The Campbell Brothers forge a new chapter

05:00 AM, Aug 18, 2013

Top, Phil Campbell plays guitar during a practice session of The Campbell Brothers at his Henrietta home. The band has a new album out called Beyond the 4 Walls. They were practicing for a mini-tour with Maria Muldaur. (ANNETTE LEIN/ / staff photographer)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

What: The Fairport Music and Food Festival.
When: Noon Saturday. The Campbell Brothers play at 6:30 p.m. on the South Stage, right after Commander Cody (4:30 p.m.), and followed by Chris Duarte (8:30 p.m.).
Where: The festival is set up on Liftbridge Lane, off of Route 250, in Fairport.
Tickets: $10 in advance; $15 the day of the event; free for children 12 and younger. Available online and at an extensive list of sites published on fairportmusicfestival.com.

This is an ages-old story of growth and rebellion. The clash of decades of tradition and the urgency of popular culture. It’s been told in the Bible, which in general frowns upon disobeying the word of elders. It’s been told in the movies, by James Dean and Rebel Without a Cause. And by punk-rock bands like The Clash, with their call to question authority. The civil war of the past decade waged over the House of God and the soundtrack of its emotional church services, sacred steel music, is no different.

The smoke has not yet cleared. But over the past decade, the feud has destroyed a church in Rush, caused families to debate their religious loyalties, witnessed the fall of a marriage, exacerbated a rift between two of sacred steel music’s most-celebrated players, bred two lawsuits and — as is always the case in such matters — covered the expenses of a handful of lawyers.

At the heart and soul of the ugly conflict is a stunningly beautiful and emotional form of American music and one of its finest ambassadors, Rochester’s acclaimed ensemble The Campbell Brothers. The Nashville-based House of God Pentecostal church’s position is clear: This sacred music should remain within the four walls of the church. The position of The Campbell Brothers, aging sacred-steel legends such as Aubrey Ghent and young stars such as Robert Randolph is equally clear: This music should be shared with anyone who desires to hear it.

This scenario,” Phil Campbell says, “has played out literally across the country.”

Under attack on several fronts since 2004, The Campbell Brothers have nevertheless remained in demand at music festivals around the world. They were in California last weekend, backing Maria Muldaur during a series of shows. Whenever they’re within range of The Allman Brothers Band, Chuck or Phil Campbell can expect a call to join the Brothers onstage for a few numbers. Last year Chuck and Darick Campbell signed on with the sacred-steel super group The Slide Brothers and played on the Experience Hendrix Tour, celebrating the music of Jimi Hendrix alongside the likes of Randolph, Buddy Guy, Keb’ Mo’, Dweezil Zappa, Taj Mahal and Bootsy Collins. The Slide Brothers released an album earlier this year, touring the country and taking the exuberant sound to mainstream audiences via The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

But it’s taken a long seven years for The Campbell Brothers, who play Saturday at the Fairport Music and Food Festival, to emerge from the test of their faith with a new album of their own. Beyond the 4 Walls is the praiseful mix of gospel, blues, rock, jazz and soul. It’s a big sound, with the three brothers joined by Phil’s son Carlton on drums, bassist Daric Bennett and singers Denise Brown and Tiffany Godette. The very name of the album — Beyond the 4 Walls — defines the battle. The Campbells are taking the music outside the walls of the House of God, with the deepest of American roots music that slyly nudges its way into the pop-culture subconscious. Listen to the mournful blues of “Mama’s Gone,” written by Phil and sung by the lap-steel guitarist Darick: Chuck’s shimmering pedal-steel guitar line early on is an echo of the intro to Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady,” a song The Slide Brothers played while on the Experience Hendrix Tour.

Church vs. music

Yet, despite the propulsive beat and joyous sound, much of Beyond the 4 Walls dwells in wells of deep sadness.

It represents a separation from the House of God, and dealing with lawyers, deaths in the family,” says Chuck. “And on a personal level, separation and divorce and everything that comes with that.”

Disassociation from the church for our father, Bishop Campbell, who founded the church,” says Phil, the electric guitarist who serves as the band’s celebratory emcee. “And for all practical purposes, disassociation from the church for our family as well. These are lifetime relationships that are severed.”

How did this war between religion and music happen?

