A Spiritual Journey Inspired Singer-Guitarist Doyle Bramhall II's Latest Album

Even by musicians’ standards, Texas-born blues singer-guitarist Doyle Bramhall II received a tremendous amount of exposure to music while growing up.

“It was constant music in the house, not only with all the musicians who lived in the house,” says Bramhall via phone from a Fort Lauderdale tour stop. He performs at the Kent Stage on Friday, Feb. 3. “We lived in a communal band house for the first five or six years of my life. I was living the rock ’n’ roll life as a four-year-old.”

He says the ’60s, in particular, had a strong influence.

“My mom listened to soul and my dad listened to soul and blues and music from the UK at that time, the British Invasion,” he says. “My life felt like it was scored by Al Green and Sly Stone and Albert King and Bobby Bland and Jimmy Reed. We listened to Blind Faith and Traffic and Jimi Hendrix as well. I used to say I was like a tape recorder, and I recorded everything. As soon as I was ready to start playing, it all just flowed out of me, and I had to just press play."

Bramhall started on drums and switched to bass before taking up the guitar at age 14. Bramhall, who’s ambidextrous, learned to play in a peculiar manner. He plays left-handed with the instrument strung for a right-hander and flipped backwards.

“It’s a very un-mysterious thing,” he says when asked about his technique. “I picked up the right-handed guitars at my house and always held things that way. I held a baseball bat that way, and I always thought if you hold it that way, it should be right-handed because the most dexterous part of your playing is in your hand on the fretboard.”

Playing with both Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan proved to be a formative experience. Sitting in with Stevie Ray Vaughan, a friend of his father’s, helped Bramhall get the gig with Jimmie Vaughan’s blues band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

“Stevie Ray Vaughan had recommended me to Jimmie because the Thunderbirds were doing a tour for the album Powerful Stuff, and Jimmie had done overdubs which he hadn’t done on previous records,” says Bramhall. “He needed someone to cover those parts. Stevie recommended me. I got that call, and it felt like going to my four years of college and learning how to accompany and be a support member of a band. It gave me time to work on myself as a rhythm and a parts player and as a member and knowing how to play with others and be in a support role.”

After playing with another blues guitar hero, Charlie Sexton, in ARC Angels, Bramhall launched a solo career with his 1996 self-titled debut. He made a smooth transition from sideman to frontman.

“I had been ready and was writing so much,” he says of embarking on his solo career. “It was a prolific time. I came to the table with 35 songs just in demos that I had made. I was recording songs every day. I was ready to bust away from what I was known as in the ARC Angels, which was just a guitar player. I think I was seen as the Texas guitar hero. I didn’t care too much for that. I always felt like the songs were first. The guitar is a way to express things and get it out there but when it just becomes about being a guitar player, that doesn’t interest me very much. I love unique expressions and it doesn’t matter to hear someone who is just technically good.”

Bramhall’s latest effort, Rich Man, draws from his travels to India and Northern Africa and includes the North Indian classical bowed string instrument sarangi, which virtuoso Ustad Surjeet Singh plays, and the bowl-shaped Arabic oud lute, which Bramhall’s own oud teacher Yuval Ron, a renowned Israeli composer-player-arranger, plays.

Though it’d been a few years since his last solo effort, Bramhall didn’t have a stockpile of songs. He did, however, want to draw on the experience of traveling. With its nasty guitar licks and howling vocals, a song such as “Hands Up” will please blues purists, but tracks such as “Saharan Crossing” suggest Bramhall’s widening musical interests.

“I only had three song ideas at that time I went to start on the album,” he says. “One was ‘The Veil’ and the other was ‘November’ and the next was ‘The Samanas.’ I wanted to start from scratch and capture this particular time of my life. I try to keep everything relevant to me and what’s going on in my life and the sounds coming out of me at this time. It’s different than 15 years ago. I had so much life experience and musical experience and time to live with myself and all of the growth and maturity that’s come over the years. That’s one of the perks about getting older. You can let go of things that aren’t really that important in your life and really know what is. That plays out personally and musically.”

While press materials state the songs reflect his “intensive spiritual and musical journey” that took place following the death of his father in 2011, Bramhall says that his inner journey began well before that.

“I guess you could say that since I was born I was on a spiritual journey,” he says. “I just wasn’t open to it. I didn’t know what I was doing until six years ago. I had a shift in my life, and I don’t know why or how it happened. It just sort of changed me, and I got things that I never really got before. I connected to people and to myself as a performer and to audiences and all the experiences of life. I would say that the journey that is documented on this album is really something that started back in 2008. That’s the big opening for me.”

Bramhall says his interest in world music began even prior to 2008.

“I’ve tinkered around on the Mohan veena,” he says. “I’ve played around with sitars, and my friend Derek Trucks has an oud. On this record, I didn’t play the Indian instruments. I had proper musicians from India playing them. I do play the oud. It’s the Turkish and Arabic version of the lute. When I was 18, I heard some Egyptian music and before then I had been into flamenco and gypsy music. It was a singer called Umm Kulthum. She was one of the greatest singers who sang in Arabic. There was something about the sound of the oud that accompanied Egyptian and Turkish singers.”

For the tender ballad “New Faith,” he teams up with jazz/folk singer Norah Jones, whose voice blends seamlessly with his.

“I recorded it live,” he says of the track. “It’s one of the last songs we recorded. We just went in with a makeshift band that was put together in just a few hours. I thought it would be nice to have that song as a duet. I didn’t have anything else on the record like it. She lived close to the studio and is a friend of the engineer. I had been friends with her since I had played on the same bill with her at a festival for the past few years. We would hang out, and she’s a sweet person and super talented. I thought if she’d be into it, I thought it would be great. She said, 'I’ll be there in a hour.' We sang live over the track. It’s a cool experience to add to my list of cool experiences.

Doyle Bramhall II with Special Guest: Emily Gimble, 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3, the Kent Stage, 175 East Main Street, Kent, 330-677-5005. Tickets: $25, thekentstage.com.

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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