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Courtesy Jefferson Center
The Campbell Brothers
Thursday, February 21, 2013
Where “Sacred Steel” guitar music is concerned, it all begins with the groove.
Steel guitar, played in a funky, bluesy, vocal style that is almost nothing like country music, gets the spotlight. But practically everyone who comes to that instrument starts out playing drums on Sundays at House of God Church Keith Dominion congregations.
The Campbell Brothers, who play Jefferson Center on Friday night, are a solid example. Pedal steel player Chuck Campbell, 55, started out on drums, even playing the church’s national convocation one year. His lap steel-playing brother, Darick , 46, was the most talented drummer in the family, according to brother Phil Campbell, 50, the band’s guitarist.
“The value of starting out on drums, it gives you that rhythmic foundation that says, you know, everything builds from there,” Phil Campbell said by phone on Monday from the band’s home base in the Rochester, N.Y., area. “I think that’s one of the things that helps make our music be so vibrant and something that truly can be improvised around, because you have that solid rhythmic foundation to build on that allows you to explore and do different things with the music.”
Phil Campbell’s son, Carlton, 28, is the band’s drummer. He was 12 when he first started recording with The Campbell Brothers.
“When my son Carlton came along, I thought he’d want to play guitar like his old man,” Phil Campbell said. “But he idolized his uncle [Darick] and wanted to play drums.”
Phil Campbell gets his licks in, too.
“The brothers are generous in that respect, but make no mistake, they are lead guitars,” he said, chuckling. “But again, the important thing, and I think one of the things that makes The Campbell Brothers unique is that we are all about connecting to the audience ... and ultimately connecting to the higher power and uplifting that audience.
“ That’s why a Campbell Brothers show almost invariably is never the same.”
A singing instrument
The Campbell Brothers’ slide-driven steel antics get plenty of flavor from the singers onstage. Tiffany Godette and Denise Brown bring lots of gospel goodness. In fact, the genre’s beginning came from its originator’s attempt to copy the voices singing in church, Campbell said.
Another set of brothers, Troman and Willie Eason of Philadelphia, tried to learn the Hawaiian slack key-style of steel guitar in the 1930s. Troman was able to learn the style, but Willie, who could only sneak behind Troman to play his guitar, could not master it.
His failure to learn slack key playing led to the instrument’s key advance in the Keith Dominion church.
“ Once Willie got his own instrument, he took the instrument to church and instead of playing Hawaiian slack key-style in the services, he started mimicking the voices of the Pentacostal service,” Campbell said. “So that’s where the slurs and the moans and all those things [began].
“And when people heard the instrument do that, they were captivated by that sound, and from there, Willie’s legend was born.”
He converted the mimicry to songs from the church’s tradition. Willie Eason and the Talking Guitar was born as an act. He played convocations in the South, where most of the Keith Dominion churches were.
Campbell said that black migrations northward in the 1960s brought his family, among others, to places like Rochester, where they planted their own traditions. The brothers were born after their parents, Bishop Charles and Naomi Campbell, moved there.
“My father was one of the hugest fans of sacred steel music,” he said. “Even though he never could play a lick himself, he always invested in us ... to make sacrifices, along with our mother, to get us the best instruments they could provide, for us to play this music.
“And it was always his dream that we be great musicians, in this tradition.”
Church on the road
The Campbells built their act by playing the services at their church in Rochester. But about 2005, the church sued Phil, Chuck and their father on claims that the family had abused nonprofit funds that it had commissioned to the Campbells for a DVD, an album, a book and other projects, according to The Boston Globe.
A judge threw out the suit four years later, but it cost the Campbells about $275,000. The family quit going to the church where the brothers had grown up playing.
“I think all of us, as a result of that whole episode, did a re-examination of how we want to proceed forward with church organizations ,” Phil Campbell said. “We’ve all got different takes on what that would mean. My brothers don’t necessarily even belong to a church at this point, but I do attend a church regularly.”
There are still plenty of requests to play around Rochester, he said, though “there is no home church that we would be every Sunday like it was in the past.”
So it’s church on the road for this band, and it doesn’t matter to the brothers if you consider yourself a sinner or a wannabe saint.
“Our philosophy is that we’re sharing our way of praising God .... and invariably what we get is people walking away saying, ‘I feel better than when I came here. I was tired and I was worn out. Now I just feel energized,’ Campbell said.
“That’s the greatest compliment you can pay — I felt something. When someone says that after one of our shows, that’s when we know we’ve connected, and that’s what we’re really trying to do.”
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