Slide guitarist and songwriter John Campbell was a man driven. Before his untimely death, he had pulled out all the stops to play a music that was full of mystery, pathos, dark energy, and plenty of rock & roll strut 'n' growl; it could be frightening in its intensity.
Howlin' Mercy was the last of two recordings for Elektra, and is by far the heavier of the two. As displayed by its opening track, "Ain't Afraid of Midnight," Campbell was a considerable slide guitarist who owed his skill to blues men like Lightnin' Hopkins (from his home state of Texas), Fred McDowell, and a few others. His solos are wrangling, loose, and shambolic; they are undeniably dark and heavy. They cut with elegance across the rhythms and melodies in his songs.
This is followed by a version of "When the Levee Breaks" that is a direct counter to and traditional reclamation of the Led Zeppelin version and places it back firmly in the blues canon. As evidenced by "Saddle Up My Pony," Campbell was equally skilled at transmuting the Delta blues and framing them in a very modern context without taking anything away from their chilling, spare power and poetry. And in the modern rock and blues idiom, he was a master, as evidenced by the stomp and roll of "Firin' Line"; "Written in Stone"; and the epic, swamp blues cum overdriven scorcher "Wolf Among the Lambs."
This final moment is perhaps Campbell's greatest on record in that it embodies all of his strengths and reveals none of them to be contradictions. Campbell was living and playing in New York at the end of his life, and that city's conflicting energies are reflected in his playing and writing. They needed each other, it seems, and if ever there were a Delta blues record that visited the Texas roadhouse and settled on the street corners of NYC, this is it. Awesome. � Thom Jurek
Rolling Stone, April 1, 1993 p 53
The blues are a harsh mistress � while the language is relatively easy to master, it takes a bona fide original to speak it with true flair. Recent albums have employed different strategies in facing this challenge, from the nouveau country blues of Chris Whitley to the grungy boogie of the Red Devils. John Campbell is a talented slide guitarist � his style draws its dread from the Delta and its drive from Elmore James � but Howlin Mercy suggests that he thinks the key to his success lies in emulating George Thorogood.
Howlin Mercy is littered with the clich�s that pepper the blues lexicon; on "Saddle Up My Pony," Campbell even conspires to "catch a Greyhound bus and ride." Familiar musical techniques also abound, with two tunes starting at midtempo and evolving into headlong boogies. While the playing is certainly accomplished, it's altogether too familiar.
Campbell's version of Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks" is a clear bid for the rock audience. The problem is that Campbell doesn't redefine the tune's bluesy roots as much as offer a low-key re-creation of Zeppelin's authoritative stomp. Campbell is more successful on such Delta-flavored fare as "Down in the Hole," on which the vivid sustains of his slide guitar hang in the air like frightful moans.
Campbell, like every other contemporary blues musician, works in a world most often defined by the past. What's more, the wealth of recent blues reissues has left these players literally competing with the masters from whom they learned. On Howlin Mercy, Campbell turns up the heat, and while the results could rock a Saturday-night roadhouse, it's music that falls deep into the shadows of its sources. (RS 653) JOHN MILWARD
Copyright 1993 Rolling Stone
Playboy, June 1993
Each time I think I've heard everything that can possibly be done with the blues, somebody comes along and makes me fell really, really foolish. John Campbell is the latest somebody, and he has really shaken my self-esteem with his second album, Howlin Mercy (Elektra). The blues moribund? Not while this guy's alive. A classically ravaged voice of experience, Campbell sings about halfway between Howlin Wolf and Leonard Cohen (and even that doesn't do justice to his defiant, raw masculinity). His band, a simple four-piece with Campbell on slide, is defiantly uncooked as well - direct from the swamp at midnight, which makes sense, since Campbell comes from Louisiana.
