Double Stereo // 2009 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // February 18th, 2010
The ARC Angels have disbanded; long live the ARC Angels!
The ARC Angels are back; long live the ARC Angels!
The release of the ARC Angels' self-titled debut album in 1992 signaled a promising rebirth for some of Texas' most talented musicians. Singer/guitarist Charlie Sexton, a child prodigy who had released his major-label debut album in 1985 when he was still in his teens, had been the unwilling recipient of a ridiculously overinflated hype campaign by his label that led to an equally vicious backlash, both of which had seemingly all but ended his career. Bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton had, of course, made up Double Trouble, the stellar backing band that played with legendary guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan until his tragic death in a helicopter crash in 1990, which left both musicians seriously traumatized. As for singer/guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, he was, like Sexton, another former child prodigy who had been kicking around Texas music scene for a while but had only recently been able to interest people in his music. When the four musicians joined forces as ARC Angels (named after the Austin Rehearsal Complex, where they started playing together), their resulting album, produced by Little Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen's band, showed considerable potential. Sales were decent and the band embarked on a tour that showed that they weren't a contrived supergroup -- they were a real band that worked together. Unfortunately, the tour would also lead to the dissolution of the band. Bramhall and Sexton, the band's talented but stubborn leaders, butted heads constantly over every decision. Even worse, Bramhall later admitted that he had become increasingly ensnared in a nasty heroin addiction which the other band members wanted nothing to do with. By the time the tour ended in 1993, the ARC Angels were finished with each other, and the band members went their separate ways.
That's not the end of the story, however. As the years passed, the scars from the band's acrimonious end slowly healed. Bramhall kicked drugs and he and Sexton gradually began to work together again in various combinations with Shannon and Layton. Finally, in 2004, the band reunited for a series of one-off concerts around Austin, deciding in 2005 that the time had come for an official reunion. ARC Angels: Living in a Dream is the result. It's a deluxe three-disc package containing two CDs and a DVD of brand-new recordings and interviews. Disc One is a CD and Disc Two is a DVD, both of which document two live performances shot at an Austin club named Stubb's in March of 2005. Here is the set list:
* "Paradise Café"
* "Carry Me On"
* "The Famous Jane"
* "Good Time"
* "She's Alright"
* "Always Believed In You"
* "Sent By Angels"
* "Crave and Wonder"
* "See What Tomorrow Brings"
* "Shape I'm In"
* "Living in a Dream"
* "Too Many Ways to Fall"
The set list incorporates every song from ARC Angels (except for "Spanish Moon") and adds a cover of Muddy Waters' "She's Alright" as well as "Crave and Wonder," a brand-new song written by Sexton. This gives a full picture of the band's music up to now, but it's more than just a rehash. In many ways, these performances surpass the original studio versions of these songs. Little Steven's deliberately minimalist production sometimes flattened the band's music and rendered it somewhat dry, but here, freed onstage in front of a lively crowd, the band cuts loose ferociously. Sexton and Bramhall trade vocals so seamlessly that they sound like one singer instead of two. Layton and Shannon's playing drives the band, dynamic without being excessively flashy. It's Bramhall, in particular, who really shines. His rejuvenation is complete here, from his fierce solos to his passionate vocals. With the band in better shape than it's ever been, it's no surprise that these performances are absolutely stellar, especially on the Hendrixian cover of "She's Alright" that marks one of the disc's many high points.
As good as the concert is, though, some fans might be put off by the visual presentation. Though the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is sharp and clear, the editing of the show is unusual, although in all fairness, it's not by choice. The two concerts were shot on an outdoor stage, but because of weather problems, there were several pieces of film missing. Consequently, the editors were forced to fill in several holes with random abstract images. This isn't some sort of Deadhead psychedelic video -- there's more than enough footage of the band-=but just be prepared to see some randomly inserted shots here and there. At least the 5.1 surround mix is spectacular. It's spectacularly loud and perfectly mixed and balanced, with no distortion. The accompanying audio CD of the show is also perfect.
As for extras, the package is stuffed to the gills. The DVD includes a 30-minute documentary on the band, with interviews and footage dating as far back as 1992. Though it tends to gloss over some of the less savory stories, it's still a thoughtful and revealing look at how the band came together, fell apart, and regrouped. There's also a 15-minute tribute to Antone's, an Austin nightclub that hosted many of the early ARC Angels concerts. The tribute ends with a live performance of "Spanish Moon" recorded during one the band's first reunions that's another highlight. Finally, the package is rounded out with a CD-EP containing three brand-new studio recordings: "Crave and Wonder," a newly written Bramhall composition called "What I'm Looking For," and a cover of Paul McCartney's "Too Many People," as well as the live version of "Spanish Moon" seen on the DVD. Sadly for fans, Shannon decided shortly after the Stubbs concerts that his time with the band was over, so these new studio recordings mark the debut of new bassist Dave Monsey. The new recordings are agreeable, although too brief to really give a full picture of what this new incarnation of the ARC Angels will sound like. Nonetheless, these are excellent additions that will only whet your appetite for more music. The package also comes with a 16-page booklet that gives a history of the band and the making of these recordings, although it is a little skimpy on some details.
Even so, this remains an impressive collection for a band that deserves it. If anything, this is a far more definitive document of the ARC Angels than the original '92 album: the performances are sharper, the band in better shape, and the recording more exciting. Add the well-selected extras and new recordings, and Living in a Dream is a must for anyone interested in one of the most underrated and fascinating groups in music history.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Double Stereo
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus CD