Sonny Landreth & Campbell Brothers :: 2.01.05 :: B.B. King Blues Club :: New York, NY

Recently, slide met guitar in an exciting double-bill at B.B. King's in New York. It's important not to look too deeply into these things, but there is something incredibly illustrative about a bill of the Campbell Brothers and Sonny Landreth that manifested itself cabaret-style in Times Square. It was a duality of soul and talent, of passion and technical skill, of rhythm and blues, of art and meaning, heaven and heathen -- all that in a couple hours of slide guitar.

Campbell Brothers with Sonny Landreth
2.01.05 by Greg Aiello
After missing the opening act, we arrived and found a nice vantage point just as the Campbells were getting tuned up. While Robert Randolph may have, over the past five years, become the most recognizable wunderkind for the House of God sound, it is the Campbells who may have struck the best balance between honoring the intent and roots of the music while stretching their arms out wide enough to reach a decidedly secular audience. With a new, sure-to-be-a-must-buy album coming out on that ubiquitous-in-deliciousness label Ropeadope, you might expect to hear a lot of the dueling steel guitars from the Brothers Campbell.

Really, the music couldn't be simpler. A steady, unwavering beat and bassline from the rhythm corps set the pace, and a variety of conversations are laid on top in the simplest vocabulary -- both lyrically and melodically. The music is almost 100% refrain, with the words usually just a sentence or two with an unmistakably straightforward messages like "stay positive," "steer clear of evil," "no matter how bad things are, they're going to get better," "trust in God," and "thanks to the Lord." The music is just as driving, straight-shooting, and uplifting, with a brother each on pedal steel, lap steel, and electric guitar whirling solos and weaving the gospel, daring you not to clap your hands, wave your arms, shake your butt and stomp your feet.

Throughout the hour-long set, the band romped through church-worthy gospel and tiptoed gracefully through more pensive, melodic numbers. It was the quiet moments that struck the deepest chords, particularly a powerful cover of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," which will be on their upcoming album. With his lap steel, Derrick Campbell built a steeple of a solo over a theme that had everyone chomping at the proverbial bit to pick up a copy of the album when it comes out. Later, Chuck Campbell changed gears on "Don't Let the Devil Ride" by ripping a blues-drenched solo on his six-string guitar. So it was that a set of music weighted heavily with emotion, passion, and faith displayed quite a bit of chops from the stage.

The highlight of the entire night came at the end of the set when Sonny Landreth strolled out to sit in, and a wildly impressive jam session ensued. Landreth jumped right in with a nice preview of his set to come, but the Campbells refused to be outdone, matching his wits note-for-note and solo-for-solo. There is something refreshingly genuine about the Campbell Brothers, and it was shining through in the final number, their heads a-bobbin' and their tongues wagging in honest appreciation of Landreth's incomparability. Each time the mood cooled during the jam, someone else seemed to pick it back up, treating the crowd to climax after climax of high-energy soul-cleansing. Finally, in a spontaneous spurt of passion, Phillip Campbell hopped up from his pedal steel and started dancing across the stage. The emotions were so real, and the audience members' only lament was that the floor, filled with tables, left no room for them to do the same.

Sonny Landreth :: 2.01.05 :: by Greg Aiello
After a short break, it was Sonny Landreth's turn to take the wheel. There is something to be said for being the best at what you do, and there is little doubt in my mind that Landreth is the best slide guitar player there is. Something about the sweltering bayou in Lafayette, Louisiana, has given Sonny superhuman powers. Watching his fingers dance over his guitar, it seems that each one is eliciting otherworldly sounds from each string like they were six individual Theremins strung up to a Fender.

The choreography of his hands and guitar is a glorious thing to watch, and thankfully, the resulting sounds are equally as stunning. The wonderful thing about Landreth is that even with such capabilities he refrains from long-winded masturbatory soloing and has channeled his abilities into a distinct and altogether enjoyable sound.

The set he played last night was his typical fare of intricate yet succinct instrumental brilliance, down-home zydeco-flavored stomps, soul-crushing blues, and straight-up rock and roll. While at times, his technical skill brings to mind the character-free stylings of a Steve Vai or Joe Satriani, if you peek below the surface you'll find a simple, humble, soulful musician with a warm, understated sense of humor and a ripping axe... and the music reflects this.

But, the people pay to see the slide guitar, and Sonny is a whole lotta fun to watch. There is an economy to his playing, like he is an athlete at the top of his game -- every gesture and movement of his body seems to serve the one purpose of coaxing some awe-inspiring sound or another out of his instrument. His fingers seem inhumanly long and agile, and he uses them in unimaginable ways. At one point, I believe I saw him sliding his finger across the strings like a bow on a violin, creating a sound that gave me the chills.

It is Sonny Landreth season, you might say, starting with his birthday show last night at B.B. King's, extending through the Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest gigs, and giving plenty of opportunities to check out a different kind of Louisiana sound.

Aaron Stein
JamBase | NYC
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[Published on: 2/4/05]

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