Colorful Guitar Icon Jim Campilongo Continues His Rockwood Residency
It took a long time after the lockdown, but Jim Campilongo made it back to one of his oldest haunts, the Rockwood, where he’s played an on-and-off monthly residency, practically since the venue opened in 2005. Revered in guitar circles, Campilongo is not quite as well known as Bill Frisell, but the two have much in common beyond erudite and eclectic chops. Each player infuses jazz with Americana and a frequent noir sensibility. And each has his shtick: Frisell with his loop pedal, Campilongo using the neck of his Telecaster for a wammy bar effect by bending it ever so slightly. His next Rockwood gig is in the big room on August 29 at 7 PM; cover is $15.
Right before the lockdown, Campilongo was spending a lot of time in low-key, intricate duo situations. But one of this blog’s favorite Campilongo albums, Heaven Is Creepy, goes all the way back to 2006 and remains one of his most picturesque releases to date. An added element of creepiness is the tragic loss of bass player Tim Luntzel, who was stricken by Lou Gehrig’s Disease and died eight years later. Like a lot of musicians have been doing, Campilongo has discovered the utility of Bandcamp as a marketing tool and has put most of his albums up there, including this classic.
The first track is The Prettiest Girl in New York, a cheery lattice of bluegrass licks and coy harmonics over drummer Dan Rieser’s shuffle beat. Track two, Monkey in a Movie is a wry, slightly skronky strut with moments for the rhythm section to gnaw on the scenery.
There are two versions of the album’s first cover, Cry Me a River. The first is an instrumental. Campilongo’s surreal, slipsliding, lapsteel-flavored licks never quite coalesce out of an increasingly agitated, psychedelic thicket, shades of Dave Tronzo, until the very end. The second, with Norah Jones on vocals, is faster and more straightforwardly haunting, even if it isn’t on the same level as Erica Smith‘s shattering version with Dann Baker on guitar.
The album’s darkest and best track, Mr & Mrs Mouse veers all over the place, from Campilongo’s bracing wide-angle chords, to horror surf, to a cynically tiptoeing cha-cha that could be Big Lazy. Then the trio bring it down with the skeletal, brooding rainy day theme Because You Like Trombone.
Hamster Wheel (Slight Return) is a swampy trip-hop theme. Menace is less outright creepy than sardonically skronky, when Campilongo isn’t leading the trio scampering through Django Reinhardt’s shadow. The album’s chromatically snarling title track could just as easily be called Creepy Is Heaven: it’s the most enigmatically ominous, disquietingly strange tune here.
Nellie Bly, as Campilongo seems to see the prototypical investigative journalist, is a Beatles fan with a vintage country streak. The final cut on the album is Pepper, part lullaby, part suspense film theme. It says a lot about how much ground Campilongo can cover in under five minutes. There’s also a brief, aptly Victorian-flavored cover of Beautiful Dreamer with Martha Wainwright on vocals.