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Campbell is Blues `Disciple' by John D. Gonzalez

The Grand Rapids Press, February 19, 1993

By John D. Gonzalez
The Grand Rapids Press

John Campbell's deep voice crackles as the song "When the Levee Breaks" builds. His slide guitar carries the tune back and forth as he and his band drive the song through its classic Led Zeppelin upbringing. It ends with an all-out musical assault.

This is John Campbell. And this is the blues.

The song, "When the Levee Breaks," is a snapshot of what to expect from the 41-year-old singer/guitarist from Louisiana. It showcases his powder-keg style that intertwines passion, energy and expert musicianship into a wick of explosive blues-rock.

As the opening track on his just-released Elektra CD declares, he "Ain't Afraid of Midnight." His show tonight in Martini's (which is free and begins at 9) could last as long as three hours.

"I'll play as long as they let me," Campbell said recently by phone from his home in New York. "For real."

A self-described "disciple of the blues," Campbell is also a blues road warrior. He played more than 230 shows last year - so being on stage for a few hours and playing his own material is nothing new.

"To me the performance is like the ritual of life," Campbell said. "The stage is a very sacred place. You may never have a chance to play on it again."

And who knows what will happen once the music and the energy of an audience take over.

"Every show has the potential to be `the one,' " said Campbell, who moved to New York about five years ago. "Like Gatemouth Brown says, music is a sharing thing."

His second album, "Howlin Mercy," should be a sharing thing, too. Reviewers are calling it one of the best blues-rock albums to be released in years. Campbell, whose debut on Elektra was "One Believer," calls his new album full of "road muscle." The songs were born from constant touring with blues heros like Buddy Guy and rock-blues newcomers like Chris Whitley.

"The main difference in this record is that it celebrates the performance. Its atmosphere is supportive of the songs. For me, music has to reflect what I'm living in order to be honest," Campbell said.

That's why the majority of "Howlin Mercy" was recorded live in four days.

"It was like show time every day (in the studio)," Campbell said. "It was structured in a way that anything could happen. There was no time designated for solos.

"To me, this record is more in touch with my roots. It's going back to where I started."

At age 13 Campbell was playing the guitar. At 16, he left school and moved to Texas, where he lived for some time in the back of an abandoned church. (Sounds like a blues story already, doesn't it?)

For 20 years he played the "low-down circuit." He was never in a permanent band because he didn't want to get structured. From the blues records he listened to, he realized the blues was a "real" life experience.

"I never did a song the same way twice," Campbell said.

He moved to New York and eventually landed a steady gig at the Lone Star Cafe, where executives at Elektra discovered him.

"It was kind of wild when they approached me," Campbell said. "I used to dream about making records for Elektra."

What made record executives interested in Campbell was a void in the blues-rock world. Other than the Arc Angels, it's difficult to name a contemporary act that's done much to bridge the two genres of music.

Campbell considers early blues pioneers the heart of rock 'n' roll.

"The blues has always rocked. If you listen to guys like Howlin' Wolf, they rock. They were very modern," Campbell said.

"I consider myself a blues man, but I also consider myself playing my own kind of music. I can't presume what it was like to be Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson, but I can tell you I was affected by the magic of their music."

Copyright 1993 Grand Rapids Press

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