything, I know exactly what I want and I've never been like that in my life. I've always had goals, but I've never gone out and tried to reach those goals with any kind of focus.
"I'm progressing and the evolution looks really good right now. I don't look too far ahead. There's so much to think about in trying to get things I want right now, that I'm too busy to worry about the future, or the past... I'm just glad that I'm that much stronger today. It's empowering when you have all the responsibility yourself. It's something that I need." n