Larry Campbell: Rock N Rolls Right Hand Man
As an anchor in Bob Dylan’s best band since The Band, a charter member of Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles and a recent Friend of Phil Lesh, Larry Campbell has entertained crowds one hundred thousand strong, enthralled intimate gatherings of a couple dozen and even played for a Pope. So why is it then that Larry Campbell isn’t a household name? Talented enough to be star in his own right, Campbell is that rare performer whose main concern is satisfying an audience of one – himself. In sitting down with the recognizable, but not always identifiable, guitarist, fiddler and multi-instrumentalist, you get a sense of how the humble-yet-confident gentleman has become one of the industry’s most respected sidemen, session musicians and producers.
Thirty years in the music business have not been hard on Campbell. Just a little bit older than fifty, he looks much younger, showing none of the signs of road weariness or poor living sadly typical of rock veterans. There is nothing hasty about Campbell, as without being calculating, he speaks deliberately, directly and honestly, exuding a friendly and welcoming warmth. In discussing a number of the musicians he’s played with over the years, he is open with his thoughts but careful not to speak for others, making no attempt to guess what might be in the mind of anyone else. I had the opportunity to chat with Campbell a couple days after he accompanied The Band’s Levon Helm at a pair of sold-out shows at New York City’s Beacon Theater.
The Beacon Theater shows marked the first time that Helm had brought one of his Midnight Rambles outside of the cozy confines of his Woodstock, New York studio. “We had been trying to get [Levon] to take one of these theater offers for a while, explained Campbell, who has been involved with the Rambles since their inception. “For whatever reason, he was hesitant to do it.”
For his first Theater-style Ramble, Helm surrounded himself with the musicians that have become associated with his All-Star jam sessions. Along with guest Warren Haynes, who sat in on a stirring version of “I Shall Be Released,” the shows featured other Ramble veterans like New Orleans legend Dr. John, Jimmy Vivino of the Max Weinberg Seven, blues vocalist Little Sammy Davis and a backing vocals section that included Campbell’s wife Teresa Williams and Levon’s daughter Amy Helm (whose own group, Ollabelle, opened both shows).
The near-weekly Rambles, traditionally held at Helm’s upstate New York home for a couple hundred fans, began while Helm recovered from radiation therapy associated with his treatment for throat cancer. “It was a way for him to make some money without having to go anywhere,” joked Campbell with clear affection in his voice for The Band’s legendary drummer. “In the beginning, he wasn’t singing, just playing drums; Little Sammy Davis took the vocals,” explains Campbell of the Rambles’ humble roots. “It was just Levon playing drums in a blues band. Sammy’s great, but people want to hear Levon sing.” Any fears that chemotherapy would rob the world of Helm’s voice, which marks so many of The Band’s most recognizable songs, were soon quelled. When asked about any damage to Helm’s vocal cords, Campbell quickly replied that his voice sounds great. “It’s different. You hear the damage that’s been done but it’s got all the honesty and fire that’s always been there. None of that is missing. It might even be enhanced by the grittiness in his voice now. The guy is amazing, just amazing.”
Despite Campbell and others pushing him to return to a larger stage, Helm resisted the urge. “He hasn’t done a big theater show like that since the mid 90s, since The Band,” said Campbell. “He wasn’t sure how the intimacy of what we were doing up there [with the Rambles] was going to translate into a theater.” Once the opportunity to play at the Beacon Theater, a venue that the Allman Brothers Band calls home for their annual spring residency, presented itself, Campbell realized the fortuitous timing. “We all got around Levon and said, We’re ready to it. You’re ready to do it. The world is waiting to hear what Levon Helm’s been doing.’” Once the tickets sold out in 15 minutes, “it gave Levon a really good idea what’s going on out there. The first show couldn’t have gone better. He gave it everything he had and then did it again the next night. The crowd was with us from beginning to end.”
Even if Campbell tried to hide his estimable feelings for Helm, the respect and admiration are clear in his voice when discussing Helm’s career. “There’s only a few guys around that have not lost their credibility from that era,” he explains. An informed statement coming from someone who’s shared the stage with a significant number of classic rock royalty. “All those guys from the Dead, they never did anything for any other reason than the music. You gotta make a living and you want to do that as well as you can. But if you compromised the music, [the fans] wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”
Campbell’s most well-known and critically lauded stint as a musician occurred while playing with another of the Sixties-era artists who hasn’t compromised himself: Bob Dylan. As part of Dylan’s Never Ending Tour group, Campbell was a central part of a band often referred to as Dylan’s best since The Band. “I’ve heard that,” Campbell says with a pleasant sense of pride. What separated this group of musicians from the dozens of others that accompanied Dylan since the early Seventies? “What made the band great when we were playing with Bob, and I thought this all along, was that we all shared a common sensitivity to the music,” said Campbell after giving the matter some serious thought. “When Bob originally came out [in the 60s] and did his solo acoustic guitar thing, he played a great acoustic guitar – great time, great feel, great groove. I saw The Band with Bob at Carnegie Hall when they did their Woody Guthrie tribute in ’68 and that was the first time I’d seen Bob with a band. I only saw him once before solo. They seemed to me like just a big extension of that acoustic guitar. It wasn’t about flashy playing, it wasn’t about hot licks, it wasn’t about anything but making that song, propelling that song. That band with Charlie [Sexton], Tony [Garnier], George [Recile] and [David] Kemper before him and myself: it had that element to it. It wasn’t about flashy playing and everyone was really sensitive to the song. That’s the only way I can see it.”
