TO MY EARS
Step across the Welcome mat and prepare for swampy, high-fever Texas blues rock-with a smoldering, erotic undercurrent. In one of the best club concerts this columnist has witnessed this year, Doyle Bramhall II & Smokestack cast an unbreakable spell over several hundred perspiring spectators on the night of June 20 at the Village Underground on West Third Street in New York's Greenwich Village. As the band roared into "So You Want It to Rain" from its new Welcome album (RCA), the music utterly possessed the room, making the band feel "We've got a place to go/A place to call our own" in a mutual bond that encompassed the entire college-age audience. Bramhall's wife, co-writer, and backing vocalist, Susannah Melvoin, thinks she knows why.
"That song has a sensualness to it, like the damp air in a hot cabin, and Doyle's music has that quality overall," Melvoin says with a bashful laugh. "In the lyric, I tried to write about a moment, a feeling as a little girl of 'Where do you want to be right now-if you could be anywhere?' and the answer would be in the rain, a perfect rain. We wanted an atmosphere, deeply romantic but simple, and so it's a love song, too." And like virtually all of Welcome, it's near-torrid in its ardent intensity.
Smokestack, Bramhall's band, is a compact, strong-willed squad with a fastidious sense of phrasing and tone but a dramatic elasticity in the structure of its songs and sets. Bassist Chris Bruce and drummer J.J. Johnson pace the music with elongated textures that snap back into form with startling precision. Second guitarist Craig Ross also shines as a guest asset onstage and on record. Meanwhile, Melvoin's voice rides under and between the rhythms and the emotional diction of Doyle's left-handed '64 sunburst Strat as if it were an exhortatory horn section. Pouring out of '67 Marshall Plexy SuperBass amps, the music is muscular but deliriously lithe in its hungry sexuality, and it builds to a hoof-pounding charge like a bull in heat.
Gloriously aroused rock like "Soul Shaker" seldom makes it onto recordings with the nostril-flaring gusto heard on Welcome. And on the cut named for the group, the combustible "Smokestack," you get a furnace's worth of shifting warmth and stinging fumes. "'Smokestack' was written in band rehearsal with a chorus idea I had for a couple of years that I never did anything with, and it just fit perfectly," Bramhall says. "The reason the songs sound so much different on this album than the other records [Doyle Bramhall II (Geffen, 1996), Jellycream (RCA, 1999)] is because we recorded it live-all the vocals, guitar solos, everything. In order to do that, we went in for seven weeks to rehearse every day with the help of [Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers'] Benmont Tench [co-producer of Welcome with Jim Scott and Bramhall]. He arranged a lot of the songs with us. He's a genius and helped get the songs as tight as we could possibly get them, so then we could experiment and be spontaneous in the moment."
the band members achieved a well-accustomed comfort zone with the new material
before they took it on the road, helping ensure the piping-hot peak of the Village
Underground show with the explosive live rendition of "Green Light Girl,"
another Welcome track (and its initial single). Co-authored by Bramhall and Melvoin,
the song is about a wishfully wanton young woman on the prowl: "Too hot to
handle now/Spend all night/In a red light town/Looking for a green light."
Besides plying his sound on additional club dates, Bramhall II & Smokestack will be touring arenas through August with Eric Clapton, who sought out Bramhall after hearing his Jellycream release and invited him to appear on Clapton's 2000 Riding With the King collaboration with B.B. King (the blues legends cutting two Bramhall songs in the process), as well as Clapton's new Reptile record (for which Bramhall and Melvoin co-wrote "Superman Inside" with Clapton).
Come autumn, Bramhall and band will pursue their own circuit of shows, a prospect he looks forward to, particularly since his wife and newborn child can be along for the ride. "We got married on Aug. 16, 1997," he says of Melvoin, "and we have a 2-month-old girl, India Willah Bramhall-that's after [Nebraska-bred novelist] Willah Cather. I'm reading 0 Pioneers! right now."