Although the original songwriting here is first-rate, the high-water mark is the cover of Led Zeppelin's When the Levee Breaks, which I had always considered to be uncoverable. In Campbell's treatment, Robert Plant's original moan of despair gradually transmogrifies into a snarl of rage, accompanied by Campbell's outrageously percussive slide. Somehow, you see the levee breaking, with Campbell standing before the onrushing wall of water, saying "Fuck you, flood." So I say this guy has more testosterone than the entire United States Marine Corps, and if you disagree, fuck you, too. - Charles Young
Illustration by Jerry McDonald
Copyright 1993 Playboy International
Blueprint, February 1993 p 20
Yes folks, Mr. Sunshine is back. It may seem somewhat superfluous to review 'Howlin Mercy,' given the interview with John Campbell which we publish in this issue of Blueprint. There we receive almost a song by song guide to the follow up to 1991s 'One Believer.' But at the risk at being awarded an OBN (private eye readers will understand that reference), I have to say that Campbell's work has a spontaneity, a drama and an intense honesty which is rarely heard on record. Blandness is bannished. This is blues being experienced and created.
Those of you who say the John Campbell touring England last year will know what to expect. As is made clear in John's interview, this is the record of the tour. Whereas 'One Believer' was recorded when he was getting used to the idea of amplifiers and a band, now he gives a confident, mature performance. I defy you not to be on your feet from the first chords of "Ain't Afraid of Midnight," or through other rockers like "When the Levee Breaks" (brought back closer to home after its Led Zeppelin excursion) and 'Firin' Line.' While the emptiness and menace in Campbell's voice and guitar permeante 'Down in the Hole' and the more traditional sounds of 'Saddle Up My Pony' and 'Wolf Among the Lambs.' Always strong on imagery the songs show how the traditions of the blues are maintained, while the performer tells his own story. This is the business. Buy the record and see the band in March.
"Whenever I rumble it's no holds barred." You better believe him. - Bob Chapman
There are plenty of fine performers who do credible, down and dirty, swampy blues. John Campbell is the whole swamp. Howlin Mercy is contemporary blues at its most powerful. On the whole, the album is anchored by a thundering rhythm section and Campbell�s grinding, cement mixer voice � a riveting instrument that expresses the torment of a life experience you really only want to know about second hand.Roch Parisien
(All music guide to the blues: the experts� guide to the best blues recordings, edited by Michael Erlewine, Miller Freeman Books, San Francisco, CA, 1999)
Q, March 1993, p 84
A 40-year-old "newcomer" who's been down since he began to crawl, John Campbell is living proof that it's never too late to get a break if your passion is for singing the blues, or something like it. Produced for the second time by Dennis Walker (of Robert Cray's team), Howlin' Mercy is his third album, and along with several Campbell/Walker originals it includes serviceable versions of Tom Waits's Down In The Hole and Led Zeppelin's When The Levee Breaks. More of a growler than a howler, Campbell boasts a deep, menacing voice and a fluent guitar technique that owes more to the "progressive" blues-rock of Stevie Ray Vaughan or Johnny Winter than it does to the work of the original greats. Rarely confining himself to a straight 12-bar, but always investing his songs with ringing solos and a mighty voodoo bark, Campbell has produced a vivid, noisy album pitched squarely at the niche recently exposed in the rock market by Gary Moore. Purists beware. - Reviewed by David Sinclair
Washington Post, February 26, 1993, Section: WEEKEND Edition: FINAL Page: n12
DENNIS WALKER, who has produced and co-written many of Robert Cray's songs, has formed a similar collaboration with Louisiana's John Campbell. This partnership's second album, "Howlin Mercy," is a decided improvement over the first as Campbell slowly learns the value of restraint. He still spoils some numbers by oversinging, but when he keeps his vocals within the boundaries of the groove and the story, Campbell's spectacular slide guitar work and Walker's blues tales are impressive indeed.
Campbell is backed by an electrified blues trio, but he himself plays acoustic and steel guitars with an unmistakably rural feel. He has such command of slide technique that he's able to play emotional embellishments without ever losing his firm grip on a song's melody and rhythm.
