There’s a strong air of anticipation tonight as some of Austin’s most beloved brethren reunite for a rare pair of hometown shows. Dubbed by a local paper as “Austin’s first legitimate rock ‘n’ roll supergroup,” the Arc Angels took their name due to members meeting to jam at the Austin Rehearsal Complex in 1990. When the band’s first—and as it turned out only—album came out in 1992, there was massive buzz and rightfully so. You had the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Double Trouble” rhythm section hooking up with two of Austin’s most promising young-gun guitarists/songwriters in Doyle Bramhall Jr. and Charlie Sexton.
With a strong debut album and some well-received touring, the sky seemed the limit. A summer ’92 show at Slim’s in San Francisco was particularly memorable. But long-term viability wasn’t meant to be and the band had split up by 1994. “I knew it would be great if this band stayed together 10 years,” drummer Chris Layton told the Austin Chronicle upon a reunion show in 1998, “but my gut instinct told me we’d burn bright and fast.” A combination of creative tensions and Bramhall’s serious drug problems sunk the band well before its time.
Sexton and Bramhall both rebounded, touring with no less than Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, respectively. Still, fans were left to wonder about what might have been. But now Layton, Bramhall, bassist Tommy Shannon and guitarist Charlie Sexton are back together and the big question is whether this four-show run (they played Houston and Dallas the previous weekend) is just for kicks, or whether the sky might once again become the limit?
Gary Clarke Jr. is the second opening act and while his set starts off a bit tepid, it builds slowly but surely until the final song is rocking out with a dynamic flavor that reminds the crowd of what they came for in the first place. The Arc Angels don’t help their cause, however, by keeping an antsy crowd waiting during an increasingly interminable set-break that lasts nearly an hour. When the band finally hits the stage around 11:50 pm, some of the anticipatory energy has fizzled, leaving them with an uphill climb.
The set starts off a bit tentative and one wonders what might have been going on behind the scenes. The older leaning crowd is also packed in tight, making it hard to move and groove. Still, Layton and Shannon sound great as the Double Trouble is in effect. “Good Time” and “Paradise Café” pick things up, as the tunes retain the fresh sound they had in 1992. Bramhall and Sexton both have a veteran look now, seemingly indicating that the Gen-Xers have been around the block more than a few times. But as things warm up, that old Arc Angels sound starts to coalesce.
The band seems to shine brightest of all on songs like the majestic “Sent by Angels” and a splendid cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel”. Both tunes feature shimmering guitars and deeply soulful vocals from Bramhall, as well as his molten lead guitar work. If only there was a bit more jamming, for Bramhall has surely got the skills to power the songs even higher. The set continues on pleasingly enough, but for whatever reasons, the band isn’t quite catching fire.
The crowd is still having a good time, although the late hour seems to be wearing a few of the patrons out. But anyone who left early missed out because the band saved some of their best for last. The anthemic “Living in a Dream” closes out the set with some sonic thunder that recalls that magical summer of ’92. The first song that Bramhall and Sexton wrote together, it’s a classic bluesy rocker which retains that creative spark, especially with the two singers trading off verses, a key to the band’s unique flavor. Layton and Shannon are really in the pocket now as Bramhall delivers some of the night’s hottest licks.
As the band returns for the encore, the charismatic Sexton’s enduring sex symbol status is re-confirmed when one of the ladies yells out “Woo, be my boyfriend!” Sexton smiles and introduces the last tune, saying “This is a song that keeps proving itself every time.” The band launches into their album closer “Too Many Ways to Fall”, which perhaps encapsulates the band’s history as well as any song could. With the band really clicking now, the vocals sizzle on the up-tempo groove as the song goes into an extended psychedelic blues jam that is easily the highlight of the night (save perhaps for the soaring jam in “Angel”).
The band is grooving, the crowd is moving, Bramhall is wailing, it’s all coming together. Such moments have been too few and far between on this night, but it goes to show how much potential the Arc Angels still have, if they should decide they want to go for it. It’s not hard to imagine such a talented quartet coming up with another great album and launching a second phase of the band to make up for lost time.