Like the themes of the pastoral novelist Bramhall and wife admire, his own story contains considerable struggle on the fringes of America's Western ranching and farming region. Born Dec. 24, 1968, at Baylor University Hospital in Dallas, Bramhall is the son of gifted guitarist/songwriter/producer Doyle Bramhall and accountant Linda (nee Clifford). He has a younger sister, Georgia ("after the Ray Charles song"), by his since-divorced parents, and three step-siblings.
Until age 5, Doyle lived in a "communal house" in Austin, Texas, with his family as well as Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan. "Jimmie was at my birth in the hospital," Bramhall recalls with a fond chuckle, "and Stevie called me his little brother. Later, I got hired in Jimmie's band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, on Stevie's recommendation, because I'd been sitting in with Stevie since I was 14 or 15. Jimmie was looking for a guitar player after he recorded [the Thunderbirds' 1989 album] Powerful Stuff, so Stevie said, 'Definitely get Doyle-he's the new shit!' "
Reared on rock and blues ranging from Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone to Albert King, the left-handed Bramhall started out playing a right-handed guitar but now relies on his lefty Strat "with the strings upside down, like Otis Rush."
After his late-teens stint with the Thunderbirds, Doyle fronted the Arc Angels beside cohort Charlie Sexton, a learning experience in every sense. "Charlie and myself, we grew up around serious alcoholics and drug addicts," Bramhall says, "and the way we dealt with it was the complete opposite of one another. He didn't want to touch it because he saw what it did to his family, but I was the kind of person who went right for it because I thought it was cool and bad-assed to be a tough drinker and drug addict, too.
From my experience, I think it is hereditary, and I think it does get worse every generation, especially alcoholism, if you just let it go. I think the 'X' gene is always there, but there are things you can do to combat it. Luckily for me, I've done so much to get a grasp on it. I work constantly on my personal life and go to therapy and A.A. [Alcoholics Anonymous]. The more work I personally on myself, the better my music sounds, the more focused I am as an artist, and the clearer I see myself."
Bramhall explains that melancholy songs on Welcome, like "Life," are derived from seeing "a lot of people go down because of drug addiction, like Susannah's brother [Jonathan Melvoin], who was in Smashing Pumpkins and had recently died [of a heroin overdose in 1996 at age 34]." Bramhall notes that he was newly sober in '96 when he met his future wife, who was summoned to sing backup on his Geffen album by her sister Wendy Melvoin, a former member of Prince's the Revolution band and co-producer of Bramhall's solo debut with Lisa Coleman (her partner in the Revolution and in Wendy and Lisa).
Susannah had been a vocalist with the Family, a quintet whose eponymous 1985 album appeared on Prince's Paisley Park label. She also sang on Prince's Around the World in a Day (1985) and Parade (1986) albums, after which she became a backing vocalist for Quincy Jones.
"Wendy thought Susannah would be great for my record," Bramhall relates with a laugh, "but that turned into a secret love affair, which blossomed into a beautiful marriage. I was really shy at first and avoided eye contact, and after recording sessions, we would just watch a lot of Mystery Science Theater 2000 together-but that didn't last long!"
Looking back on his recent history in a Manhattan hotel room with his wife and baby, Bramhall seems humble and grateful but not at all dazed by the distance he's covered in the past five years-because it's been damn hard work. And he believes the best is yet to be.
"When I first met Eric after he'd heard the Jellycream record," Bramhall recounts, "he said, 'Why aren't you well-known?' I talked with him about my own experiences personally and in the business, and he's obviously a good person to bounce it off of, because he'd gone through hard times and is still at the top of his game."
What advice did Clapton offer?
"Basically," Bramhall confides, "he told me not to get discouraged. 'You are the one who knows what you need to do,' he said. 'You need to follow your heart, and everybody else will get on board.' Because of the way he said it, I got it, you know? So I've just been doing it.