In his time with Bob Dylan, Levon Helm and Phil Lesh, Campbell’s been entrusted with some of classic rock’s most iconic guitar passages. “That’s right,” says Campbell with a smile and a chuckle. He isn’t daunted by the significant historical weight of his role in keeping a segment of classic rock alive and vital. “When I first started playing with Bob, I didn’t have any of that to worry about because everything gets reinvented with Bob. We’re just going to do what we do and my personality is just going to be what it is. You’ve got to be sensitive to the tunes, to what they mean to you. I didn’t have to try and fill anybody’s shoes.”
In working with guitar riffs as well known as “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Highway 61 Revisited” or “All Along The Watchtower,” did he worry more about Dylan’s reaction or the audience’s reaction? “Honestly I’m worried about how I’m going to react, how I’m going to feel,” he explains. “That sounds like a cop out answer but the fans’ reaction is the last thing you’re thinking about. What’s most important to me is to be sensitive to what the singer is putting out. Try to read what that is and what I can best do to enhance that. Rarely do I hit the mark,” he says modestly. “But that’s what I strive for. The fan reaction as important as that is in its own way has to be the last thing you think about; because if that’s any impetus at all, you’re going to miss the point.” Campbell hit the mark more often than he gives himself credit for. When he left Dylan’s band in 2004, it took two guitarists to replace him.
An occupational hazard when playing with an icon like Dylan: sometimes it’s not just the fans’ opinion you have to worry about. One of Campbell’s earlier shows with Dylan was the 1997 show for Pope John Paul II at the Italian Eucharistic Congress in Bologna, Italy; a show that has come back into the public eye with Pope Benedict’s recent comments criticizing Dylan’s appearance and decrying the singer as a “false prophet.” In addition to the surreal nature of a ten year old show being back in the news, Campbell is slightly irked at the Pope’s characterization of Dylan. “This Pope is saying it’s a bad idea,” referring to the performance. “Bob never claimed to be a prophet. He never put that on himself. He moved a lot a people and moved them in a good way. What’s wrong with that? What does that have to do with the Pope? [Pope John Paul II] asked him to come over there because he knew that Bob had a positive influence on a few generations of young kids. A positive influence; not prophetic, not divine. What does this have to do with Jesus or anything? The Pope should mind his own business.”
The large crowd at Bologna was just one of many staggering crowds Campbell has entertained. As it turns out, it’s not that daunting a task. “It’s easier than a room of 200 people. You get out there and its 300,000 people, it’s so ridiculous, you can’t even comprehend it,” he says of playing large shows like Bonnaroo. “You step out on the stage and the stage is insignificant compared to the crowd. It’s like you’re standing in front of an ocean, its not like you’re standing in front of people. Everyone is so far away you can’t see the eyes of anyone.” He first experienced this “island” feeling while accompanying Cyndi Lauper at a show in Holland. “She did True Colors’ with just me on the fiddle before half a million people. Halfway into it I was aware; I thought about that and I could’ve flipped out completely. Instead, I just thought about the surreality and ridiculous of that situation and then went on and from that point on it didn’t bother me. All you do is just concentrate on your little space up there.”
As a sideman, a term he embraces, Campbell occupies one of the more underappreciated roles in the world of live music. By not having his name on the marquee, the success of Campbell’s performance can often be credited to the headliner. “That doesn’t faze me one way or another. All that means is that we did a good job,” he says of the partial anonymity that is a fact of life for any sideman “You want your voice to be heard. You want to feel that you made a difference. The real payoff is when you’re up there playing and you hit a zone that reminds you why you’re playing music in the first place. If you can do that, it doesn’t matter what anybody says or thinks.”
