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Issue 1084

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Review

Doyle Bramhall II: Rich Man (Concord Records)

Doyle Bramhall II CD cover pic

10

6.2

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UK release date 07.10.2016

Doyle’s first solo release for 15 years, and it was well worth waiting that long for. Understatement of the year! One of the best things I have heard in many years.

Gob smackingly good album, where the songwriting craft is as top notch as the guitar playing and the vocal on the same par too. The whole thing is actually astounding.

Who is Doyle Bramhall II? Well, I am pretty sure many will know the answer to the question, but for those who are yet to have that pleasure, let me introduce you.

Son of the late Texas legend Doyle Bramhall, who was a drummer and an accomplished songwriter and vocalist, lifelong collaborator with childhood friends Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, who composed such SRV signature tunes as “Change It” and “Life by the Drop.” He died in 2011.

Doyle II has spent more than a decade playing next to God, Eric Clapton – who says Doyle is one of the most gifted guitarists he’s ever heard - on stage and on his records. Most recently he has been part of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, alongside his Clapton band mate from the late 2000’s Derek Trucks, and Susan Tedeschi. Bramhall’s collaborations with Tedeschi Trucks have included production and standout tracks on each of their three acclaimed albums. The list of collaboration is too lengthy to include in full, but it includes the likes of Roger Waters, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, B.B. King, T-Bone Burnett, Elton John, Gary Clark Jr., Gregg Allman, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Billy Preston, Erykah Badu, Questlove and Meshell Ndegeocello. He produced and composed songs for Sheryl Crow on her 2011 album 100 Miles from Memphis.

Early in his career he was befriended and supported by Stevie Ray Vaughan. When he was 18, Bramhall was recruited by Jimmie to play with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. After Stevie’s tragic death in 1990, Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton formed the Arc Angels with drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon of Stevie Ray's fabled rhythm section. The Arc Angels’ self-titled debut album yielded such widely popular songs as “Living in a Dream” and “Sent by Angels” before disbanding.

Introducing himself as a solo artist in 1996 with Doyle Bramhall II, he followed with a pair of critically acclaimed albums, "Jellycream," (1999) and "Welcome,2 (2001). It was then that Bramhall’s guitar mastery won the attention not only of Clapton but of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, who showcased him on his 1999, 2000 and 2002 "In The Flesh," concert tours and companion CD and DVD. Clapton, meanwhile, came next. He featured Bramhall songs and guitar as part of his Grammy-winning "Riding with the King," album with B.B. King, also of 2000. He then recruited him full-time, and they toured together worldwide, thrilling fans with their guitar interplay and drawing comparisons to past Clapton triumphs such as Derek & the Dominoes. Clapton’s ensuing 2004 albums "Me and Mr. Johnson," and "Sessions for Robert J," both showcased stirring Clapton-Bramhall guitar duets recorded in the same Dallas room where Robert Johnson recorded his classic blues songs in 1937.

Bramhall’s own songwriting talent was highlighted in Clapton’s "Reptile," (2001), "Back Home," (2005) and "The Road to Escondido," (2006) albums, and he later co-produced "Clapton" (2010) and "Old Sock" (2013). In 2013 he again joined Clapton on his 50th anniversary tour and played on his 2014 album, "The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale."

Doyle has been on a journey of self discovery after the death of his father, and this spiritual journey took him to India and Africa in search of new sounds and an inner peace. Those ethnic influences are heard across this record.

This is not the sound of a jobbing guitarist and songwriter taking time out to indulge his own desires; this is the sound of an artist. An artist who knows exactly who they are and what their own sound should be. To be 100% yourself and not care about what others are doing or what the suits want. Not chasing high volume sales or chart positions. The stars have aligned to allow Doyle to be himself as an artist for the first time—singer, guitar player, songwriter, producer- and take things that were happening in his life and put them into music. But his sound is not one thing stylistically, but an amalgam of lot of influences that come out of his life experiences and travels, and what he is affected and inspired by. There’s blues on Rich Man, but there’s also influences of R&B, Indian music and Arabic music, as well as Bramhall’s distinctive guitar work. Above all else, here is a gloriously free and fresh 70 minutes of music.

The production quality is Premier league – album produced by Doyle and co-producers Woody Jackson, Andy Taub, Adam Minkoff and Michael Harris - which adds huge value to the brilliant song writing and the breathtaking performances. If you are a tech' head and your ears automatically tune in to the "backend" of a track, there's lots of neat little studio tricks going on across the whole album, which would represent a zillion man hoursand plenty of old skool sensibilities harnessed to the modern digital age necessities. I didn't read that on the credits or in the PR blurb; I can hear it and I sense it.

My favourite up-tempo cut among the 13, is the opener, “Mama Can’t Help You,” which busts the groove-ometer. A funky, greasy track which conjures up the spirit of Lowell George and his Little feat buddies, Ritchie Havens, Lenny Kravitz and even Gil Scott Heron.

It’s a call for a reckoning, about entitlement, accountability and taking responsibility for one's self, your circumstances, actions and resulting consequences. Bramhall wrote the song expressively for the groove of drummer James Gadson, who played with Bill Withers. It’s so foooonky and soulful. Tim Lefebvre’s bass line locking in with Gadson’s in the pocket drum track nails it like a real mother. “November,” is a love song to his late father, where Doyle’s passionate and heart wrenching vocal delivery is a showstopper. This horn soaked goodie has the essence of their favorite R&B records the two listened to as Bramhall grew up.

On his father, Doyle says: “His words and who he was resonates with me now, and through his passing I was inspired to take a journey to find my voice and my truth and begin fully living.”