First, some history. Sacred-steel music and the African-American House of God church goes back to the 1930s, when the steel guitar was introduced as an alternative to the church organ. It was less expensive and accomplished the same mission as an organ: move the congregation. Mimic the human voice, generate a call-and-response between the altar and the pews.

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 pastor of the House of God, Keith Dominion branch, before moving with a portion of that congregation to found a new House of God in Rush in 1998. In the House of God, all musically inclined boys start out on drums. Eventually, the older boys settle into playing the pedal-steel guitar, younger ones the lap-steel.

In the mid-’90s, jazz festivals discovered sacred steel and began booking the musicians. The Campbells, who had risen to the top of these House of God house bands, were among them, even before they’d played a non-church gig in their hometown.

The House of God leadership, watching from its Nashville headquarters, was leery of the exposure its musicians were getting. But it allowed them to continue. A respected American roots music label, Arhoolie, released the first Campbells CD in 1997. Pass Me Not, largely traditional church songs in a raucous gospel setting, received rave reviews. A Campbells Christmas record and the live Sacred Steel on Tour! followed in 2001, before the band jumped to the Ropeadope label and released 2005’s Can You Feel It?, a mix of gospel and soul songs, including Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Phil wrote half of the songs, and John Medeski of the avant-garde jazz-jam band Medeski Martin & Wood produced it.

And by then, the war was underway.

Growing pains

Wars, actually. Chuck’s marriage fell apart. And his relationship with Robert Randolph withered and died. Randolph was the son of the deacon of a House of God church in New Jersey. Chuck bought the teenage Randolph his first pedal-steel from the House of Guitars. And now Randolph was taking the music to a new level, opening arena tours with Eric Clapton. Chuck — a sacred steel star whose day job was driving an RG&E truck, checking kitchen stoves for gas leaks — felt the kid’s head was getting too big.

We didn’t talk,” Chuck says. “He was getting so big, I just decided, it’s better to leave him to where he’s going. And there was so much upheaval in the church at the same time.”

The House of God’s national leader passed away in 2004, and the new administration came in dead set against the Campbells taking their music to a secular audience. Two lawsuits were also filed. In the first, the old House of God administration had contracted the Campbells to administer a celebration of the church’s centennial. The Brothers produced a festival and a parade, but then the new administration took over and balked at the rest of the package: a live CD, a documentary and a book, which had yet to be been completed. “The people who brought the lawsuit were not privy to the discussions,” Phil says. “There was a misunderstanding of what the scope of the project was.”

As it appeared that the case was heading into a showdown over the separation of church and state — Did a federal court have the right to peer into church business dealings? — the House of God dropped its claim and the case was dismissed. (Officials did not comment for this story.)

The second lawsuit was a fight over who had control of the property in Rush and Bishop Charles Campbell’s new church building: Did it belong to the local congregation or the national church? The national church was awarded control because the Rush church had been incorporated under it. That meant a consolidation of the two House of God congregations in 2011 in the old church at 654 N. Goodman St. The national church sold the land in Rush and the now-empty building this year.

I now have a clear understanding of the phrase, ‘Don’t make a federal case out of it,’ ” Chuck says. “The church stuff was way worse than any divorce you can deal with. Because you’re literally talking about heaven and hell, in your mind.”

Moving on with the music

He is speaking from both ends of the experience, and the purgatory that the sacred steel musicians found themselves caught in. The Prodigal Sons have not returned home. The House of God has not opened the door to that possibility.

Phil Campbell, a computer-chip salesman with Motorola, lives in a beautiful home in one of the new Henrietta developments.

Not a part of the House of God since 2007, the group now rehearses in Phil’s basement. Phil has joined The Bibleway Healing Assembly, a Pentecostal church in Henrietta. Chuck, the oldest brother at 55, still attends services at a variety of churches, but is not associated with any one in particular. “We’ve gone to church every day of our lives,” says Darick, the youngest. Now his church, he jokes, is “bedside Baptist.”

The Campbell Brothers’ sole remaining connections with the House of God are invitations from separate churches around the country to play the funerals of members who recalled the group as once being so important to services.

We have no animosity,” Chuck says. “God has taken us past that.”

You may not be able to control circumstances,” Phil says. “But you can control your reaction to it. Things like this tear families apart. We made a conscious decision, as a family, that we were not going to be bitter.”

The battle with the church over sacred steel’s audience, the lawsuits and Chuck’s divorce forged a new Campbell Brothers album that goes beyond the four walls of their church.

