The beginning of the 1990s was a momentous time for the Austin, Texas music community. One of the city’s brightest stars – certainly it’s greatest guitar hero – Stevie Ray Vaughan, had been killed in a helicopter crash after playing a show in Wisconsin. The town was genuinely traumatized; the music community was devastated. Among that community were four people who’s musical and personal lives were already connected in various ways to Stevie and each other, and would soon be linked for a decade and a half as the Arc Angels.
Several things happened simultaneously, and serendipitously, to bring this about. In 1989, another of Austin’s favorite musical sons, Charlie Sexton (still Little Charlie to many of the locals), had moved back to town after 5 or 6 years in Los Angeles. He had been signed to M.C.A. Records at the age of 16 and made two records by the time he was 20. He had been hailed by everyone from the publicists at M.C.A. to Bob Dylan as a candidate for the “next big thing.” By 1990 Charlie had had enough of the LA. music business (and the scene it road in on) and moved back to Texas to live, write, and re-group – literally, as it turned out.
Also back in Austin was Doyle Bramhall II. Doyle II was born in Dallas in 1968. His father, Doyle Bramhall – Big Doyle – was a close friend and musical cohort of the Vaughan brothers (and one-time drummer for Lightnin’ Hopkins). Doyle II had grown up in Dallas, but moved to Sonoma County, California, with his mother as a teenager. Stevie Ray Vaughan taught him guitar as a boy. Whenever The Fabulous Thunderbirds or Stevie would play Northern California, he would sit in with them. He was that good, that young. He officially joined The T-birds at age 17; he “made 21” and was back in Austin in 1990 writing and doing demos for Geffen Records, which had signed him to a development deal. (It is generally agreed that, if Stevie Ray had an actual musical heir – not imitator – Doyle II was it.)
Chris “Whipper” Layton had come to town from Corpus Christi in 1975. He was an early and integral part of the Austin blues-rock scene. He had worked with Stevie Ray the longest of the four future Arc Angels. They’d been in various groups and situations together (including as a duo – guitar and drums – at afternoon gigs at the Austex Lounge, now the Magnolia Café, on South Congress in the 1970s.) Whipper was signed to Epic Records by John Hammond as part of SRV and Double Trouble.
Tommy Shannon was one of the charter members of the 60s Texas blues community. Born in Tuscon, Arizona and raised, from age nine, in Texas, he was the bass player in Johnny Winter’s Progressive Blues Experiment. They were signed to Columbia Records by Clive Davis in 1968; they played Woodstock in 1969. (Tommy once lent Jimi Hendrix his bass to play with the band at a gig at The Scene in N.Y.C.) After exiting that band, Tommy was part of San Francisco’s Krackerjack, which, in its 1970-1971 Texas incarnation, included Stevie Ray Vaughan. Shannon officially joined Double Trouble in 1980. In his long career he has played with an actual who’s who of Blues greats, from the three Kings to … well, almost everybody.
Charlie Sexton was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1968 and raised in
Austin. He and his younger brother, Will, literally grew up in the local blues and rock clubs. Stevie Ray Vaughan was among his many musician baby-sitters as a child. Charlie was playing gigs at the Continental Club at age 11; his first serious road gig was with Joe Ely’s band – at age 13.
Co-incidentally, but relevant to this story, Sexton had been joined back in Austin by his tour manager, Wayne Nagel, a local, and his drummer, New Yorker Don Harvey – decidedly not a Texas native, but willing to learn. As Charlie settled back into his old-home-town, Don and Wayne had a “light bulb moment.” They hit upon a business model of sorts for their future: a rehearsal space for Charlie and other local and touring professionals in need. Something a bit hipper and more aesthetically inviting than the usual beer-soaked, back-alley dungeon that defined most rehearsal places. They even convinced the City of Austin’s arts council to fund a loan to start such a facility. Located in an old warehouse on South Congress Avenue, it was also one block from the Continental Club, which was, and remains, one of the local music scene’s favorite venues. (This was way-back-when, when Guero’s Mexican restaurant was a seed store and the upscale Hotel San Jose was a flop house; long before the area’s current ultra-hip designation as SoCo.)