“The Veil” comes out of the discovering a person’s dark, ugly, true nature, hidden by a veil of contrived charm. A warning to look beyond the veil and a call to do better. This is an epic cut. More gloriously soulful vocals on a moody mid tempo, classy piece of songwriting. The production values are bang on, when it builds into loud and somewhat menacing. Killer guitar solo and some Albert King licks toward the end of the track. “My People” is distinguished by instrumentation including baritone 12-string guitars, harmonium, and sarangi -the North Indian classical bowed string instrument performed here by one of its top players, Ustad Surjeet Singh.

Mystics say that the sarangi is the greatest of all instruments because it comes closest to the human voice. Doyle meditates to its sound daily. The track merges elements of traditional blues with Indian classic music, drawn from his travels and experiences in India and Northern Africa over the last four years. Chilled and beautiful. “New Faith” expresses his hope that we can start looking at things differently, and stop fixating on what divides us as human beings. The call to find different thinking to find a peaceful way forward. Amen to that. “New Faith” features Norah Jones in a gorgeous duet which slows the place and changes electric guitar to acoustic. Doyle comes into his own on the vocal, with lovely control and a natural sweetness in his timbre. You’d never know this duet was cut in just two hours. Their voices a perfect fit on a wonderful song. The sentiment of peace and change never turns into schmaltz or gets in the way of the melody and the beauty here.

“Keep You Dreaming,” another prime soulful cut, Prince and Terence Trent Derby vibes, and some funky guitar chops. “Hands Up,” is titled with the phrase associated with the racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo, and elsewhere. One can imagine the likes of Pops Staples and Bill Withers, but especially Gil Scott Heron having a hand in the writing and sentiment of this one. Grunged up Hendrix guitar licks creates steam. Title track “Rich Man,” looks at the difficulty in achieving spiritual peace and gratitude, and represents getting close to the earth and the truth of who you are as a human being. “Harmony,” like the preceding “Rich Man” and other tracks is marked by a string arrangement from multi-instrumentalist Adam Minkoff, a Bramhall band member.

“Cries of Ages” another BIG song, is inspired by great leaders in our history and the hope that the goodness fostered by their teaching will help us overcome moments of crisis. Predominantly instrumental “Saharan Crossing” changes the mood, jumping the Atlantic to North Africa, employing the melon-shaped Arabic oud (lute) played by his own oud teacher Yuval Ron, the renowned Israeli composer/player/arranger. Again, inspired by his travels to India and time in Morocco; the traditional Berber music, Andalusian, Moroccan flute music and Sufi trance music of Jajouka introduced to the West by the Rolling Stones. A mesmerizing trance like vibe to it. Quite something.

Doyle first became acquainted with Gnawa music and went there to spend time with musicians and masters who heavily influenced him. He has connected the dots from the Delta and Texas blues that he grew up playing, to the Sufi chants and African rhythms from Mali and Morocco. In 2008, he spent a month in Mali and Morocco and says It was the beginning of a personal spiritual breakthrough.

“The Samanas,” comes out of Hermann Hesse’s main character in Siddhartha, who becomes a Samana, or seeker. It’s a musical odyssey of three movements, lasting just under 10 minutes, representing a personal journey through different musical influences and a spiritual journey back to the truth, finding peace.” The guitar and style of the three movements change dramatically, from Stones, Beatles, The Who and much more……. The third movement‘s psychedelic treatment, connects directly to what Manc groups like Oasis, Stone Roses and Inspiral Carpets were doing. Like Doyle says throughout this record, music is all connected and it always comes full circle.

More gut wrenching vocal emotion, urging to be shown the way. Andrew Roachford’s vocal tone comes to mind. There’s a real intensity in all of his vocal delivery, and that pleading mix of pain and pleasure that Marvin Gaye had.

This is not that far away from what Hendrix was doing vocally, and the whole ambience on such classics as "Little Wing" and "Castles in The Sky." So the closer, the sole cover here; of Jimi’s “Hear My Train Coming,” sits in exactly the right position of this superb Baker’s Dozen. A shimmering, layered approach, his vocals are innate and weave in and out of the guitars, which poke, stab and prod through the track, then bursts into fire with a very special solo indeed. Who can follow Hendrix? Find out on track 13.

He starts and ends with American blues influences, the fundamental foundation of his own music, and then incorporates other influences of Eastern, African, Arabic and classical music which have always deeply affected him. Rich Man, manifests Bramhall’s life journey to find his own voice and grow as a creative person and as a man to get to this place, which he says, feels like a new beginning for him.”

Labels and pigeon-holing music is a funny old pastime. What’s rock to some is blues to another, and so on. But I can tell you that this IS a soul album. I mean; it will appeal to anyone with hearing, who appreciate great music played from the heart and the SOUL. Some who consider themselves a good or even great guitarist may wish to sell their entire axe collection after hearing this. I’m not kidding.

Warning: If you are looking for a guitar fest, look elsewhere. The guitars here are just part of the palette and not the main armory. Brush strokes and less is more. The project is all the more richer for that approach. But when Doyle does let rip, look out. One of the most creative and naturally gifted guitarists on the planet right now.

If Miles and Jimi were still with us, joining forces with Doyle and becoming the Holy trinity would not be beyond the realms of possibility.

He really is a mighty presence on today’s music radar and across many genres; deserving to be mentioned in the same breath as Mr. Davis and Mr. Hendrix for creativity and innovation. Yes, really. Career defining just doesn’t cover it!
Words SIMON REDLEY

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