North Sea Jazz Festival - July 9, 2017
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North Sea Jazz Festival - July 9, 2017

Backed by an ace band and driven by a sense of adventure, guitarist Doyle Bramhall II delivers a scorching performance at the 2017 North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

A Guitar Slinger’s New Chapter

3 Min Read

Throughout his 75-minute set at the 2017 North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, Doyle Bramhall II performs with the intensity of a musician on a mission. This was a pivotal period for the Texas-raised guitarist, with the release of “Rich Man” in 2016 ending a 15-year drought between albums of his own. He devotes this performance to the record, conquering a crowd that seems politely hesitant at the beginning but that turns rapturous by the end. 

During his extended hiatus from the center-stage spotlight, Bramhall had stayed busy, establishing himself more as a musician’s musician, and in particular a guitarist’s guitarist. A big fan of his playing, Eric Clapton had recruited Bramhall in 2000 for more than a decade of collaboration — featuring his songs as well as his guitar, touring with him and crediting him as coproducer over the course of their association. Bramhall also produced and wrote for Sheryl Crow, toured as Roger Waters’ guitarist and played plenty of sessions. 

In its growth and maturity, “Rich Man” writes a new chapter. Bramhall’s fourth solo album is the musical equivalent of a spiritual pilgrimage, extending well beyond blues-rock convention, fusing body and soul, Eastern with Western strains, advancing his reputation as not only a master of tonal command but a musical adventurer. That adventure intensifies in live performance, as the telepathic interplay of Adam Minkoff on guitar and keyboards, bassist Ted Pecchio and drummer Anthony Cole serves as a launching pad for the music to soar. 

Written in tribute to Bramhall’s father, “November” anchors both the album and concert. The elder Doyle Bramhall was a fixture in Texas blues circles as a drummer, singer and songwriter. He had been a childhood Dallas friend and bandmate of Jimmie Vaughan, and a crucial collaborator with Vaughan’s younger brother Stevie Ray (as well as the drummer on the Vaughan Brothers’ only album, “Family Style,” released in 1990). As a kid hanging around that extended musical family, his son was “Little Doyle.”

It is a song about losing his father and finding himself, and its performance marks a turning point in the concert as well, shifting the musical dynamic into overdrive.

“November” celebrates that familial bloodline and legacy, the music that the two of them shared and that passed from father to son. His father died in November 2011, and out of that void came a new depth to Bramhall’s songwriting, a commitment to unflinching honesty and making music that matters. It is a song about losing his father and finding himself, and its performance marks a turning point in the concert as well, shifting the musical dynamic into overdrive. 

No longer “Little Doyle,” Bramhall has also come a long way from when he first emerged from his father’s shadow. In the early 1990s he entered the spotlight with the Arc Angels, the Austin equivalent of a supergroup. The band had been formed in the aftermath of Stevie Ray’s death, pairing the latter’s veteran Double Trouble rhythm section of drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon with a pair of younger Austin guitar hotshots (in a town that had more young guitar hotshots than most cities have baristas). 

Of the two, Charlie Sexton already had a following and a track record, but Bramhall was something of an unknown beyond his familiar name. The whole experience was like trial by fire. He seemed less comfortable with the attention than the others. Rumors of internal dissension and Bramhall’s substance issues plagued the band, and Bramhall in particular seemed scorched by the public attention. 

More than half a lifetime later, he still seems reluctant to call attention to himself, lacking the flamboyance that so often goes with the guitar-hero territory. But his music burns from within while taking full advantage of the immediacy that live performance affords, pushing well past the limits of his studio recordings. If you haven’t heard Doyle Bramhall II in a setting like this, you haven’t really heard him at all. 

Don McLeese has been the popular music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times and the Austin American-Statesman, senior editor at No Depression and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone. His work has also appeared in publications including the New York Times Book Review, the Oxford American and Entertainment Weekly. He has written three books. Since 2003, he has taught journalism at the University of Iowa.

Don McLeese has been the popular music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times and the Austin American-Statesman, senior editor at No Depression and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone. His work has also appeared in publications including the New York Times Book Review, the Oxford American and Entertainment Weekly. He has written three books. Since 2003, he has taught journalism at the University of Iowa.

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