The Austin Rehearsal Complex opened on March 1, 1990, in time for the (then only two year old) SXSW music conference. Charlie Sexton was their first “official” and paying customer, renting a long, narrow space with a really high ceiling that would be dubbed Mercury 8 Studio. The word spread, others came -- among them Doyle Bramhall II, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and SRV and Double Trouble renting spaces and equipment lockers -- and business began to build.
A few months later, in August of 1990, tragedy struck. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s life had touched, crossed paths with, and was woven into the fabric of the lives of many who survived him in Austin. Along with his brother, Jimmie Vaughan, Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon – Double Trouble – were the most dramatically effected. In the wake of Stevie’s death, Whipper would come to his room at the ARC and play drums (usually by himself) all day long, every day, for days on end. Eventually, when Tommy Shannon could bring himself to leave the house again after Stevie’s death, he would come down to the ARC as well – initially working with Doyle Bramhall II on some new material of his. So, in various combinations, these guys, Charlie, Doyle, Chris and Tommy, were all at the Austin Rehearsal Complex working on their music and working out their very-real-blues in the fall of 1990.
Interestingly, even before Stevie’s death, Chris Layton had suggested to Charlie -- in the hall at the ARC one day -- that they and Tommy and Doyle II should get together and play some gigs around town while Double Trouble was off the road. (Stevie Ray was scheduled to do a tour with his brother for the Family Style album, which was to be released in the fall.) All such plans went away when Stevie was killed. Then, at some point after August, at the ARC, Doyle approached Charlie to help him with a song he had been working on for a while – “Living In A Dream”. They nailed it. And right next door to Charlie’s room were Chris Layton and, sometimes, Tommy Shannon trying to beat back the depression in 4/4 time. The light came on again! As Charlie has said, he and Doyle really felt that Chris and Tommy needed to play. The healing needed to begin.
Soon enough they were all jamming. Some of the songs Charlie had been writing for his next solo cd were being adapted and arranged for the new band. Doyle and Charlie began writing for the band. Then they were playing in public again … Charlie Sexton, Doyle Bramhall II and Double Trouble, soon to be known as the Arc Angels. The name was Chris Layton’s idea. The band was officially christened when Doyle’s manager, Mark Proct, saw how good they were after only a few jam sessions, and booked them a gig opening for Robert Cray at the Austin Opera House, which was almost next door to the ARC, in October of 1990. All they needed was a name. It was then that good-Catholic-boy Chris Layton, looking heavenward past the sign on their rehearsal hall, had a vision: ARC ANGELS. The gig went well; the next day’s paper’s pronounced the band “great” and wondered if Austin’s next big thing had just debuted. The first real Arc Angels shows were, naturally, up the street at the Continental Club. Then Antone’s, Steamboat, The Bon-Ton in Houston, Dallas … the Texas circuit. By March of 1991 – five months later – they were voted “best new band” at the Austin Chronicle/SXSW music awards. Their set at that awards show was their “official” coming out.
The Arc Angels were initially co-managed by Mark Proct (who in addition to Doyle, managed the T-Bird’s and Jimmie Vaughan), and Tim Neece, Charlie’s manager. Both had been part of the Austin music scene for years. (Neece had also managed Cristopher Cross, Ricki Lee Jones and Bruce Hornsby, and had extensive L.A. connections.) Geffen Records, who already had the development deal with Doyle (and which owned M.C.A. Records, Charlie’s label) stepped up immediately in the person of A & R head, Gary Gersh. He came to a very early gig in Austin at Club 606. Deal! (The details were worked out by David Geffen and M.C.A. president, Al Teller, on an L.A. – N.Y. flight. How’s that for big-time record-biz?) Things started happening fast.
Only two people were considered to produce the band. One was John Paul Jones, late of Led Zeppelin. He was managed by a friend (Jim Phelan, current co-manager of the Arc Angels) and fan of the band. Great player, great producer; they even jammed together at the ARC. The other candidate was Little Steven; Miami Steve van Zandt, late (and still) of The E Street Band, soon-to-be Soprano/American-gangster, and eventual part-time, super-cool satellite D.J. Charlie had already worked with him, and A&R man Gersh was advocating for him. Seemed like it would be, and was, a great musical fit.
