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The gospel of sacred steel

WANT TO GO?

The Campbell Brothers, with The Carpenter Ants

WHERE: Haddad Riverfront Park

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Friday

COST: Free

INFO: Visit www.liveontheleveecharleston.com

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- From the Everly Brothers to Oasis, it's a rock 'n' roll cliché: pop bands with brothers have a history of fussing, feuding and fighting, which sometimes leads to decades long breaks over "creative differences."

With other kinds of music, that doesn't happen as much. At least it doesn't happen as much in the sacred steel world, though Phil Campbell, bassist for the critically acclaimed Campbell Brothers, said he thinks every band sees a little drama.

He said, "We've had some dustups, but nothing serious. We've been very blessed in that regard."

Campbell, who performs with his brothers Friday night at Live on the Levee, explained that part of what's kept his family band from coming to blows is they know what they're doing is bigger than just a show.

"We're sharing talents that God gifted us," he said. "There's not as much ego involved. That's helped us."

The Campbell Brothers grew up playing traditional sacred steel music at the House of God, Keith Dominion church in Rochester, N.Y., where their father preached. Sacred steel is a style of black gospel music that developed in some Pentecostal churches beginning in the 1930s.

The eldest brother, Chuck, played the pedal steel. Darick, the youngest of the three, played the lap steel.

"We all started out on drums," Campbell said. "The steel guitar is the rock star position; it's our lead guitar. But we started on drums, then branched out to other instruments."

He said it worked out that he had more of a musical affinity for the bass guitar, which was a good thing, as far as he was concerned.

"I wasn't all that great of a drummer." He laughed.

Campbell's son, Carl, drums for the band now.

Growing up, playing in the church, was a good proving ground for the brothers, he explained. They had an entire congregation of critics telling them what they did well and what they needed to work on.

"If you're able to absorb that and actually act on it, it definitely does a lot to develop you as a musician," he said.

They also played at church convocations, huge conventions that featured performers from affiliated churches from everywhere up and down the coast and East of the Mississippi.

"Only the best of the best would get to play," he said. "If you wanted to be recognized as one of the best and play in that event, you had to pay your dues, play a morning session. If you proved to be a really good player, maybe they'd let you play one of the supporting nights.

"Ultimately, you might get to play a big night, like Saturday or Sunday, but you really had to go to the woodshed and work on your craft in order to be ready." 

The Campbell Brothers got their start playing in the faith-based world of gospel music, but the band witched to mostly concert halls and music festivals years ago. This year, they've played the Finger Lakes Grass Roots Festival in New York and Delfest in Maryland.

"Our first festival was the Folk Alliance in Memphis in, I think, 1998."

Campbell said they weren't sure how folk and roots music audiences were going to respond to gospel. They stepped out on faith.

"We were apprehensive at first," he said. "We didn't know how we'd be received and whether people would accept this music -- but people just loved it.

"That was one of the most wonderful things ever."

What surprised them was what audiences responded to. They seemed to like the older gospel songs more than the more modern religious music.

He said, "I think it's the 'realness.' They know it's not just a show. They know we're sharing a part of ourselves."

The Campbell Brothers stay busy, though it's not all Campbell Brothers shows. They have day jobs, plus Chuck and Darick have been playing with The Slide Brothers (who performs on "Mountain Stage" Sunday night). Darick has also toured with blues guitarist Eric Bibb, and Chuck has played with blues performer Otis Taylor.

Still, the brothers get together when they can and even have a new CD, "Beyond the Four Walls."

They stay busy, but everybody gets along, though Campbell said he could understand how other bands end up in fights.

"I think what happens is an issue comes up and something from your childhood gets dragged into it."

Phil said that's happened with The Campbell Brothers. He remembered a family argument, which took a turn for the strange when someone brought up how Phil had eaten all of the cereal one morning and put an empty box back in the cabinet.

He laughed. "I mean, where does that come from? Dude, we were 8 years old and now we're 50." Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.

 


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