"Howlin Mercy" begins badly with needlessly excessive treatments of one original and the Memphis Minnie/Led Zeppelin tune "When the Levee Breaks." The album rights itself with a nicely understated version of Tom Waits's "Down in the Hole," which suits Campbell's gravelly, world-weary voice perfectly. Several fine Walker-Campbell compositions follow, including the Cray-like up-tempo R&B numbers "Look What Love Can Do" and "Firin' Line," and the brooding "Love's Name" and "Written in Stone." Geoffrey Himes
Copyright 1993 Washington Post
Le Soleil, February 27, 1993 p C5
With the fresh Howlin Mercy, John Campbell has just fullfilled all the hopes generated by his last album, One Believer. This is a pure feast for blues rock and slide guitar lovers!
With a raucous voice, sulphurous lyrics, a killer look, and an unleashed chainsaw slide guitar, Campbell seems to have sold his soul to the devil! Hard to resist to his slow blues or his blues rock, like Ain�t Afraid Of Midnight, where the musician rocks to his heart�s content.
Listen to his version of Tom Waits� Down in the hole (you can imagine the voice!) or Love�s Name - thrills guaranteed. His remake of the song When The Levee Breaks of Led Zeppelin stands on its own. - Michel Bilodeau
This article was originally published in French and has been translated by Jacques Dulac. Original French
Copyright 1993 Le Soleil
Pittsburgh Post Gazette, February 12, 1993
JOHN CAMPBELL, HOWLIN MERCY (ELEKTRA), three stars
Stevie Ray Vaughan has been playing for the heaven band more than two years now, and the man (or woman) who can match licks with him has yet to surface down here on Earth.
John Campbell comes close. In fact, considering his otherworldly references, this veteran Louisiana bluesman might even be in touch with SRV. Understand, Campbell is a bit theatrical, surrounding himself with the iconography of voodoo. His dark worldview makes gloom rockers like Morrisey and Robert Smith seem curable.
"Howlin Mercy," his second record, begins with Campbell dancing in the graveyard. With the band grinding on "Ain't Afraid of Midnight," Campbell hollers in his best Tom Waits, "When the reaper comes/he best be packin' heat!" Campbell's ax, like Vaughan's, goes for the jugular (at a recent Rosebud gig, the volume had people plastered to the back wall). Though in comparing the pyrotechnics, it's worth mentioning that Campbell has a rhythm guitarist, whereas Stevie was alone.
Led Zeppelin fans will thrill to the voodoo man's monster version of "When the Levee Breaks," in which he finds that song's closer connection to the blues. And Campbell can't let a tune like Waits' "Down in the Hole," a dance with the devil, go by uncovered. The traditional "Saddle Up My Pony" reveals some rare delicate stylings, before he sends it into a full gallop. As does the mournful "Love's Name," which puts a black X on that sentiment.
"Howlin Mercy" runs out of ideas before it's over, but if you're starved for dirty blues, have a dance with this savage.
Copyright 1993 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Excerpt from: King of the White Blues by Mark Jacobson
Esquire, July 1993, p 29
But now that SRV is gone, who's left?
Well a bunch of dudes, dude. Of the more visible candidates (relatively speaking in this mutant genre) John Campbell whose Howlin Mercy is out on Elektra, is pushing hard, but he's into this bogeyman thing, all clanky with graveyard bedsheet-waving leavened by nary a walk on gilded splinters. It's like Screaming Jay Hawkins without the wink.
Copyright 1993 Esquire
Excerpt from: Bluesman Makes Comeback by Steven Rosen
Denver Post, May 7, 1993, p 24
At heart, John Campbell is an acoustic blues musician who loves the National steel guitar. But he has nevertheless adapted to electricity. "Howlin Mercy," on Elektra Records, features him on acoustic and electric with band. But either way, his musical approach is to play with ominous fury and sing in a gravely baritone as if a knife is embedded in his back.
The vocal intensity is unrelenting - too calculatedly unrelenting, I think. Campbell's singing bored me by record's end. But his versions of Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks" and Tom Waits' "Down in the Hole" are unforgettable.
Copyright 1993 Denver Post
Excerpt from: Recordings On Review by Dave Larsen
Dayton Daily News, February 19, 1993, p 16
Blues legend Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in Mississippi in exchange for his unnatural talent. John Campbell may have struck a similar bargain.
