Jim Campilongo Band – Knitting Factory (New York City, NY)
The next day the world would change forever, but on this Monday night, San Franciscan Jim Campilongo’s brand of Jimmy Bryant meets Thelonious Monk music had its New York debut in the subterranean Old Office room of Manhattan’s Knitting Factory.
For twelve years while living in San Francisco, I had watched a fine rock guitarist with a personal voice immerse himself in the twang lexicon to become a tasteful and technically adept country picker, then devote his energies exclusively to his own music, emerging as a unique player and a composer of the first order. The particular blend of Bakersfield honky-tonk, western swing and modern improvisation he developed is sui generis.
A nervous Campilongo began the evening with a Chet Atkins cover he simply refers to as “Chet’s Tune”. Nerves were quickly overcome when pedal steel guitarist David Phillips tore off an imaginative solo, bringing revved-up confidence to the rest of the show. Phillips is a perfect foil for Campilongo. A fine country player, contributor to the Bay Area improvised music scene, and occasional Tom Waits sideman, he initially took up the instrument because he “thought it would sound good on King Crimson tunes.” A resume like this implies he is well-suited to this genre-bending music, and his offbeat notes and tones over the evening confirmed it.
Campilongo’s memorable instrumentals are refreshingly devoid of irony but often laced with wit, as evidenced in titles such as “Bought Some Swampland In Florida” and “Cat Under A Car”. In the band’s early days, the material leaned toward the frenetic and angular. On this night, whether as a nod to the smallish size of the room or as a sign of musical maturing, tunes such as “D’Boat” and “Table For One” helped keep the mood more contemplative, emphasizing instead Campilongo’s magnificent manipulation of his Telecaster’s tonal potential and the textural possibilities inherent in a combination of guitar, pedal steel, upright bass and drums.
Guest Rob Berger’s accordion added echoes of Astor Piazzola and Clifton Chenier for additional color. Only on the venerable warhorse “Folsom Prison Blues” did the band burn with a white heat as opposed to the blue flame over which the majority of the set simmered. On that Johnny Cash standard, Campilongo and Phillips traded solos and fours, with the rhythm section egging them on until they had wrung everything conceivable out of their instruments.
The Knitting Factory is known for presenting edgy, arty, avant music that defies genre. Campilongo’s art is firmly rooted in tradition but derives its edge from its sheer, uncompromising Personality, with a capital “P”. It doesn’t try to be dissonant, though it sometimes is. It doesn’t try to be ironic or clever. In fact, it doesn’t try to be anything except passionate and moving, at which it admirably succeeds.
In the introduction to his book Photography Rediscovered, David Travis writes, “Great artists are not remarkable for being the best example of a type, but for being the only example.” Jim Campilongo’s band is definitely the only example of its type, and on this occasion they left an audience in awe of what human beings are capable of at their best. We would have to wait until the following morning to experience what human beings are capable of at their worst.