The average casual music fan views “soul” or “gospel” as that feel-good music most at home in Baptist churches and onstage at the Oscars when the Academy attempts to show its support for social justice movements. If the Campbell Brothers had anything to say about it Saturday night in the Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre, soul would be a central part of all our lives.
But it already is — whether anyone notices or not. Gospel and soul arose along with jazz and blues to become the foundation for the vast majority of American music that followed, introducing the melodies and rhythms that somehow tap into human biology to cause an intense and passionate longing to move on tempo and holler at the musicians to keep playing.
The Campbell Brothers, which started as the house band for a church near Rochester, New York, take cues from the roots of the musical movement they participate in. By adding a pedal steel and a lap steel (two guitar-like instruments on stands), they put their unique signature on arrangements by some of the greats: Miles Davis, Sam Cook and John Coltrane.
The pedal steel, played by the eldest brother Chuck, is especially important because it makes up the bulk of that signature. Chuck uses his own tuning standard and wildly original style to make that collection of strings sing like a church choir in the most literal sense. The sound is some heavenly mixture of a wah-wah guitar and Aretha Franklin. Seriously, Chuck and his pedal steel ought to be more famous.
Yet fame was the furthest thing from these brothers’ minds. They were here to do justice to Coltrane’s pseudo-symphonic, four-movement masterpiece, “A Soul Supreme,” and breathe new life into everyone’s disposition in the process. They succeeded, obviously.
How could they not? Between the pan steel, electric guitar and bass guitar all operated by wizard-like hands, and the drums played with a jazzy polish that would even make J.K. Simmons’ character from “Whiplash” blush, the Campbell Brothers launched the seminal works of their genre far beyond what the original artists could have hoped for. When they got in the groove enough to improvise their solos, everyone knew they would never come out.
The only thing missing was an appropriate venue. Clearly, this setlist would be best enjoyed beside a loved one on the patio of a family-owned restaurant on a warm night in June under a full moon. Maybe my preferences are too specific, or I have too many prepositions at my disposal. Either way, it’s an image that would not leave so long as the brothers were stuck in their groove.
A funny thing happens when one listens to soulful blues played at this caliber. The listener is gently removed from the confined auditorium and transported to the wispy outer reaches of the conscience. Darkness begins to lighten, and weight saddled upon the shoulders by the stresses of workaday life is lifted, bit by bit, by every foot tap and hand clap.
I’ve never been to a church with a gospel band, but I now know why members of such congregations return every week. The feeling of closing my eyes and being imbued with musical spirituality was both exciting and refreshing; it’s a change in perspective that is not easy to come by.