The gravel-voiced Louisiana guitarist's first album, 1991's One Believer, was one of the most authentic sounding Delta blues releases in recent memory, and his latest, Howlin Mercy, more than delivers on its dark promise. Masterfully playing bottleneck slide on a National steel guitar and singing in a deep and throaty growl, Campbell sounds like a throwback to Johnson's era, reveling in the malevolent side of blues mythology. "I taught the hellhound to sit/ I cheated Satan playing cards," he sinisterly intones on the recording's opening track, Ain't Afraid of Midnight, staring down death with the defiant refrain: "When the Reaper comes/ He best be packing heat."
Supported by a powerful rhythm section, Campbell similarly challenges his blues-rock contemporaries by reworking Led Zeppelin's When the Levee Breaks back to its traditional blues roots, showing no mercy, and playing as if he were battling for his soul.
Copyright 1993 Cox Ohio Publishing
Newsday, February 21, 1993 pg 23
`Howlin Mercy' John Campbell (Elektra) - John Campbell spends entirely too much time on his new album " Howlin Mercy" proving he's got the devil in his soul. Literally. Demonic possession may be among the most respected of blues credentials, but Campbell really shouldn't be so immodest about it. With a vocal quality that often sounds like the result of gargling with baling wire and razor blades, Campbell can get down and dirty with the best of them, although he's often too self-consciously raspy. "Ain't Afraid of Midnight," just one of his satanic verses, and "Down in the Hole" by Tom Waits (who's a choirboy next to Campbell), wouldn't have suffered from restraint. "Written in Stone," on the other hand, and "Love's Name" show what Campbell can do when he reins himself in. The Texas-Louisiana singer-guitarist is a first-rate bottleneck player, although there's too little of that here. He's also a student-exponent of a very traditional blues sound, although he's obviously not afraid to consort with the dark side: "When the Levee Breaks," is compliments of Led Zeppelin, the Beast of blues bands. - John Anderson
Copyright 1993 Newsday
Jazz & Blues Report, March 1993, Issue 179
Utilizing a dark, severe persona rooted in voodoo culture and a raw, primitive sound, blues-rocker John Campbell embraces, perhaps, more of his early environmental influences than does Benoit.
The essential instrumental sound of Howlin� Mercy is a bluesy roots-rock guitar-bass-and-drums mix with enough of an edge to serve as the extension of Campbell�s lyrical intensity. The opening jam, �Ain�t Afraid Of Midnight,� provides an excellent example of this. The playing, if not brilliant, has plenty of drive and sets a scene adequately supportive of the �graveyard� imagery contained in the lyrics.
Vocally, Campbell is a fierce, low growler not unlike Tom Waits. This similarity gets played to its ultimate on Campbell�s rendition of Waits� �Down In The Hole,� the instrumental arrangement of which evokes the spirit of yet one more master of dark atmospherics, Chris Isaak. Besides �Hole,� the most satisfying vocal performances also feature Campbell on acoustic steel guitar. By name, they are �When The Levee Breaks,� which is Campbell�s adaptation of Led Zeppelin�s adaptation of a traditional blues, and another traditional piece, �Saddle Up My Pony,� which ends in a nice little boogie jam.
Campbell�s �hoodoo man� image might prove to be a bit much for some, for it leaves little room for lightening up. Perhaps, as with any theatre, what is required is some �suspension of disbelief.� Cut Campbell some artistic slack and you might find Howlin� Mercy one of the best mood pieces of 1993. By Duane Verh
Copyright 1993 Jazz and Blues Report
Excerpt from: Lynyrd Skynyrd down to the Last Rebel but still rockin' by Lynn Saxberg
The Ottawa Citizen. Ottawa, Ont.: Feb 27, 1993. p. F.3
Texas bluesman John Campbell has created a fine, uncluttered blues album with his second solo release.
But even on the most basic tune -- take his sparse arrangement of the traditional Saddle Up My Pony as an example -- the nuances in Campbell's distinctive playing style and growling vocals keep you listening.
