While I certainly have a shortlist of favorite guitar players, I find it hard to choose just one that stands out as my “all-time” favorite. Everyone on that list brings something unique and interesting to the music. That said, if you forced me to choose just one plectrist, I would be inclined to name Jim Campilongo. Since relocating to the East Coast two years ago, I’ve been eagerly awaiting a chance to catch him live; I finally had my chance last Sunday at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge.
Jim has gained exposure in recent years as the lead guitarist of the Little Willies, an on-again off-again country western outfit featuring Norah Jones. His list of recorded appearances includes cameos on albums by Martha Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, and even Cake. Campilongo also has eight instrumental albums to his credit, the most recent being Orange (2010). I love Jim’s sound because it’s just about impossible to pigeon-hole, seamlessly blending the full spectrum of Americana including country, blues, rock, and jazz. Imagine an improbable gathering of Roy Buchanan, Chet Atkins, and Bill Frisell cut short by a lightning strike that non-derivatively melded the most unique qualities of all three players.
Jim’s last few albums have been recorded in a trio format, and his appearance at Atwood’s included Rob Heath on Drums and Jay Foote on standup bass. The Fender Custom Shop released a limited edition Jim Campilongo signature Telecaster last year, but I was happy to see Jim take the stage wielding his trademark blonde 1959 Tele, plugged into a silverface Princeton Reverb. A friend once described the lure of the electric guitar as the ability to “manipulate electricity” with one’s fingers. Campilongo is the embodiment of that concept, using his relatively simple rig to coax a broad palette of sounds, from otherworldly pinch harmonics and discordant bends to lush chords and delicately picked melodies.
The Campilongo Electric Trio played a roughly 75 minute set that included many of his signature tunes, including “The Prettiest Girl in New York,” “Monkey in a Movie,” and “Twister.” Highlights included an interpretation of “Cry Me a River” that was pure Jim while at the same time evoking Julie London’s timeless 1955 single, and the ethereal musical narrative of “Mr. and Mrs. Mouse” (including a beautifully erie bowed bass solo from Jay Foote). The set ended with two covers – the feedback-laden Hendrix melody “Third Stone from the Sun,” segued into a chicken-picked gallop through “Folsom Prison Blues.” Atwood’s is an intimate venue, and it was a great place to see and hear one of my favorite musicians. I was even able to meet Jim afterwards and get his autograph.
Between tours, the Jim Campilongo Electric Trio holds a regular spot at The Living Room in New York. I highly recommend checking out one of their sets if the opportunity arises. If new to Jim, the live act is a great way to get introduced to his sound and musical vision. If already a fan, seeing him him live proves that he is the real deal — a truly unique manipulator of electrified sound.
The Electric Trio performing “Cry Me a River” at the Living Room.