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Guitarist Campbell Strives to Answer a Howlin' Calling by Jon Bream

Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 15, 1993
By Jon Bream

John Campbell is a voodoo bluesman.

"Was a time when shadows grew bones, stood up and walked whistling past graveyards and no one feared midnight. Alchemy was called science and therefore had to be torn down and rebuilt. And all took responsibility for their wickedness as well as their power." So wrote Campbell on the back of his new album, "Howlin' Mercy."

Musically, imagine Tom Waits, Howlin' Wolf, the Doors and Robert Johnson all rolled into one. Campbell's striking second recording is rural blues with a roadhouse feel and a spooky spirit.

"Some of the main things that I address are considered to be the dark aspects of existence," said Campbell, who will perform Wednesday at the Cabooze in Minneapolis with the Red Devils, a hot Los Angeles blues combo.

When the longtime guitar player realized music was a way to express his personal feelings, he was very aware of "my mortality, the consequences of either living or ying. I think my music is deeply focused on that dichotomy. There is an element of the spiritual, and I think my views maybe embrace certain things that other people would consider unconventional.

"When the word `voodoo' comes up, I think people have a tendency to get a Hollywood conception of that. I'm not a practitioner of voodoo. But I am a voodoo man. And I make no bones about it. And music is a conjuring experience for me."

Campbell, 41, "met the blues" when he was 16 and recovering from a major car wreck. When he was a kid in Shreveport, La., he had fallen in love with the Hawaiian guitar his grandmother played. While recovering, he listened to the recordings of John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf and other bluesmen and became obsessed with bending notes on his own guitar.

"It was a way I could connect with my feelings, and I just didn't want to let go of it," he said recently from his New York apartment. "Boy, I remember the moment. I couldn't even get through learning the song. I just kept bending that note just to be in touch with that feeling that I'd connected with. I was compelled to find that note again so I could be in touch with life. It would become like a mantra for me."

After his second round of plastic surgery, Campbell dropped out of school and became a musician. He traveled around Texas and Louisiana, practicing his guitar, busking on street corners for money. A job would have taken time away from his guitar, he said. Along the way, Texas bluesman Gatemouth Brown gave Campbell a tip about making the guitar whisper instead of hollering all the time.

Campbell would play anyplace - pool halls, gas stations, roadhouse bars where the stages were covered with chicken wire. Most of the time he'd line up the gig on the same day. His toughest performance may have been in a small south Texas bar right after a rodeo had been canceled. Bargoers were expecting a country-western band instead, and a fight broke out, but Campbell continued playing because he needed the money.

Campbell never had a plan, never worked with an agent and never sent a demo tape to a record company. He headed to New York five years ago because a friend told him Albert King, Dr. John and Robert Cray were playing there the same week. Campbell stayed, got his own gigs in restaurants and eventually landed a contract with Elektra Entertainment after he'd opened a show with King.

Campbell made his first album, the brooding "One Believer," three years ago and then recorded "Howlin' Mercy" last year with producer Dennis Walker, once the bassist for Canned Heat and Lowell Fulsom. The first album was song-oriented, the new one is performance-oriented, Campbell said.

"Howlin' Mercy" is a far cry from the slick, R&B-flavored blues Walker has produced for Cray. The album includes a version of Waits' "Down in the Hole" and "When the Levee Breaks," a Memphis Minnie blues tune made famous by Led Zeppelin.

Both of those selections smoke on Campbell's dark, deeply soulful record. But they may be inhabited by different spirits each time he picks up his acoustic 1934 National steel guitar and plays them with his group. Campbell, like the early bluesmen who inspired him, believes in playing a song to reflect however he's feeling.

"I never play them the same way twice," he said, "even in the studio."

Copyright 1993 Minneapolis Star Tribune

Copyright � 2003, Thomas Geiger
Revised: May 10, 2003