Live Review

Are Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams Americana’s Sonny and Cher?

Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams on July 15, 2017

Larry and Teresa at the 2017 Green River Festival (C) Harold Lepidus 2017

There’s something happening with these outdoor summer festivals. Something good.

The Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts, is an annual Western Massachusetts summer weekend affair, featuring dozens of bands loosely categorized as Americana, on four stages spread out over the Greenfield Community College campus field. Much like the Newport Folk Festival, it no longer needs well-known veteran acts to sell tickets. In fact, the Saturday lineup, headlined by Lake Street Dive and Houndsmouth, sold out days before the event. I’d attended two previous festivals, one with Emmylou Harris and Wanda Jackson in 2011, then again the following year with Richard Thompson, Los Lobos, and a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth, featuring his son Arlo and other family members. These days, the idea of spending a day outdoors, just grooving to the music, is enough to entice people to attend the festival. The music has, once again, become the message.

While I enjoyed many of this year’s acts, most notably Pokey LaFarge and the Sweetback Sisters, the main reason I attended this year’s festival was to see the husband-and-wife team of Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. Like many people, I first became familiar with Campbell when I saw him countless times as part of Bob Dylan’s band from 1997 to 2004. For many fans, the various lineups featuring Campbell created some of the most exciting and satisfying concerts during Dylan’s so-called “Never-Ending Tour.” Since then, I’ve seen Campbell with Harris, Elvis Costello, David Bromberg, and Levon Helm, where he served as his musical director in his final years.  Campbell’s presence always elevated the game of these already legendary artists, so I was curious the see what he would be like on his own.

Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams were booked to play in the covered Parlor Room stage, a welcome relief on a hot summer day, although the outside of the tent was overflowing with fans and curious onlookers. Campbell and Teresa played for nearly an hour, mining all types of American music, from country and folk to soul and jazz, mixing originals and covers with ease.

As the leader of a four-piece combo, Campbell easily commanded the stage, both as musical director and master of ceremonies. Straight-faced, Campbell would tease Williams by introducing songs like “Surrender to Love,” from their debut album, as “the first words she said to me.” After Williams’ clearly dismissive facial expression, he said with a big smile, “At least that’s how I remember it!” The entertaining back-and-forth repartee reminded me of old-time husband-and-wife acts like Sonny and Cher. Later, when Campbell asked, “Uh-oh, what did I do now?” Williams replied, “I was waiting for you to finish tuning so I could talk!”

Of course, the music was the reason we were all there. Williams’ powerful vocals, steeped in old time traditional country, with a touch of Emmylou Harris here and there, along with Campbell’s vocals and harmonies, were the focal point. Holding it all together was Campbell’s, effortless, impeccable guitar and fiddle playing. It was not unlike watching Richard Thompson in action, with magical sounds emanating fluidly from his fingers, without the usual cliched macho facial contortions which usually accompany such feats of dexterity.     

Campbell and Williams were augmented by Denny McDermott on drums and Jesse Murphy on bass. Campbell, a seasoned sideman, made sure each member had their share of the spotlight, giving ample time for instrumental solos, in addition to Williams’ co-lead vocal duties. Campbell also paid tribute to collaborators past and present, including Helm (“Dirt Farmer”), Julie Miller (co-writer of “Midnight Highway”), and the late Bill Keith, with whom Campbell collaborated  in the Woodstock Mountain Revue in the 1970s and 80s, on a song he dryly introduced as having been written by “that great bluegrass impresario … Duke Ellington (“Caravan”).

Larry and Teresa even previewed a song from their upcoming album, “Contraband Love,” when Campbell sang “When I Stop Loving You,” an emotional, staccato ballad in the Otis Redding tradition. Campbell composed it with former Stax man William Bell, who also wrote “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” among other classics, and the song could have easily fit on any Redding or Bell album.

The set climaxed with the Rev. Gary Davis classic, “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” with Campbell letting loose on guitar, while Williams turned the Parlor Room into a revival tent, singing with a religious fervor, arms reaching the sky, making believers of us all, if only for the moment.    

Larry and Teresa’s Contraband Love will be released on CD, vinyl, and as a download on Sept. 15.