Blues cure: Get rhythm... and the Lord

Howie Campbell
at the Grounds Café
May 15

I received an email announcement about singer/songwriter Howie Campbell's show at the Grounds Café in Seminole Square on Thursday or Friday, and it had all the elements that get me interested in checking a show out: I had never heard of the performer before, and knew not of the existence of the Grounds Café (and given my chosen profession, part-time loafer, coffee shop locations are tattooed on the inside of my eyelids). So Saturday night found a friend and me driving up 29 for a new experience in swill and sound. But we were little prepared for the fate that awaited us.

The group, made up of Howie Campbell on vocals and acoustic, his wife, Debbie, on percussion, and Biery Davis on harmonica, was set up outside the café, and in the evening sun, they began to perform their modern folk music. Responding to audience dialogue about overhead birds' nests (whose placement was a bit precarious), Campbell first jaunted into a little impromptu number– "Birdie, birdie, in the sky..." during which he exhibited his solid and clean guitar playing and sometimes vibrato-tinged vocals.

Next he began the first of repeated short story interludes– this one about bagging cement and bird droppings– that set an easy-going, laid-back tone for the rest of the show.

Announcing "This is my futile attempt at bluegrass," Campbell and the trio launched into "I'll Fly Away," which has recently gained fame thanks to Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch's cover version on the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Campbell's version changed the time of the song to make it more upbeat; Debbie chimed in on bongos, and intermittently Davis's harmonica could be heard.

After this tune, the group launched into the first of Campbell's original tunes– a "song that was left off my first album," the performer claimed. "Jesus Christ is good to meet" was one of the memorable lines, but then the rest seemed to be just more declarations of faith. "I'm going to be with my Jesus on that judgment day," sang Campbell on the next song, similarly accompanying himself on guitar, with more of Davis's harmonica apparent.

Campbell is a fine guitar player, easily one of the better mostly rhythm-oriented types I've heard, and his weaving of guitar and melody was fine work as well. By the next song, which included the line "How did Jesus die?" we began to notice a lyrical theme, and speaking with the troupe a little while later, I discovered that they regard themselves as "musicianaries," who, according to their packet, "use music to prepare the ears for hearing truth: God's truth."

What can I say about Howie Campbell and his entourage? By chance I stumbled on something that was utterly foreign to me, a situation I'm always on the lookout for these days. Though I can't say I've been filled with the spirit of the Lord, I can say I had a fine and illuminating evening.

Howie Campbell