Arc Angels might be better as something to be remembered versus something that is. Cult nostalgia, as always, can set new fans up for spectacular disappointment, and Arc Angels — a supergroup before anybody really knew it — were loved, briefly and passionately, during a druggy, meteoric few years in the early ‘90s.
Now that they’re back in action, more or less, does that cult legend live up? Does the rootsy blues-rock sensibility shared by Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton still translate into something actionable — something long-term — or is it the memory best left just that, a memory: A smoking, songs-oriented foursome with meaty, yet tender blues rock tunes fit for hazy bars and a long line at last call? A “torrid love affair” that burned “bright and fast,” as drummer Chris Layton described it to the Austin Chronicle a year ago?
Judging by this performance, it’s hard to say. The foursome’s recent return to New York City — Bramhall, Sexton, Layton, and bassist Mark Newmark (spelling Tommy Shannon, who is not participating) — felt alternately stunning and forced. During their two-hour set, there were moments of supreme escape: Passionate, aching vocals, locked-in rhythms, and guitar runs that were by turns blistering, psychedelic, coarse, molten, and fluid. Bramhall, especially, was a force, moving from subtly adventurous precision to all out, shredfest face-melting. Sexton was certainly no slouch but poured more of himself into the vocal end of things, soul coming from song instead of finger dexterity. The crowd was a tad sparse for the occasion — and by the end a little more than half-capacity — but what it lacked in numbers it made up with in enthusiasm. Cheering the fills and familiar choruses, raising their excitement for “Living in a Dream”, “Sent by Angels”, and the other Arc Angels better-known songs, the crowd seeming genuinely touched to be there.
Were they touched by the “event-ness” of it, or by the music itself? Again, it’s hard to say. Arc Angels lend themselves perfectly to cult: Quick-up, quick-down, done in by drugs and internal squabbling, its members having gone on to respectable solo efforts and highly regarded sideman gigs with major international talents. Its music is immensely digestible if occasionally repetitive, its songs solid in their craftsmanship, compelling in their delivery, nostalgic for how much they evoked Stevie Ray and the guitar giants from the ‘80s who straddled arena-ready power chords and blues-soaked pop as often as they did more traditional 12-bar blues tunes.
Arc Angels had a tough time shaking off nostalgia at Irving Plaza, serving up all 12 songs from their 1992 napalm bomb Arc Angels and feeling more cursory — more perfunctory — than truly invigorating. There were plenty of moments where you felt transported, felt over the top from the opening “Paradise Cafe” and a knotted “Spanish Moon”, to a tender “The Famous Jane”, an even more tender “Always Believed in You,” and, in the encore, a ripping “Too Many Ways to Fall”. A few blues staples crept in, too: The ominous Charlie Patton freak-out “Oh Death” had some of Bramhall’s most vital guitar passages, and “Outside Woman Blues” pushed the familiar woman-done-me-wrong buttons.
From Arc Angels, it didn’t feel like a return, however, it felt like a reunion — a few hellos, a few slapped backs, and plenty of look-what-we-still-can-do emotion. If anything, I’m anxious to see how they move beyond that — whether they become an active, trailblazing unit again that can write new songs and storm clubs and theatres with the same élan as they used to on random, sweaty nights at Antone’s in Austin. Consider me satisfied with their return at a nonplussed, “pretty cool” level. When a new batch of Bramhall/Sexton contemporary blues-rock classics arrives — when they write and, in the concert setting, demolish their next “Famous Jane” or “Sent by Angels” — I’ll be compelled to change my mind.