The original instrumentals that Campilongo composes for his band the 10 Gallon Cats mirror the band-leader's restless curiosity. Though he and his quartet have settled on "cowboy jazz" as a stylistic denominator for their music, they're well aware that the phrase barely marks their adventurous and ever-expanding repertoire, one which defies facile description.
A trained musician who teaches guitar by day, Campilongo likes to dissect songs by asking whether the soloist is "saying" something worthwhile. In his own music, he's capable of conveying an avalanche of articulated gibberish on his trusty Fender Telecaster within the space of a few measures. (Proof of Campilongo's inventive and impeccable technique and guitar-wank appeal is forthcoming in the form of a Guitar Player magazine transcription of his brand-new "The Girl With Red Eyes.") Which is not to say he's instrumentally mouthy, a hillbilly Yngwie Malmsteen. True, Campilongo's approach to the guitar can be as labor-intensive as a hammer-on metalhead's, or a bluegrass flatpicker's. But songs like "Twangin'" and "Snakestretcher" borrow liberally from the slow, reverberating rock 'n' roll plod of Duane Eddy, while others on the band's self-titled debut (such as "Swingin' With the Cats") suggest the serenely paced jazz-theme variations of a Wes Montgomery.
Nearly everything Campilongo plays is shot through with playfulness. "I don't want it to be demanding to see us," he says with a touch of characteristic anxiety. As the Cats' regular Thursday night gig upstairs at the Paradise moves well into its second year, the 38-year-old band-leader can rest assured -- if only he were so inclined -- that his band's regular set is one of the surest bets for local entertainment. A gracious and surprisingly calm emcee, Campilongo is grateful for the wide audience he's cultivated at the Paradise, where, as he puts it, a 22-year-old rock fan who thinks Joe Goldmark's pedal steel guitar is an "electric table" might find himself pleasantly surprised by the show. Nostalgia buffs come for the Cats' swing-and-surf rhythmic underpinnings, courtesy of bassist Chris Kee and drummer Ken Owen; exotica aficionados enjoy Goldmark's sweet, hula-inspired slide work. Everyone, meanwhile, marvels at Campilongo's flights of fret board fancy.
On a recent Monday afternoon, Campilongo sits in the tidy kitchenette of his apartment, sipping coffee and picking at a tin of cookies. (He's partial to Pepperidge Farm Sausalitos, which he eats by the handful, "even if they are the size of a pancake.") Lined against the far wall is an enormous collection of old country and jazz records, the contents of which are repeatedly referenced throughout a two-hour conversation. Though in his own music Campilongo uses vintage country merely as a starting point, he's an avid student of country's best-known guitarists -- Chet Atkins, Buck Owens -- as well as a slew of lesser-knowns. Some of his less celebrated heroes, Campilongo says, are "once-in-a-lifetime" talents: "Speedy West, Jimmy Bryant, Hank Garland -- they got an extra dose, I think." With the Cats, he'll emulate his forebears, but he'll also use reverb -- a definite no-no with purists -- or play "something that sounds like Thelonious Monk, real loud."
The prolific cover-version specialist Atkins is a particular favorite; Campilongo claims to own "about 90" of his albums. "I'll think, 'I'd really like to hear Chet play 'Alley Cat,' ' which is like a wedding song. And he'll make it sound magnificent." Which is not to say his own act has anything to do with schmaltz. "A lot of country is mocked," Campilongo says, always sensitive to snap perceptions of his band. "If I was going to play [Duke Ellington's] 'Prelude to a Kiss,' I would approach that song with reverence. If I was going to do 'Together Again' by Buck Owens, I would do that with an equal amount of reverence."
With a wealth of experience among the band members, Campilongo claims that the 10 Gallon Cats almost never rehearse. "If you get people that're good, you should trust them," he says. Writing a new song nearly every week, he says he'll teach it to steel player Goldmark by recording a tape of the harmony part, or simply by whistling it to him.
Campilongo and drummer Owen met as aspiring teen-age musicians, both growing up in South San Francisco. Excitedly lugging his guitar and amp to a purported jam session in Owen's bedroom, "no one showed up but me. We've been together more on than off since then." Owen and bassist Kee "really dig playing with each other," the band-leader says, and their combination of enthusiasm and professionalism gives the Cats a rock-solid foundation. The band-leader himself spent years toiling in various acts, including funk groups, for paychecks. With singer Gary Wayne Claxton, he and the rest of the current Cats lineup played until recently as Mental Revenge, a '50s and '60s cover band that dissolved when Claxton moved to Nashville. By that time -- "tired of serving the singer," Campilongo says -- he had begun assembling his instrumental band. Originally sharing the stage with a pianist, he soon invited Goldmark to join instead: "I think he's a great foil, because he plays a little smoother and more 'inside' than I do. When I come in with a barrage of two million notes that're atonal, there's a nice yin and yang there."
With so many outside responsibilities, the 10 Gallon Cats have hardly toured at all, though that may soon change: They've just received an offer to travel to Europe next March. "I'd really like to go to Texas and Nashville, too," Campilongo says, "to see what they think." The Paradise gig remains a priority, however: "A lot of people know we play there but still haven't seen us. Some people still think we're like Hee Haw, so we still have a lot of work to do.