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Published: 2012/04/20
by David Schultz

Levon Helm Remembered: Larry Campbell Talks (2007)

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.”

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