The record, Arc Angels, produced by Little Steven, came out on Geffen in April of 1992 to great reviews and strong sales. The band hit the road and started building a solid -- and growing – audience outside of Texas. They did television (Letterman, Leno, etc.). The record was happening. And then … the problems. Some of it was bad chemistry; some of it bad chemicals. The musical chemistry between Charlie and Doyle was great; the personal chemistry … well, they were two 21 year olds with strong personalities and poor communication skills – other than musical -- thrown into the pressure-cooker of recording and touring at close range. The bad chemicals didn’t help. This time it was Doyle II. Tommy had been through it, years earlier. Stevie Ray had been (famously) through it, and lived to tell. Tommy and Stevie had been through it together. Now Doyle. Things got rough: more and more “unpredictable”, less and less workable. Finally, in 1993, they called it off. The band disbanded. End of story. End of story? Actually, not quite.
They each did their own thing for most of the rest of the1990s and beyond:
Doyle Bramhall II recorded and released a self-titled cd on Geffen in 1996, and Jelly Cream (1999) and Welcome (2001), both on R.C.A. Doyle toured with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters from 1999-2001. He also worked, wrote, recorded and toured extensively with Eric Clapton from 2001 – 2009. He was featured in the documentary Before the Music Dies as part of the band Funk Sway, which also included Wendy and Lisa, Erikah Badu and ?uestlove. He has worked with Sheryl Crow, Me’shell Ndegeocello, Susan Tedeshi and his wife, singer Susannah Melvoin. Doyle’s songs have been recorded by Eric Clapton, B.B. King and others.
Charlie released the albums Under The Wishing Tree (1995) and Cruel And Gentle Things (2005). In between, he toured and recorded with Bob Dylan from 1999 to 2003. He also produced records by Lucinda Williams (Essence), Edie Brickell (Volcano) and Los Super Seven (Heard It On The X), among many others.
And Double Trouble rolled on; Chris and Tommy did a couple of other band projects (Storyville and Grady) and lots of road work and recording behind many of the younger guitarists upholding the Stevie Ray legacy and style. In 2001, they recorded a post-Stevie Double Trouble album, Been A Long Time, with various great guest-artists/guitarists (including Doyle II). It was produced by Charlie Sexton.
Since they had all known each other and played together in various combinations for years, and continued to run into each other, back at the ARC and elsewhere, the band eventually drifted back together. As they themselves have said: friends, brothers, “lifers.” Old issues had been talked over and patched up. The two “frontmen” had grown up. (Doyle II, with the help of Big Doyle and others, had long-since beaten the devil and gotten it back together.) They had even started writing together again. The impetus for the official reunion/reformation of the Arc Angels came by way of the new (at the time, in 2004) Austin City Limits Music Festival. Lance Armstrong, who was an Arc Angels fan and a founder of the festival, along with Charles Attal, a friend of the band’s and another of the founders of the festival (and an original co-owner of Stubb’s in Austin), asked Chris Layton if the band would be interested in “reforming” to close the festival’s maiden event. They were and they did. The show was great. Suddenly, the Arc Angels were gigging again. And Mark Proct, quite possibly “the hardest working man(ager) in show business,” who had never given up on them, stepped back in and started booking them tempting, too-good-to-turn-down, one-off gigs. They took ‘em. Casually at first, then kind of regularly. The Arc Angels were back. Well, for a few gigs a year – like three or four. Then a few more. And a few more.
And the wild thing is this: the people came. And they kept on coming. It’s an amazing testament to the allure of this music – and the charisma and cool of this band – that the people keep on coming. You see, basically, the Arc Angels have played the same set (the album +/- a couple of other songs) for over 15 years now. And the people keep coming back to see it/them again and again. They sell out almost every show they do: the Arc Angels have disbanded; long live the Arc Angels! The Arc Angels are back; long live the Arc Angels!