Campbell's voice sounds like a combination of Long John Baldry, John Lee Hooker and Tom Waits. In fact, Campbell covers one of Waits's songs here -- Down in the Hole from the recent Bone Machine disc.
It's one of the few tracks that features any augmentation beyond the basic guitars-bass-drums lineup that forms the foundation of Campbell's music. Here, Elvin Diablo provides voodoo percussion by shaking bones, beads and a coyote skull, keeping the spooky mood of Waits's song intact.
Another interesting cover song is Campbell's gritty version of Led Zeppelin's When The Levee Breaks. It's slower, deeper and moodier than the Zep arrangement.
Campbell shows his range on this disc by performing everything from quiet, Delta-style numbers such as Love's Name to powerful blues-rockers like Look What Love Can Do. A captivating live performer, the guitarist has successfully translated his talents to the studio, which is a difficult task for many artists.
Copyright 1993 Ottawa Citizen
Terry Mikesell, Cincinnati Post, 1993
Campbell's singing can kindly be described as a growl. His guitar-playing is only fair. And his version of "When the Levee Breaks" will have Zeppelin fans howlin' for mercy.
Copyright 1993 Cincinnati Post
Peter Howell, Toronto Star, January 30, 1993 p 12
John Campbell Howlin' Mercy (Elektra): One wants to like bred-in-the-bone bluesman John Campbell, and that's no problem at all in the case of his superior slide guitar playing, which compensates for his vocal limitations. His hard-bitten credentials for the blues seem good on paper, being filled with tales of living in bus depots and dodging flying bottles on stage. But nobody ever said playing the blues would be easy, and Campbell has got to do better than just warm over the usual cliches about rattlesnakes, tough women and staring the devil down.
Copyright 1993 Toronto Star
Robert Christagau, Village Voice, Nov. 23, 1993
JOHN CAMPBELL, Howlin Mercy (Elektra) - This white bluesman paid his dues on the Gulf Coast circuit, then moved to New York and went electric. Shortly after he released his second album, his fatal heart attack attracted as much attention as his music ever had. Given his loose talk of teaching hellhounds to sit and keeping the devil in his hole, some wondered piously whether he'd made a pact with the unnamable. More likely he just drank too much. C
Copyright 1993 Village Voice
Paul Verna, Chris Morris, and Edward Morris, Billboard, February 13, 1993, p 47
Veteran blues traveler cuts to the bone on his second recording, which finds him equally at home in solo mode and with band. Lacerating originals like "Ain't Afraid of Midnight," "Written In Stone," and Wolf Among the Lambs," hold their ground alongside such covers as blues standard "Saddle Up My Pony," Led Zep classic "When the Levee Breaks," and Tom Waits "Down in the Hole" - an appropriate choice given the two artists' compatible vocal and writing approaches. Genuine, important, and compelling.
Copyright 1993 Billboard
Mark Gallo, Blues Access, Summer 1993, p 34
Major labels aren't really my bag. Every once in a while I finagle something out of them, and even less often it's something that matters. John Campbell matters. He's not only one of the most distinct blues singers to come down the line in ages, he's one of the most unusual and (outrageously impressive) guitarists I've heard.
Campbell's version of "When the Levee Breaks" is at once true to and worlds apart from the Led Zeppelin staple. I mean, this man just goes off on a guitar tear that's terrifying. Outside the traditional "Saddle Up My Pony" and a drop dead killer version of Tom Wait's "Down in the Hole," the material here is all original, with producer Dennis Walker copping co-writer credits, much as he did with young Robert Cray.
Campbell is no Cray, though. He has a voice that falls between Waits and Howlin Wolf. His guitar playing doesn't so much entice as it cajoles - hell, it grabs your ears by the lapels and shakes you up and slaps you around. The total package of John Campbell doesn't sound like anyone. And I swear I don't remember the last brand new, fresh, original and ass kicking rock and blues guitarist to hit the scene. The man is a monster. - Mark Gallo
Copyright 1993 Blues Access
Mark Schlesinger, Columbus Blues Alliance, September/October, 1993, p 8
This is the real stuff! Slide Guitarist John Campbell successfully merges the power and mystique of the Mississippi Delta with the aggression of hard rock - not as easy as it looks.
On Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks" (also credited to Led Zeppelin), Campbell slowly struts his stuff. The Tom Waits tune, "Down in the Hole," features American Indian percussion and eerie guitar/vocal interplay.
"Firin Line," an original, gives Campbell a chance to cut loose with some fast licks while he gets just a bit funky on "Wiseblood." Charlie Patton's "Saddle Up My Pony," sums up the CD best - a superb blend of personality, tradition and rock raunch. - Mark Schlesinger.
Copyright 1993 Columbus Blues Alliance
Folk Roots, Vol 119, May 1993
The third album from this Louisiana-born white bluesman is his most powerful and convincing yet and is particularly interesting because it seems to avoid the repetitious traps which make many worthy blues records rather dull. Campbell reckons the reason this is more muscular than its promising predecessor, One Believer, is that he and his band (Zonder Kennedy on guitar and the driving rhythm section of Jimmy Pettit and Davis McLarty that powered Joe Ely's band on his Liberty Lunch album) had road tested this material on 200 gigs last year - if Stevie Ray Vaughn is regarded as a major loss, Campbell seems ready to outdo him, and few would dare to make such a ferocious album.
He's a gruff vocalist with an image which invokes both Robert Johnson and Dr. John (unholy voodoo hellhounds, Batman!) Seven of the ten tracks on this 55-minute album were written by Campbell and producer Dennis Walker (of Robert Cray fame) with help from the aforementioned Kennedy, including several which recall the swamp-rock sound of Credence Clearwater, like Firin' Line and Written in Stone. The three other tracks are probably the ones which will turn heads, though - When the Levee Breaks by Memphis Minnie via Led Zeppelin (it's on their fourth album) sounds excellent and Down in the Hole, a Tom Waits song on which Campbell utilizes a device which he describes as a stick with a coyote's skull tied to it, is nicely spooky.
The traditional Saddle Up My Pony is a three-part epic - Charley Patton slide guitar followed by electric country blues ending with a headlong race to the end.
This is an exceptionally good album, and those who incorrectly decided to regard Campbell as nothing special last time around are earnestly requested to check this one out - it's certainly not an album that can be easily dismissed.
Copyright 1993 Folk Roots
Entertainment Weekly, February 5,1993
JOHN CAMPBELL Howlin' Mercy (Elektra) - One quality that has been at a real premium among the newer blues performers is the old Delta menace, but Louisianan John Campbell sounds awfully convincing telling the grim reaper he "better be packin' heat" on the dead-raising "Ain't Afraid of Midnight." His slashing slide-guitar playing is as frightening as his growl, and even when he's singing ballads, Campbell is still one tough mojo-handed hombre. B+ - Billy Altman
Copyright 1993 Entertainment Weekly
Musician, February, 1993, p 91
John Campbell is a 40 something white blues singer with a rough insinuating voice, a full-tilt guitar style, a ton of attitude and enough doomy conviction and lived-in chops to breathe some life into the genre's noble cliches. On his Elektra debut One Believer he came on like a natural, backed by a changing trio, sometimes keyboard, sometimes another guitar, essentially a triad with a rocker's edge. On Howlin' his follow-up, the edge moves closer to the center; he sticks to the dual guitar approach, covers Led Zep instead of Elmore James and generally carries on like a performer determined to be heard.
Not a sell-out, it's just an adjustment. The Zep cover, "When the Levee Breaks," sounds more authentic than the original, as well as less over the top (natch) - not that the band doesn't give it a full barrel shot, cranking out the orgiastic ear candy for guitar lovers. But it's unforced. Campbell rocks with the same affinity for the form with which he plugs into the kozmic blues; the solo on his "Look What Love Can Do" (Campbell's co-writer here, as on his debut, is his producer Dennis Walker) could be a primer on how to do the short raunch guitar spot - start out climactic, shift to delirious, then stop. "Aint Afraid of Midnight" and "Written In Stone" are gritty updated blues, kicked out and nailed down by Campbell and his co-guitarist Zonder Kennedy. "Down in the Hole" is a Tom Waits song, and though Campbell's croak is about a silo full of Lucky Strikes short of Waits' raspy godawfulness, he slips the song on like a glove and wails.
