Revisiting One of the World’s Most Intriguing Guitarists in an Intimate Space

by delarue

For more than two decades, guitarist Jim Campilongo has carved out a distinctive, erudite, energetic niche somewhere between jazz, surf rock and film noir music. For almost as long, he’s had an on-and-off residency at the various Rockwood rooms. In 2017, he finally got around to making a live album there with his long-running trio of Chris Morrissey on bass and Josh Dion on drums. That album is still streaming at Bandcamp, and Campilongo has returned to his old haunt. His next appearance there is April 25 at 7 PM in the big room; cover is $15

Obviously, considering how Campilongo’s music continues to evolve, a listen to the live record isn’t necessarily a good idea what his live show is about these days. His most recent album is even more intimate, an intricate, sometimes spare duo record with fellow six-stringer and Morricone fan Luca Bendedetti. It’s full of surprises: their quarterspeed version of Chopin’s Minute Waltz is a hoot. Much as Campilongo’s studio material is all worth hearing – his 2006 album Heaven Is Creepy is this blog’s favorite – live is where he excels most.

Is that a vintage repeaterbox he’s using on the intro to the live record’s first song, I’m Helen Keller and You’re a Waffle Iron? Maybe. It comes across as a more restless, ornamented take on Big Lazy noir skronk. The way he builds up to a scorching, circling series of sus chords is a clinic in tunesmithing – or creating a melody out of thin air.

The second number, Big Bill is a squiggly strut, Dion kicking up the dust as Morrissey shadows the bandleader and eventually gets his amp burning with a long, emphatic series of chords. Imagine Mary Halvorson playing a John Zorn noir surf tune and you wouldn’t be far off.

Dion sings the spare, sophisticated, angst-fueled blues ballad Here I Am, Campilongo defying gravity on the long ladder upwards. In what’s titled the “Jimi Jam,” he detunes his Telecaster, indulges in some of his signature neck-bending, fires off a handful of foghorn slide riffs and keening harmonics among his gritty chords. There are no distinguishable Hendrix licks.

Nels Cline guests on the album’s big epic, Cock and Bull Story, adding incisive Middle Eastern riffs and noisy haze against Campilongo’s biting, chromatic theme, the rhythm section keeping a tense pulse. The duel that follows, Cline first trailing and then engaging with the bandleader’s unhinged vintage Velvets squall is blissfully adrenalizing.

There are echoes of styles as different as Jerry Garcia spacescapes and Tal Farlow Americana swing in Sal’s Waltz, a more-or-less rubato tableau with Morrissey and Dion hanging on the fringes.

Cline returns for There You Are, a wistfully wafting theme that foreshadows where Campilongo would go with Benedetti almost five years later. The final number is Jim’s Blues, a loosely expansive launching pad for erudite Chicago and western swing-influenced clusters, a searing, machete coda and even a little Link Wray. Campilongo has so many ideas up his sleeve that it’s always a wild guess where he’s going to go next.