One of the other requirements of any successful sideman concerns the inherent subjection of your ego to that of another musician, a subject Campbell doesn’t really dwell on. “There’s moments I’ve gotten frustrated cause I didn’t have time to get this solo where I wanted or I really wanted to say something and I didn’t have an opportunity, but I never go out there thinking that’s the goal,” he reasons. “The goal is for everyone out there to go home happy. That’s the goal. However they interpret what they’re seeing or hearing is pretty insignificant as long as they get out of there happy. Some of these nights when I would have just a great night and feel like everything was great on stage, that the band was really cooking, I would hear some fan saying that what they saw was me having a miserable night.” Such statements don’t stick with Campbell. “There’s no sense behind it. Everybody has their own way of dealing with it. Personally, if I started paying attention to that stuff, I’d start thinking about it; if I start thinking about it, it’s going to influence the way I play and, to me, that’s just wrong. If it’s praise it’s going to reaffirm something that maybe shouldn’t be reaffirmed and if its criticism it’s going to force me to do something differently but that’s the wrong catalyst.”
No island unto himself, Campbell does not stubbornly refuse criticism or blithely ignore praise, although he is choosy about where to seek re-affirmation. “I have musician friends who I really respect and understand that they’re looking at it the way I’m looking at it and will be straight with me. It’s a large community,” explains Campbell. “Lincoln Schlieffer, a bass player who’s worked with Warren [Haynes] and [Donald] Fagen, we’ve worked in a bunch of bands together. He sees music pretty well the way I do. He’s just an example of somebody.”
Levon Helm’s natural instincts get Campbell’s attention. “If you have a song that’s not doing anything for anybody, give it to Levon. Let him start playing it and all of the sudden you’ve got a great thing going on. It’s just an innate ability to extract the essence of what’s going on in there and bring it out.”
In addition to Helm, Campbell also has an enormous respect for Phil Lesh’s assessments. “I don’t always agree with the details of their opinion but the heart of their opinion is always coming from the right place. There’s a sort of visceral awareness that they have that warrants paying attention,” he says of the veteran musicians. “The beauty of working with Phil is not only is he an amazingly creative cat, he knows music and he knows how to communicate in musical terms. When he says, You play the 9 and I’ll play the 6,’ he means you play the 9 and I’ll play the 6. It’s rare that someone that free and gifted at improvising in rock and roll can also communicate on that level.”
Campbell’s road to discussing 6s and 9s with Lesh began in New York City when he picked up his first instrument, a guitar, at the age of 9. “Like 2 million other people, that night the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan . . . that changed my life. That was the impetus,” he says with a hint of nostalgia in his voice. In 1966 though, music grabbed a hold on his soul and he really started to concentrate. “In the mid-Sixties, there was so much great music on the radio, it was so fertile. FM radio was playing amazing things you would never hear anywhere else. I went from being a devoted AM radio fan to searching out the roots of where all that stuff was coming from. I went way deep into the old bluesmen until I hit Hank Williams, and then I went back from there to the country music of the 1920s and 1930s. By the early 70s, I started to get a little disillusioned with where radio was headed. Somehow, the formula had been discovered and tinkered with and everything was back in its box again. There was depth to groups like Cream, the San Francisco bands like Moby Grape and Jefferson Airplane and even Zeppelin that seemed to be missing from the bands of the Seventies.”
“I started to get really deep into country music,” Campbell says of his musical awakening and evolution. “I saw Garcia with a pedal steel at the bandshell in Central Park and that blew me away. Then I started hearing the Burrito Brothers and listening to what the Byrds were doing. I became enamored with all things country and bluegrass. It really got under my skin. I had to learn the fiddle, I had to learn mandolin, I had to learn banjo, I had to learn pedal steel. But I didn’t want to start learning these instruments and do it halfway. So I really busted my ass. There’s no two ways about it. There are people out there, very gifted people who can put in a little time on an instrument and make it sound wonderful. That’s not me. For me, it’s all about hours and hours of work.” In 1974, Campbell left his hometown of New York City for Los Angeles. “I just thought for the music I was into, it would be more conducive being out in L.A.,” he says of the move. “Well, I starved there for about six months.”
The Los Angeles described by Campbell predates the city that would later churn out such glitzy and glamorous bands like Motley Crue and Guns N’ Roses. “There was a huge country music thing going on in the bars and nightclubs and they had talent nights where you could win from $20 to $100,” describes Campbell. “There were country bars all over the place. I discovered if I go in there and play Orange Blossom Special’ on the fiddle, it wouldn’t matter how great I played; it’s “Orange Blossom Special” and that’s going to win first prize. So I plowed through all these contests winning first prize by playing Orange Blossom Special’ on the fiddle.”
It’s unsurprising that Campbell would find success with a tune often described as one of country music’s defining songs. “I deliberately set out to learn a traditional style. I started out a bluegrass zealot on the fiddle. If it wasn’t pure bluegrass it wasn’t something I wanted to play,” he says of his infatuation. “Then you hear something else that interests you that’s not bluegrass but you check it out and before you know it you’re incorporating it into your style of playing. The perfect example of where that can go is Vassar Clements. He never lost his country attitude on the fiddle but added stuff that has now become standard to country or bluegrass fiddle playing. He got a shoehorn and stuck these different influences into the bluegrass thing and it worked because he brought it there with the correct attitude. Eventually, you’re going to put yourself, your own personality into your playing. People who are attracted to and influenced by a lot of different types of music hope to end up developing a style that transcends all those genres.” The prominent roles played by String Cheese Incident’s Michael Kang, Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone or Boyd Tinsley of the Dave Matthew Band seem to prove Campbell’s point. “You knew it was going to happen someday.”
