At the end of a week when the heat index routinely exceeded 100, it was inevitable that something would be said when Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams stepped onstage at the Hamilton.
But for Washingtonians in the nation’s capital, it was more than just the weather that gripped the District. Just a few blocks from the White House, the couple walked into a city caught between a heat wave and an unfolding constitutional crisis. The question looming this summer is which will break first, the temperature or the country.
“Things are pretty weird,” Campbell acknowledged with soft spoken reassurance before introducing a new song “It Ain’t Gonna Be a Good Night.” “It’s hot here in more than one way. Put your arms around each other and it will be fine.”
It was one of five songs the couple played from their forthcoming album “Contraband Love,” There is a certain edginess that underlies the new material. During the song “The Other Side of Pain,” Williams used images of acid rain circling above to decry a past lover. “I hope someday I can wish you well,” she sang leading the four-piece band which suddenly picked up the tempo with marked intensity, “if that snowball ever makes its way to hell.”
Coming out of it, she introduced what she called “another happy tune.”
“Good times.” she said deadpan, before leading “Save Me From Myself,” an empathetic plea about the push and pull of relationships and accentuated by the couple’s lush harmonies.
The new material was framed against the couple’s comic banter for much of the night, a relationship that has lasted more than three decades. Campbell’s deep baritone and Williams honeydew soprano have a resonance from years of harmonizing. During “Surrender To Love” I imagined their voices blaring from an AM transistor radio on a summer day during the Sixties when they came of age.
Adorning the walls of the Hamilton were iconic photographs of rock legends, including Bob Dylan with whom campbell toured for most of the 2000s. Midway into the show Teresa Williams looked up to see a middle-aged Levon Helm looking down upon her. She shared it was shot by her dear friend in Woodstock, Catherine Sebastian. With emotion in her voice she spoke of how it captured a man who was all heart. Campbell recalled how one day Helm heard her play “Long Black Veil,” a song she learned from her father. “Well it’s yours now,” Helm told her. When she sang “Poor Dirt Farmer,” Williams took up the mantle. Her voice wrapped itself around the melody and drove the thunderous porch stomping rhythms, led by her husband on fiddle, Jesse Murphy on bass and drummer Denny McDermott.
With the spectre of history all around us, the duo carried oral tradition forward. During the night, there were stories of their own to tell. Campbell talked of Earl Scruggs creating the standard for banjo playing, followed by the late Bill Keith. Campbell remembered playing in the Woodstock Mountain Revue when Keith introduced a song one night that sounded like it was created on the banjo. Campbell was surprised to learn it was Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” –and then gave a reading of Keith’s playing, dazzling with his use of the entire electric fretboard as he turned it into a down-home folksy jam that would’ve made the native Washington composer proud.
Campbell and Williams bantered back-and-forth about the origins of songs and past lovers, “getting into the underwear drawer” to use a metaphor. Standing center stage she reminisced about being courted by the New York native to her right as he wooed her with a mix tape of songs by the Louvin Brothers. They then went into “You’re Running Wild” harmonizing the stand out from their debut album. The show drew from their roots canon with tried and true covers of the Rev. Gary Davis’ “Samson and Delilah” and “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” The couple opened with a rousing version of the Carter Family’s “You’ve Got To Righten That Wrong” with Williams’ snarling voice and repeated choruses extending the pleasure of the melody as it picked up speed. When she began holding and bending a note for at least twenty seconds, she made it feel like it was just another day at the gym during a routine workout.
But the couple’s enthusiasm for its new material was the night’s takeaway. It showed significant growth and a sense of greater identity. Williams asked her husband to do one more song , “Hit and Run Driver, the last song of the night was a balls out rocker. Perhaps the sleeper of the set was Campbell’s co-write with William Bell, “When I Stop Loving You.” On first hearing, it already sounds like a classic out of the Stax playbook. Look to hear it on September 15 when the new album gets its release, a day that already seems aligned with the stars. As Williams said, it was the same day that the couple had their first date.
“Gotta tell the publicist,” she reminded herself.