This is good gruff fun, but the album's centerpiece is the public-domain "Saddle Up My Pony," which Campbell easily milks for every gnarled nuance. On balance, his set is still probably too pumped-up and mod/taut for purists; those who prefer their blues/rock with some bite and sans additives should like it just fine. - Richard C. Walls
Copyright 1993 Musician Magazine
Popular Music and Society, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1993, p 111-2
Singer/songwriter/guitarist John Campbell strives to manufacture a malevolent atmosphere throughout Howlin Mercy. His six-string guitar vibrates tension; his voice alternately whispers terror and growls rage. The song lyrics echo the power of voodoo (�Ain�t Afraid of Midnight�), the evil of the devil, (�Down in the Hole�) and the ongoing battles between decent folks and creatures of the night.
While claiming blues roots to Buddy Guy and Memphis Minnie (�When the Levee Breaks�), Campbell sounds more like Omar Dykes and Charlie Feathers. The thematic flesh may be willing, but the spirits of Dr. John, Screamin� Jay Hawkins, The Neville Brothers and other spell-casting spellbinders don�t leap from this CD. At times, Campbell�s vocal snarling resembles a poor imitation of Howlin Wolf. Even the weird acknowledgements to Elvin Diablo, High John the Conqueror, Snake, Blind Willie Lobster and Ready Teddy hint either at insecurity or camp.
Howlin Mercy deserves to be better. Someone needs to urge Campbell to stop gargling his words. Audibility is a virtue, particularly when terror is the goal. Just ask Vincent Price. The fine guitar playing and persistent drumming need to be more carefully balanced against the vocalizing as well. Illustrations from three blues Kings � Albert, B.B., and Freddie � are readily available to demonstrate the call-and-response pattern of effective singing and playing. Finally, thoughtful and serious editing needs to be applied to many of the overly extended tunes. Even Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt know that two many five-minute-plus endeavors wear thin on studio disc.
Hopefully, Campbell will continue to pursue wicked wonders, garish gargoyles and evil-eyed demons on future releases. But Elektra producers need to assert that marketability and artistry can be mutually beneficial aims. Maybe Campbell should even consider recording a few blues mix classics such as �evil,� �I Ain�t Superstitious,� or �Moanin� at Midnight� along with his own compositions. Just a thought. - B. Lee Cooper � College of Great Falls
Copyright 1993 Popular Music and Society
The Grand Rapids Press, Feb 10, 1993
After Stevie Ray Vaughan's death in August 1990, there really has been no blues guitarist who has appealed to both the blues and rock fan. The Arc Angles have succeeded as a group, but no individual has stepped forward to give the music industry a rock-blues voice the way Vaughan did.
Enter John Campbell, a slide player with a husky voice who is destined for great things.
His potential is evident throughout his second Elektra album, "Howlin Mercy," which was just released last week.
Right from the opening track, "Ain't Afraid of Midnight," Campbell brings forth the same intensity that Vaughan delivered on stage every night.
Watch out for this guy! (Campbell performs Feb. 19 in Martini's. Admission is free.) � John D. Gonzalez
Copyright 1993 Grand Rapids Press
Southland Blues, June 1993, p 13
On John Campbell's previous Elektra release, the Howlin' Wolf cliches seemed a bit thick - you could spread'em with plasticware. This time out on Howlin Mercy - despite the title - Campbell's beginning to get somewhere.
Maybe the band's tighter, the tunes better picked, or there's less voodoo nonsense, whatever. Once you get past the hokum, Campbell's a helluva slide player, and this time he mostly sticks with this strenghth. Take for instance "Saddle Up My Pony," witha vocal that might even embarrass Screamin' Jay Hawkins (if anything could). Just about the time you reach for the reject, Campbell shuts up an lets loose with some terrific bottleneck.
