For those who tuned in late, here’s the quick version of the Arc Angels’ original formation, launch, quick success, and almost-as-quick breakup in the early 1990s: in the wake of the legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan’s death in a helicopter crash in 1990, his veteran rhythm section – drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon, known as “Double Trouble” – find comfort in playing music with young Texas guitar fiends Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton. All hell breaks loose – in a good way – and the newly-formed Arc Angels release their debut album in 1992. Then all hell breaks loose again – in a bad way – and the band implodes a year later. And that was that.
Or almost was, anyway: for all the troubles that had blown them apart, the Arc Angels kept crossing each other’s paths over the next few years while they pursued other musical projects. Bramhall logged in touring miles with Roger Waters and Eric Clapton while recording three solo albums and – most importantly – beating the smack habit that had contributed to the Arc Angels’ problems. Sexton did some recording of his own and hit the road with Bob Dylan for a number of years. He was also sought after for his production talents in the studio – including manning the board for Layton and Shannon’s only post-Stevie Ray Double Trouble album in 2001. As it turned out, Doyle Bramhall sat in on those sessions, as well. The four of them couldn’t deny that they still enjoyed making music together; and with some age on the younger guys (and a few less bad habits), things seemed to go a lot smoother. One thing led to a couple more. The Arc Angels began to take flight once again, easing back into existence with a few gigs a year tucked in between their individual projects.
Which brings us to the matter at hand, the 2009 version of the Arc Angels and their newly-released album Living In A Dream. Earlier this year, the band announced it was going to get serious about touring again, along with writing some new material. Hand-in-hand with that news came the announcement that bassist Tommy Shannon was retiring from life on the road, bidding his bandmates goodbye. Living In A Dream, a two CD set with accompanying DVD, provides one last good look at the Shannon-era Arc Angels while giving us a peek at where they’re headed.
The first disc captures a full live show by the band, recorded in March 2005 at Stubb’s Amphitheatre in Austin, TX. Here we find the Arc Angels full of raw energy and plenty of blues-tinted wallop. (And in good humor, as well: the irony of their “Shape I’m In”—as in “doin’ pretty good for the shape I’m in”—isn’t lost on the boys.) Layton and Shannon operate as one multi-limbed rhythm beast, holding down the fort through everything from Texas-flavored rockers to Hendrix-like psychedelic power drifts and sonic squalls. Out front, Sexton and Bramhall are all cool swagger and nasty guitars. While their vocal and six-string stylings mesh well, they each have their own sound, as well. Listen to the title track: at one point, while Sexton is driving the song with savagely big ol’ chunks of smoking voodoo riffs, Bramhall lets loose with a raga-like wail on his Strat that will send shivers up your backbone. (The DVD documents the same show, along with a special tribute to Austin blues kingpin Clifford Antone.)
More than just a rehash of where the Arc Angels have been, Living In A Dream also offers a look at the future: a bonus disc includes new studio performances with Dave Monsey taking over for the departed Tommy Shannon on bass. Both Sexton’s “Crave And Wonder” and Bramhall’s “What I’m Looking For” find the band blending a bit more soul into things without slacking up on their rock ‘n’ roll edge one bit. And even though Paul McCartney penned “Too Many People,” the Angels make it their own, including a wild-ass guitar rave-up to finish things up while Layton drives the beat home. And, just in case you need one more blast of live Arc Angels, the boys toss in a version of their own “Spanish Moon” from a performance at Antone’s.
All in all, Living In A Dream does a good job of showing what the Arc Angels are capable of these days. Cleaned-up, focused, and matured, the band doesn’t lack for fire and grit. If you knew them from before, you’re going to be tickled with where they are these days. If you’ve never listened to them, you can fast-forward right to Living In A Dream – you won’t be missing a thing.