GrassRoots at 30: The Campbell Brothers continue to lift every voice
If anyone has needed the healing and uplifting powers of gospel and the sacred-steel guitars of The Campbell Brothers, it’s been The Campbell Brothers themselves.
There was the acrimonious split with their church over the band’s taking the sacred-steel sound outside of the House of God Pentecostal. And spreading the word, literally, around the world. Audiences of German and Chinese people grooving to the wailing, upbeat, soul-filling music that originated in the Black church.
Music that would only be silenced by COVID. And right on its heels, perhaps even related to it, silenced by the death of one of the three brothers, Darick Campbell.
This joyous, spiritual Rochester group -- one that had once been called onstage to play by The Allman Brothers Band, a group that knew spiritual when it heard it -- was reduced to playing a mere five or six gigs the last couple of years.
The Campbell Brothers’ return has been an uncertain path. Phil Campbell says last year “looked like it was going to be a recovery year, but then COVID spiked back up. So a number of things that we were scheduled for, like the New Orleans jazz festival, we ended up being rescheduled.”
The Campbells made the most of their opportunity to play that prestigious stage this year.
“The performance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival was very well-received by the audience,” Phil says in what seems to be an understated review of the band’s typically rapturous live show. “So I think we’re working our way through it.”
Yet there is much work yet to be done.
As the summer concert scene unfolds beneath the still-visible shadow of COVID, the Campbells have two shows this week: At the Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music & Dance in Trumansburg at 8:30 p.m. Friday, and on the Dawn Lipson Canalside Stage at the Louis S. Wolk JCC of Greater Rochester at 7 p.m. Sunday. The band is Phil on electric guitar, brother Chuck on pedal steel, their cousin Denise Brown on vocals, Phil’s son Carlton on drums and Daric Bennett on bass.
The Campbell Brothers grew up on Ripley Street in the shadow of their Rochester church on North Goodman Street. Their father, Bishop Charles Campbell, was the pastor before moving with a portion of that congregation to Rush in 1998 to found a new church. The soundtrack to the services was sacred-steel music, which in the African-American House of God goes back to the 1930s, when the steel guitar was introduced as an alternative to the church organ.
The music is a church tradition, and it is woven into the family fabric. Over the last couple of difficult years, if there were ideas that The Campbell Brothers would not continue, they were fleeting thoughts, hardly worth considering.
“I think we definitely committed to going forward,” Chuck says. “The biggest thing is dealing with…”
He pauses over their incalculable loss.
“Darick’s very missed.”
Darick Campbell’s lap-steel guitar was the fire “if we wanted to go and just light things up,” Phil says. “We could just bring Darick forward and have him do that.”
He calls his brother “a creative space.” In 2012, Chuck and Darick signed on with the sacred-steel supergroup The Slide Brothers and played on the Experience Hendrix Tour, celebrating the music of Jimi Hendrix alongside the likes of Chuck’s former protégé Robert Randolph, Buddy Guy, Keb’ Mo’, Dweezil Zappa, Taj Mahal and Bootsy Collins. The Slide Brothers also released an album and took the exuberant sound to mainstream audiences via “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
That’s the creative space The Campbell Brothers were moving in. Darick had ideas. If the band was going to cover “A Change is Gonna Come,” don’t do the Sam Cooke original, do the Al Green version.
But two years ago, complications from heart surgery caught up with the 53-year-old Darick. An infection settled into his leg; a foot had to be amputated. “He had the procedure, he was doing fine, we were looking at rehab facilities when he was discharged,” Phil says. “Three or four days later, we got a call, he was on a ventilator.
“What does a ventilator have to do with the fact he had an operation on his leg?”
Phil believes that his brother was an early victim of COVID.
The impact on the band has been profound. Chuck and Phil take on what had once been Darick’s parts. He had what Phil calls “signature pieces,” songs such as “A Change is Gonna Come,” and “End of My Journey.”
But now, as Phil notes, “We almost have no desire to play them, though Chuck is capable of playing them, just because of sentimental reasons.”
Yet we have, at least in part for sentimental reasons, an ambitious project such as a Campbell Brothers version of John Coltrane’s masterpiece album, “A Love Supreme.” Recorded live in Amsterdam in 2015, it was released last year.
“It really brings back memories of Darick,” Chuck says. “So I’m really proud of it.”
There has been some healing going on here. The Campbells’ relationship with the church is “in the process of being healed,” Phil says. Under new leadership, the church’s goal now is “reaching out to former members and invite them back home.” The band has even played at the last two House of God Pentecostal national conventions in Nashville.
And the Campbells are creating new music, closing in on finishing a new studio album. It’s mostly originals, but will include the Campbell’s version of the old gospel gem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” A song that, through the civil rights movement of the 1960s, became the national anthem for Black America.
It was music that the Campbells’ mother became familiar with when she was growing up in Florida. But she told her sons that her endorsement came with a warning.
“You had to be careful when you sung it,” Phil says, “because if you sung it in front of just — well, just to use the words — in front of white people, you could be reprimanded.”
Reprimanded is a generous word for the police turning fire hoses on a civil rights march.
“Because it represents freedom,” Phil says of the song. “And also, again, as a national anthem, as it was known as, it was our song of freedom, and our own personal anthem for saying who we were as a people and what we had gone through. And what we were emerging from, and looking onward to victory, which is the refrain of the song.”
“A lot of times we are asked to do this song during Black History Month,” Chuck says, “when we used to get more gigs centered toward our history and culture.”
But why “Lift Every Voice and Sing” now?
It’s a response to what we’re still seeing, in racist incidents such as the recent mass shooting in a Buffalo grocery store, of all places. Ten Black people, shot dead by a suspect who is a white nationalist.
Phil admits he’s surprised to see this racism coming forward again; racism advocated, even, by political leaders. Racial division that “seemed to go against all the values of America that I had always been taught,” he says.
Perhaps we thought racial division and anger were behind us. No, the Campbells still lift every voice and sing because, “we find those are alive and well in some pockets of the country.”
If You Go
Who: The Campbell Brothers
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Grandstand Stage
Read all of our GrassRoots coverage here!