The Lonesome Ballad of Jim Campilongo

In which an instrumental guitarist finds his voice in musical history

And just around that time, Campilongo's ship came in -- and he happily let it pass him. He had auditioned to be the guitarist in Chris Isaak's band, and he got a final callback to audition against Hershel Yatovitz, who got the gig after Campilongo bailed to focus on the Paradise shows. At least, that's what Campilongo told Isaak. Another factor was that he was handed a copy of Isaak's then-unreleased Forever Blue, "and I thought it was shit.

"For me," he explains, "I wanted to do my thing. I didn't want to play crappy material, and I thought it was, so I decided not to do it. Chris actually phoned me up at home and asked, 'Why don't you want to do it?' I didn't want to say, 'Man, you are writing completely superficially. You're just trying to get a hit. That's all it is. It sounds like a beer commercial.' I didn't want to say that, so I just said, 'Hey, I want to do my own thing.'

"I don't regret it," he continues. "If you think about it, why are people musicians? It takes a certain stubbornness and single-mindedness, and in some ways I guess I have that. But I'm not a jerk about this. I've played in a lot of different bands. I can play with Hitler."

Campilongo, master of country-jazz and bleak-but-beautiful guitar excursions.
Akim Aginsky
Campilongo, master of country-jazz and bleak-but-beautiful guitar excursions.

The Paradise sessions proved fruitful. Campilongo wrote "a kajillion" songs, which were worked out during the gigs -- the group has rehearsed all of three times in its five years of existence, and then only when it's about to record a record. "It's really rare for Jim to say, 'Play this,'" says Chris Kee. "Usually he just brings us the charts, often on the night of the gig. Then we just rear back and blow."

The band's first two records, an eponymous 1996 album and 1997's Loose, were the sound of Campilongo maturing from a fine country-inflected jazz guitarist into a songwriter; there are moments on Loose, like "Above Paradise" or "The Girl With Red Eyes," that are almost Ellington-esque in terms of musicianship, color, and mood. 1998's Table for One finished the job. Instead of enlisting the Cats (though Kee played bass and Goldmark assisted on one track), Campilongo called in Rob Burger to play accordion and organ for a suite of bleak-but-beautiful guitar-jazz excursions, closing with a version of "This Old Man" that's almost heartbreaking in its simplicity. It's the only one of his own records Campilongo plays for pleasure. "I kind of forget that I played on it," he says. "I just really think that it's a beautiful record."

Since then, smaller ships have come in: Campilongo contributed to a pair of tracks on Cake's Prolonging the Magic album, and in November took part in a collaboration with Rickie Lee Jones and Mike Watt that sounded more interesting on paper than in practice; everybody scampered off in three different directions, and he remembers it as "the most bizarre musical experience I ever had." Lately, he's been performing with San Mateo-based steel guitarist Bobby Black, who's played with legends like Jimmy Bryant and Merle Travis. For the new 10 Gallon Cats record, Heavy -- officially out on the 24th at a release party at the Paradise -- Campilongo's struck a deal between his country-jazz background and his strengths as a composer. Bounding from mournful ballads like "Tiramisu" and "Like Butter" to off-kilter swing tracks like "Mozart Woulda Played a Tele" to the Morricone-styled "Dagger Through My Heart" and the trucker rock of "Tic Toc," it's Campilongo's most inventive and complex album, as well as his most playful. Owen's explanation is that "there's so much history of us playing for so long. I'll be listening to him playing a solo, and then I'll try to do it. The interplay is heavy."

Campilongo himself considers Heavy his best work, of course, but he still approaches it with a protective attitude. The Cats have never toured due to day jobs and scheduling conflicts, and Campilongo's not quite ready to make the leap into singing, though "Dagger Through My Heart" has a spoken-word lyric in Italian. "I say it's a love song, and maybe I'm just a frustrated singer," he says. "I don't know. It's kind of like wishing you were 6 foot 4. You can wish all day, but it's not gonna happen. But I suspect someday I will sing, and I'll accept my voice for what it is."

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