Doyle Bramhall II | photo by Taylor Johnson for WXPN

Doyle Bramhall II may not be a household name, but a quick look at his past collaborators is credentials enough. Since the 90’s he’s worked with Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, Elton John, Allen Toussaint, and countless others. Spending an hour with him at today’s Free at Noon was enough to understand why he’s in such demand. Bramhall plays the blues with a conviction few can match, and has the stage presence to back it up. Performing selections off his new album Shades, released just today, Bramhall owned the stage with his powerful musicianship.

The menacing swagger of opener “Love and Pain” was powerful enough to feel in the chest. In the first of many blistering solos, Bramhall channeled Stevie Ray Vaughn, tearing up the strings with artful precision. Just about every song featured a standout solo from the guitarist, who remained fresh and inspired in every improvisation. But just as impressive as Bramhall’s soloing was the cohesion of his band. The rhythm section held down tight-knit funk grooves with ornamental flourishes, sometimes trading rhythmic ideas with Bramhall in his solos. In every dynamic shift and swell they moved as a single unit, perfectly interlocked.

Although best known for his instrumental prowess, Bramhall proved himself a serious composer as well. He worked in styles from soulful balladry (including “Searching for Love”, penned with Norah Jones) to psychedelic soul, nailing every idiom authentically and inventively. Perhaps most notable was the middle-east influenced “Parvanah”, a whirling piece of psychedelia bordering on progressive rock. Following that song’s mind-bending instrumental outro, Bramhall himself—a man of few words—had to admit, “that was cool.”

Instrumental virtuosos often face accusations of musical soullessness, but Bramhall proved himself to be anything but. His vocals were impassioned throughout, often backed by soaring, soulful harmonies. The set reached its emotional peak with the Bob Dylan cover “Going, Going, Gone”, dedicated to the late Gregg Allman. Delivered in a muted hush, it was a powerful tribute to one of Bramhall’s many champions. In many ways, its that very reverence for his forbearers that makes Bramhall such a force. He carries on the traditions of blues rock architects, always learning from and reinterpreting the art of past masters. More than just a prestigious sideman, he shows himself to be a serious figure in the art of the blues.

Love & Pain
Everything You Need
Hammer Ring
Searching For Love
London To Tokyo
Hands Up
Going Going Gone
In My Time Of Dying