That’s where this CD/DVD comes in. At some point in 2005 their managers suggested, and the band agreed, that they really should do something to document their live appearances. And this is it.
It wasn’t easy to come by; the weather just wouldn’t co-operate. Originally scheduled to be filmed and recorded at Stubb’s outdoor stage, in February 2006, the shows were rained out. The re-scheduled shows, in March, went on as planned … except that on both sold-out nights it would begin to drizzle a few minutes before the band walked on stage. And then the wind and rain would kick in. But, the audience just huddled up and hung in. What rain? The weather created all sorts of technical “issues,” though. Nightmares, actually. Electricity, as we all learned in school, doesn’t really mix well with water. Cameras malfunctioned, shorting out. Lightning wasn’t exactly striking the stage, but the vibe was ominous. Some of the equipment – like the 75-foot camera crane for long shots and crowd shots -- couldn’t be safely used in the wind and weather. Some of the camera crew actually “abandoned ship” and left. (Some of the film is still missing.) But, as stated, the audience hung in, dug in and dug the sounds – and sights and the scene in general. These were a couple of nights to remember, for sure; they could actually be a metaphor for the band’s career: through storms of adversity, they persevered and overcame.
The jump-cut look and feel of some of the live-show performances on the DVD is a direct result of the weather those two nights: there wasn’t the “coverage” needed for a straight up, “Live From …” film. In the end, everyone was much happier with the edgier editing. Who really needs another song-by-song now-here’s-the-band-standing-on stage-playing- “Whatever” video, anyway?
In another ARC coincidence/connection, the single most creatively involved person in the DVD’s production is Kyle Ellison. In 1991, Kyle was a teenager in a band called Pariah (which also included Shawn Sahm, Doug’s son and a life-long friend of Charlie Sexton’s). They rehearsed in an ARC room next to the Arc Angels. Since then, Kyle has gone on to become a talented video director and editor. He shot much of the best footage on this DVD and worked tirelessly to bring all of these storm-tossed images together in their present form.
While these performances were primarily filmed and recorded at Stubb’s, lots of pick-up shots were done – indoors -- at Antone’s and House of Blues, in Dallas. Documentary and interview footage was added for context and historical interest. A whole section of performances at and interviews about Antone’s is included as a tribute to the band’s friend and mentor (and M.C. on this particular night), Clifford Antone. And – oh, happy day! – the package also includes three new songs: one each by Charlie (“Crave and Wonder”) and Doyle (“What I’m Looking For”), and a very cool cover of the Paul McCartney song, “Too Many People,” to which Doyle II has contributed a very credible “Blues edit” of the lyric.
So it’s come full circle, from a great musical (and therapeutic) collaboration in the aftermath of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s death, to a real (and really great) band, to a hit record and trajectory for stardom, to a medically-induced break up, to a reunion, to this audio/video document of the band’s history and live shows. And another break up … sort of.
In the couple of years that this package was being put together, the boys in the band decided it was too good and too much fun to just put back on the shelf again. They decided to do it again: start touring seriously and, eventually, make another, second, record of new material. The only problem was that Tommy Shannon couldn’t do it; couldn’t make the commitment. After over 40 years on the road, Tommy had had enough. For reasons of health and happiness, he decided to bow out of the band before the next phase began. He will be missed, but the band carries on.
Finally, in addition to being a document of the Arc Angels’ career to date (1990 – 2009), this CD/DVD set marks, a transition. The first official touring began in May of 2009 and included 11 shows opening for Eric Clapton at Royal Albert Hall in London. From there the road leads to … who knows? Much more touring, no doubt, and, as soon as it’s ready, that second studio record.
In conclusion – and I just can’t resist this – while Charlie will remind us that there will always be “Too Many Ways To Fall,” Doyle II will ask the gods and ghosts of electric guitar-past to “Carry (him) On”, Chris “Whipper” Layton will keep on keeping that beat, and the Arc Angels, as a band, will continue “Living In A Dream.” And, to paraphrase a friend of theirs from Minnesota, they’ll let us be in their dream if we’ll let them be in ours. Deal.