|Campbell Brothers - Can You Feel It?|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Charles Andrews|
|Tuesday, 21 June 2005|
Oh, that’s a relief. I was feeling like such a stooge for having discovered sacred steel only three or four years ago. I’m pretty sure it was through some reference made by the dynamic steel guitarist Robert Randolph, hardly a household name himself yet, but he’s toured and jammed with Eric Clapton and Santana, Stevie Wonder and Prince are requesting his collaboration, and Rolling Stone recently named him one of the 100 best guitarists of all time. Not bad for a guy in his mid-20s who was only playing in church just a few years ago.
That church is the House of God in Orange, N.J., and if you drive due northwest to upstate New York, near Rochester, to the House of God Church in Rush, N.Y., you’ll find the Campbell Brothers (brother Chuck gave Robert his first steel guitar) enrapturing services, supreme practitioners of a musical tradition that goes back six decades in the Pentecostal church, but which nobody took out of the church into the world until the Campbells emerged in the mid-‘90s, touring churches and secular venues and releasing recordings. So as far as the world’s discovery of this amazing musical genre, I wasn’t too far behind. It’s not a matter of being musically hip; I just couldn’t stand the thought that this had been around all my life and I had missed out on it. Turns out I don’t even have that much catching up to do. I’ll be on the lookout for more sacred steel, but the feeling I have is if you’ve heard Randolph and the Campbells, you’ve heard the best.
As much as I love Robert Randolph and the Family Band, the Campbell Brothers just slay me. Maybe it’s because Randolph has made a few more concessions to secularizing his music, but the Campbell Brothers pretty much take you to church and leave you there until you’re wiped out. So why this enthusiasm for church music, from the same reviewer who dumped on Jaci Velasquez and her religiously oriented album a couple months ago?
The greatest music, from Bach to U2, is emotional, and what’s more emotional and heartfelt than a person’s relationship with their God? (Yeah, yeah, the guy-girl thing aside.) I guess it’s my personal prejudice, but I feel that emotion would by definition be a joyous one, that when a person is genuinely in touch with their relationship to the divine, when they are transcendently feeling it and experiencing it, it ain’t gonna come out all morose and weepy and pitiful, it’s going to come out dancing and singing and shouting, or at least with a pervasive sense of joy and a big fat grin that won’t wipe off. Like what you hear on this record – Amen! And here’s the really good part: the music is so infused with this wailing, spinning, clapping dancing joy that even an atheist can be uplifted. Pick it up, y’all!!
A little background is revelatory here. Way back when, many of the Houses of God couldn’t afford an organ so they turned to the pedal steel guitar, originally a Hawaiian invention, at that time most associated with country music. But somebody noticed how well a pedal steel could be made to mimic the human voice. The call and response of slave field hands that turned into the blues had become a musical prayer foundation of many black congregations, so the pedal and lap steel were put to work, and even without a human voice to give expression, the steel guitar’s wails and moans spoke clearly to the congregants.
Can You Feel It? mixes vocal numbers with instrumentals, but always
featuring the dazzling work of Chuck Campbell on pedal steel, with Darick on lap steel, Phil on guitar and his son Carlton (first recorded at age 13) on drums, with Malcolm Kirby, bass, being the token non-Campbell in the band. Childhood friend Denise Brown very soulfully handles the vocals, as she has for years, and producer John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin and Wood) adds nicely understated organ flourishes on half the numbers that always respect the music that’s there and add to it without altering its nature. That’s a good, a wise, producer/session player. A funny note: there’s some wild syncopated handclapping that is so precise I thought it was done with some percussion instrument, but the album notes credit “Handclaps – All Of Us – except John and Malcolm ‘cause they couldn’t stay in time ...” Oh, the white shame!
My only other Campbell Brothers album at this time, my introduction to them, is Sacred Steel on Tour!, and my memory was that it was more electrifying than Can You Feel It? – which would be hard to believe for anyone who picks up Feel It as their intro to the Brothers. There is a difference between the two, but it would seem Medeski’s influence may have brought some diversity, some polish, some subtle complexity that On Tour lacked, all of it a plus. And after repeated listenings I find no energy difference between the two. Definitely, you should pick up Sacred Steel On Tour! and listen first to just the opening number, “Thank Ya’,” nearly eight minutes taken from a church service that might have gone on for another couple of hours, they just faded it out at eight. Play it for your friends, ask for their full attention and listening, and if eight minutes later their jaw is not on the floor and their eyes spinning, take their pulse ‘cause they must be dead.
Can You Feel It? has some less-than-90-mph numbers, but there’s never any lack of intensity, nor certainly of feeling. Oddly, where many groups might turn the so-familiar “Amazing Grace” into a barn burner, and it would seem like a perfect vehicle for the steel guitars to just blaze, the Campbell Brothers slow it way down, to gorgeous effect. “Native Praise” is a little odd, with its clichéd, some would say insulting, ‘30s-Hollywood “Indian” refrain, and the last number, “No Mo’ One Mo’,” 13-plus minutes of actually two songs, separated by half a minute of dead air (there we go again!), could be called throwaways – but only in the context of the rest of Feel It. “Native” gets a little jazzy, and “No Mo’” is a slow blues that turns into a faster, country shuffle blues as “One Mo’,” and if either one of them were my first listen to the Campbell Brothers, I would be droolingly hooked.
About 20 seconds into the opening number, “Frammin’,” you’re going to start composing in your head (the one that’s bouncing uncontrollably) the email of inconceivable thanks you’ll want to send me for turning you on to these guys. But I demur. We only have Jesus to thank.
The sound of three wailing, dueling guitars has got to be kind of murky, even if you’re recording them with crystalline clarity. It’s the nature of the beast. But producer Medeski did well to keep a low-tech feel that complements the churchy foundation. While Robert Randolph sounds great with studio polish, he sort of has a foot in both worlds, but the Campbell Brothers would floor me if they ever went pop. So much of Feel It is rough musically, in a careening sort of way that’s never a fraction off the mark, it’s just that the marks are created moment by moment. Carlton Campbell will probably be a much better drummer by the time he’s 30, but for now his simple, clunky beats are kept right down the middle, mix-wise, which is where they belong. A lot of the ambient percussive sounds have that tinny, clunky thunk, maybe a little too rough, but it helps make Can You Feel It? a question the recording answers without equivocation.
For a special treat, go to their website and look at the video. And don’t blame me if it stops your heart.