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John Campbell - One Believer by Cree McCree

Offbeat, November, 1991 p 8-11

Shadows dance in liquid pools of light spilled by candles, dozens of them, burning steadily into the midsummer night. Ancient skulls stare down at us with hollow-eyed serenity. And though we're hundreds of miles from Bayou St. John, and the nearest body of water is the East River bordering Manhattan, the air is thickly ghosted as an Anne Rice novel.

A haze of frankincense wraps smoky tendrils around the wrought-iron balcony, then drifts its lazy canopy across the high-ceilinged living room below, where John Campbell has summoned a few "one believers" to unveil cuts from his Elektra debut album, One Believer.

Among those who have answered the call of "The Count" - lean as a shadow with a face cut as close to the bone as the demons he conjures on his 1934 National steel guitar - is a fellow Louisianian, Jazz Fest honcho Quint Davis. An early believer who bequeathed Campbell a vicious pair of python cowboy boots along the bluesman's winding, sometimes tortuous path to the mountaintop, Davis has, as always, come bearing gifts: final mixes from Aaron Neville's then-unreleased Warm Your Heart, produced by Linda Ronstadt.

So it's Aaron who provides the prelude to tonight's program, which is somehow fitting. For though Campbell - a Shreveport native who criss-crossed the cusp of Texas and Louisiana during his roadhouse years - has long cast a tall shadow as a Texas bluesman, on One Believer, he also walks the voodoo edge. Soon the swamp gas of such Campbell tracks as the wickedly serpentine "Wild Streak" and the midnight-hour mojos of the "Voodoo Edge" itself will be rising around us. But now, as the moon glances off the street lights of Second Avenue, the stage is still being set.

Davis plays one last Neville cut, "Angola Bound," which features Dr. John on keyboards as well as an ominously clanking chain Mac literally wrenched from a parking lot guard rail. And this, too, is fitting, for the good Doctor not only lent his considerable presence to the bayou invocations of "Broken Spell," Campbell's European-single release, but mentored the entire project throughout its gestation. "Angola Bound" also foreshadows Campbell's own relentless takes on the underbelly of the American Dream: the moody, elegiac "World of Trouble," where the "buses don't run on the wrong side of paradise"; and the chill-your-heart "Tiny Coffin," which refuses to flinch from the daily news nightmare of innocents slaughtered in a crack-war crossfire.

But all of this is still to be revealed. Now, as we move into the witching hour, it's the Count's turn to show and tell. He pops "Devil in My Closet" into the tape deck, with an anticipatory gleam in his eye as he shoots a sidelong glance at Davis, who's heard some of this material before.

Davis' face lights up as the rhythm section - bassist Richard Cousins and Lee "the Reptile" Spath on skins - kicks in with the implacable charge of Joe Louis entering the ring. He glows even brighter when Campbell's guitar pounced on a minor-four that comes out of nowhere, then slithers around Jimmy Pugh's shaky Hammond organ lines. And when Campbell's growling-in-tongues vocals crescendo on the final chorus - "I'VE GOT THE DEVIL IN MY CLOSET AND THE WOLF IS AT MY DOOR" - he breaks into an incredulous grin.

"That voice," Davis murmurs. "You can't tell if it's black or white, old or young, or if it's even from this planet - where the hell's that Voice coming from?"

Campbell just beams enigmatically, and segues the tape into the almost excruciatingly slow, steel slide of "Take Me Down," which bends time backwards before letting out the "suicide clutch" to careen across East Texas. Accelerating toward oblivion, the guitar drives mercilessly into its own abyss, taking no prisoners en route.

Davis does a double take, then lets out a whoop, "Pistols at dawn! Goddam! It's those pistols at dawn!"

And both he and Campbell dissolve into deja vu laughter.

"The first time I ever saw John play," Davis explains after he catches his breath, "was at a blues festival at a golf-driving range in New Orleans, on a small stage, up against a fence near a bayou where they have real aligators. He was sitting in a chair, cross legged, with his old Gibson acoustic guitar going through this beat-up Feder amplifier. I was stopped dead in my tracks, I had never heard such a sound. I said to him, 'Shit, that guitar through that amp sounds like pistols at dawn!'"

"That meant a lot to me, comin' from Quint," adds Campbell, who was soon thereafter hired by Davis as artistic director for the newly-created Benson & Hedges blues festivals (whose stages he continues to levitate in performance.) "Quint gave me a shot ehen him and ten other people knew who John Campbell was. And I'll tell you what, there was a time when the only place I had to sleep was a hotel room that he bought me."

Times have changed, and those pistols-at-dawn are rapidly becoming the shot heard round the world. From its initial review in Billboard, which aptly dubbed One Believer "the first great blues album of the '90's," the magnetic forcefield generated by both the album and the sadly inspired, tent show revivalism of Campbell's live performance has grown exponentially. (His current touring band includes bassist Jimmy Pettit and drummer Davis McLarty, two Joe Ely vets who kicked serious but on several of the album tracks, and electric guitarist Zonder Kennedy, who co-wrote some of the cuts.)

And though Campbell - a lone wolf itinerant for most of his 25-year career - remains the magnetic core of the forcefield, an entire constellation of "one believers" helped fire up the booster rockets that launched him into orbit. As he puts it, "I'm real proud of this album, but I ain't braggin on the work all these people did."

People like B.B, his personal manager/guardian angel, who heretofore had served solely Dr. John; Elektra's Peter Lubin, who was so compelled by his music that he not only signed him but co-produced the album; song-writing partner and producer Dennis Walker, who like Lubin, helped launch Robert Cray's career and remains Cray's longtime collaborator; and - along with all the other musicians and mentors like Quint Davis and Dr. John - his family of true believers at New York's Crossroads, the little corner bar he transformed into a temple where the magic took root.

"This may sound corny," observes Campbell, 39, "but my life really passed before my eyes in the process of recording this album."

It had until recently, been a quintessential oldtime bluesman's life, replete with near-fatal accidents (both physical and psychic), years of pocket-change-and-whiskey gigs at field parties and honkytonks on the Greyhound circuit, faith lost an dfound on New York City meanstreets - and through it all, a zen monk's devotion to both his instrument and its enlightened masters. (It's no coincidence that his National steel guitar once belonged to Lightnin' Hopkins, or that the album's sole cover song, "Person to Person," is his homage to Elmore James.)

As Billboard's Thom Duffy writes, One Believer has "both the freshness of a debut act and the emotional authority of a blues survivor." Peter Lubin puts it even more succinctly: "John's so old he's new."

Campbell's newborn voice as a singer/songwriter, nurtured by partner-in-crime Dennis Walker, is part of the freshness. The demon guitar player who once sange only "in self defense" has opened his heart to read words that were always written there. And the voice speaks not only of darkness but of light, to the "prayer inside his head" he invokes in One Believer's exquisite title track, a blues meditation of visionary redemption. Campbell's also expanded the textural boundaries of the blues, allowing the bayous of his boyhood to seep back into his music.

"I was such a student of the Texas style of guitar," observes Campbell, who staked out an absolute claim on that territory with his first album, A Man and His Blues, released on Germany's Crosscut label. "But I started playin guitar in Louisiana when I was four years old, and now I feel like I kinda went back to my roots."

In the process, he literally let down his hair: his carefully-coifed Texas pompadour, a long time trademark, is now a leonine mane that frames the grinning skull dangling from his ear, and he no longer hides his mojos in his guitar case.

"I was my own worst enemy for a while in allowing myself to grow," he reflects, then laughs. "I may have grown into a monster!" - Cree McCree

Copyright 1991 Offbeat

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