This is progress. Howlin Mercy doesn't cut Dave Hole's brilliant Short Fuse Blues (Alligator) or Chris Whitley's Living With the Law (Columbia), to mention two other guitarists who debuted last year, but there's more than just rhinestones in the rough here. - Bill Wasserzieher
Copyright 1993 Southland Blues
On the bandstand and in the studio, John Campbell gives no quarter. In the spirit of Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker, Campbell's latest album, Howlin' Mercy, is rough and tumble stuff, mighty, rockin' blues.
Whether he's singing about dancing in a bone yard or staring a cobra down, you get the feeling he's been there. In fact, this magnificently moody album must have been recorded in a graveyard next to a train yard at midnight.
Campbell's deep, menacing voice rumbles through Howlin' Mercy like a small earthquake. It's not pretty, and it's not supposed to be. Formerly of Shreveport, Campbell co-wrote most of Howlin' Mercy, and its ragged edges and dark humor fit him like a favorite bottleneck slide.
Like his one-of-a-kind voice, Campbell's raucous slide and straight guitar playing burn from one end of Howlin' Mercy to the other. Campbell's raw-boned, spontaneous playing flies and pops out of his electrified acoustic guitar. His playing also can turn sweet and smooth. Either way, it's the real twang.
Opening track "Ain't Afraid of Midnight" finds the singer-guitarist bragging about his fearless nature. "When the reaper comes, he better be packing heat," he growls. A less fierce track is "Look What Love Can Do," a humorous tale about a tough guy who turns slightly less tough after finding a new love.
Besides its fine originals, Howlin' Mercy offers appropriate covers, including a rootsy version of "When the Levee Breaks" and a deliciously spooky take on Tom Waits' "Down in the Hole."
The devil, Jesus and angels all come into play in "Down in the Hole." While Campbell's busy working his bluesy magic, the song gets an atmospheric boost from the "ceremonial shaking" of a coyote skull, bones, beads, bags feathers and snake rattles by a guest artist identified as Elvin Diablo.
John Campbell performs with Buddy Guy and Sonny Landreth April 30 at the LSU Assembly Center.
Copyright 1993 Baton Rouge Advocate
Guitar Player, Issue 282, Vol. 27 (No. 6) p 16-17
Electrifying his gravelly country blues was simple for John Campbell. Instead of making the Muddy-approved leap from Stella to Tele, Campbell just slapped a Barcus-Berry pickup on his National Duolian and got a sound like Charlie Patton on 11. Add a jackhammer rhythm section (bassist Jimmy Pettit, drummer Davis McLarty) and Stevie Ray inspired lead player Zonder Kennedy, and you�ve got the foundation forth mean stone blues of Howlin Mercy, Campbell�s second Elektra release.
�Last year our job, man was to show up and slam it down,� enthuses the imposing Campbell. �We did 230 cities, so this music has road muscle on it.� He�s right. Monster grooves support Campbell�s ferocious vocals, while extended versions of Memphis Minnie�s �When the Levee Breaks,� Patton�s �Saddle Up My Pony,� and the original �Wolf Among the Lambs,� highlight the power of his hoodoo slide. Piped through a Fender Twin, the shivering overtones of his 1934 Duolian create an edgy, out of phase sting that�s Strat-like, but heavier. His swelling chords move lots of air.
While Campbell hasn�t always played with a band, he�s always been dead serious about blues guitar. After a teenage drag racing accident left him bandaged from head to toe with plenty of time to listen to records, he met the power of the blues and became a disciple. �It was the solo artists I most related to,� he recalls. �Son House, Lightnin� Hopkins, Mississippi Fred McDowell, early John Lee Hooker. These men spent major portions of their lives developing their craft. I view these guys as seriously as I would a Segovia or a Montoya. Their music requires that kind of commitment.�
Along the way, Campbell�s pursuit of this commitment has been tempered with good advice. �In my twenties,� he remembers, �I opened up solo for Gatemouth Brown. After the show he told me, �Son, you play real good blues, but you make the guitar holler all the time. If you don�t make it whisper too, you�re nothin� but a loudmouth.� - Gregory Isola
Copyright 1993 Guitar Player