We had to go through some pain,” Chuck says. “You know, in the church, you live this life of not drinking, not smoking, not carousing, so your life is like a fairy tale. But when you experience pain, you can react to people’s issues a lot easier. The music is so spiritual, so rewarding, I can’t believe the Lord is using us this way.”

The older generation of players, such as Detroit’s Calvin Cooke and Florida’s Aubrey Ghent, and the next generation of Chuck and Darick Campbell, have been well-received in their roles as The Slide Brothers. Musicians in exile, but an exile in plain sight, after having played The Tonight Show in February with guest vocalist Shemekia Copeland.

They see us on the Jay Leno show and we get all kinds of calls afterward from people who have seen us,” Chuck says. “Even if we played like crap.”

Healing some rifts

They also understood that they were sharing their banishment with the newest generation, Robert Randolph. “He had been going through the same thing,” Chuck says.

Except, he was committing felonies, and we were doing misdemeanors,” adds Phil.

Indeed. Randolph, who plays Water Street Music Hall on Oct. 22, ascended to sacred steel stardom while opening for acts such as Clapton and The Dave Matthews Band. These were associations that forced Randolph to stop playing in the church, as it had others in different churches before him. “Everybody who ever came through church — Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke — the older people who grew up in a different time, they always had a problem with that,” Randolph told the Democrat and Chronicle in a 2011 interview. “You can’t tell people these days to stay behind. Most who are really old that think that way, and they’re the ones in control. You have to tell them, ‘You’re a small group of people, and there’s a whole bunch of people out there who want to hear this music, and be uplifted.’ “

Established as a headlining act in its own right, Robert Randolph & the Family Band was booked for the 2009 Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. It was to close the final night at the outdoor stage at East Avenue and Alexander Street.

The Campbell Brothers were handed the opening. But if there was to be a healing between the Campbells and Randolph, in front of tens of thousands of people, it got off to a dicey start. Chuck’s daughter was married to a guy in Randolph’s New Jersey church, and a few days before the show Randolph sent Chuck a message. “My son-in-law called,” Chuck says, “and said, ‘Robert says if you bring your guitar onstage, your guitar will run away like your wife did.’ “

Ouch. Raw as it was, this was a familiar challenge, as Phil points out. It happens between the brothers — “There is some cutting going on during every show” — and it happens in the world of blues, R&B and soul.

Chuck decided he’d take on Randolph’s challenge. And it would take some scrambling to get it done. First the Campbells played their 7 p.m. set on the outdoor East Avenue and Alexander Street Stage. Then Chuck scooted over to Kodak Hall at the Eastman Theatre to make good on an invitation from blues guitarist and singer Susan Tedeschi to join her onstage. Then he raced back to East and Alexander — with Tedeschi and soul singer Ryan Shaw — to join Randolph onstage.

That was a healing, just being on the stage, and to just play the music,” Chuck says.

It wasn’t just healing: Tone, feeling, emotion and spirit are all a part of playing the pedal steel in sacred steel music, but that night was a showdown to see who’s the fastest player. The crowd loved the duel between Randolph and Chuck, but the verdict among the musicians in the post-show analysis was, Chuck admits, “Robert was faster than me.”

This has gone on since the beginning of the church,” Phil says. “Every generation measures itself against the previous generation.”

The music wins

And Randolph has paid it back to his elders. He co-produced The Slide Brothers’ first album, and lent it his endorsement: Its official title is Robert Randolph Presents The Slide Brothers.

But that chain has been broken, the Campbells fear, because the top players are no longer welcome in the church.

There’s no doubt about what a great education we had in sitting under those guys,” Phil says. “Sitting in a service and watching them work.”

All of these young players are coming along,” Darick says. “But the cool guys who I looked up to, the guys who shared with me, they’re no longer there. The younger generation of the House of God, they have no one to watch.”

Our way of praising God is to take it out of the church,” Phil says. “The church was exercising its power in not allowing that. In our opinion, the church is not better for that. We accept that. In the meantime, we’re making the best, most soulful music we can make.”

If the church isn’t willing to spread the sacred steel word, he points out, social media will do it. Hot players from Finland are on YouTube now. Sacred steel bands are forming in Amsterdam. The music is spreading.

The music,” Darick says, “definitely has won.”