Even for an experienced musician like Campbell, joining Phil Lesh as one of his Friends presented a whole new set of challenges. “I was certainly a Dead fan from many years ago, but until then, I’ve never had the quintessential jamband experience,” he says of joining up with the San Francisco bassist. When Campbell came on board, Barry Sless had the Jerry Garcia parts well covered. “That gave me a lot of freedom; Phil wanted me to play just like me,” which turned out to be exhilarating. “I didn’t know until I did it. We would play these four hour shows that felt like they went by in about 20 minutes. Once you give yourself over to that let it be it’s the most liberating musical experience you can have. Phil will dictate broad parameters: jam in B for a while and on my signal go to B minor; when I count go into Franklin’s Tower’ or let the keyboard play and then Larry you come in. Anything that happens between the songs, the segues, the morphing is all on the fly and the lengths of the songs who knows? He is very willing to take things where they go.”
Playing with such a wide variety of musicians has given Campbell great insight into what works on stage and what falls flat. Using John Scofield as an example, Campbell explained why his recent performances with the talented guitarist were so special. “He’s a ridiculous musician. He is so generous, his whole vibe. There’s not an ounce of condescension or superiority. For him, it’s all about sharing the moment.” It’s the musicians that are open that make performing so rewarding. “My observation, for what it’s worth, seems to be that it’s about security in what you’re doing. There’s room for everybody. What really works for me is musicians communicating; not seeing someone alone when there are other great musicians around him. It’s that communication, that interaction that’s the most interesting aspect to me.” Campbell sees how that communication fuels the jamband scene. “In playing recently with Jimmy Vivino, we’ve fallen into a really relaxed give-and-take and you walk away feeling great. If I do a show with another great guitar player and I’ve been playing through all night, I walk away feeling guilty about that. If I do a show with another great guitar player and he’s playing through everything all night, I walk away feeling a little slighted,” he explains. “When there’s an equal give and take, you walk away feeling completely fulfilled and so does the audience.”
At the present time, Campbell has been busy in the studio, working with a variety of artists as a producer and performer. Having produced and played on Ollabelle’s recent Riverside Battle Songs, Campbell has become the Helms’ producer of choice and is currently working with Amy Helm on a new Levon Helm album. “We’ve done like 28 songs, so we have to whittle it down,” he explained. “Most of the overdubs and most of the tweaking are done. We’ll probably get it down to 12 or 13, mix them and hopefully have it out by late spring or summer. There are a lot of stones to pull out of this road yet.”
In addition to manning the boards, Campbell will also be playing guitar, fiddle, mandolin and resonator guitar. While the album won’t be entirely comprised of new compositions, it “will be a mix of really good acoustic music.” He’s also producing an album by Marie Knight, a gospel singer who used to sing with Rosetta Tharpe, on a collection of Reverend Gary Davis songs. Playing the songs of Davis, a guitarist who’s an influence on Campbell, poses a challenge. I’m trying to play like Gary Davis put not too much like him, it’s a thin line to walk. He has such a distinctive style and you want to pay homage to it without just copying it.”
Campbell is also “way overdue” in putting together his CD with his wife, Teresa Williams, which will feature his first recorded attempt at singing. This will be Campbell’s first time in the recording studio on his own behalf since Rooftops, an album of fiddle songs that Campbell played on acoustic guitar. “It was something I did to unwind after the shows with Bob. I’d get on the bus and play acoustic guitar for hours. Without any goal of doing anything with it, but then the songs started to develop and become something cool. I thought, well, why not record these things. To produce Rooftops was easy, I had a defined concept and I’m objective enough about my guitar playing to know what’s working.” With his new album, it’s like an old dog learning new tricks, “As a vocalist, it’s a new thing for me. I have trouble looking at my singing in an objective manner.”
Campbell surely has enough to keep him busy while Lesh recuperates from his battle with prostate cancer. While the plans were for Phil & Friends to take a year off, Lesh recently reconvened the Friends, including Particle’s Steve Molitz, for a pair of sold-out shows at S.O.B.’s, one of the Latin clubs on New York City’s Lower East Side. In his typically modest fashion, Campbell, who has become one of the more-identifiable Friends, does not presume that he’ll be invited back when Lesh takes to the road again. “There’s no reason to think I wouldn’t [be asked back], but no reason to think I would either.”