Wednesday night

Kicking off the Bull Durham Blues Festival, the Campbell Brothers made the first of three Durham appearances at the Pinhook on September 3 as DJ and recording engineer Dave Tilley took the stage with the steel guitar performing family. Their topic was the sacred steel tradition. Their conversation and musical demonstrations kept interested fans silent for more than an hour. To hear the band in this intimate venue was truly special. The event was presented by Duke Performances.

Tilley teased out the history of sacred steel, a uniquely American mainstay of the Church of God Pentacostal Holiness Church. The Campbell brothers – Chuck, Phil, and Darick – helped clarify details, and Tilley stayed out of the way while they reminisced. For some of us, this was a rare opportunity to learn about a subject that only few outside of the church would understand. Brother Chuck corrected Tilley on some facts, but always with a smile and firmly-grounded sense of humor. These guys are not only fine musicians but they come across as fine people, too.

This is not the place for “The Complete History of Sacred Steel.” Let’s just say that the instruments on stage have evolved from the Hawaiian steel guitar, said to have been invented by Joseph Kekuku in 1889. The lap steel and pedal steel versions we heard require the technical ability of modern players with the sensibility of the sacred steel tradition. Brother Phil told us that if it works for the church service, it will work for the concert stage. Younger Brother Darick demonstrated. His intent was to make the instrument sing, so he invited us to rise up and join him, though most of us did not. Phil plays rhythm guitar (equipped with MIDI). And Chuck (the grown-up child prodigy) plays a mean pedal guitar. With Phil’s son Carlton on drums and Daric Bennett on bass you had a band that perfectly demonstrated the genre. It was an evening to remember. And by the time I heard them play two nights later at St. Josephs, my ears were better “in tune” to the musicians and their instruments.

Thursday night

On the following night Ashley Khan and Branford Marsalis met at the Carolina Theatre for a conversation on the subject of John Coltrane‘s landmark composition, A Love Supreme.

Khan, who teaches at NYU, wrote the definitive text on Coltrane’s masterpiece. His Durham contribution was anything but didactic, however. He was funny, engaging; and obviously a fine historian, writer, and teacher. Marsalis, a member of our community and artist-in-residence at NC Central University, is also a scholar on the subject. Together their conversation was candid, sometimes light-hearted, and insightful. They included excerpts from Branford Marsalis Quartet’s Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, a Q & A, and they closed with 13 minutes of film footage from Coltrane’s own performance.

Friday night

Co-sponsored by Lincoln Center Out of Doors and Duke Performances, The Campbell Brothers adapted Coltrane’s magnificent work to sacred steel. It’s easy to see the spiritual and musical connections between the jazz legend and these fine musicians. The Brothers have spent their lives playing for church services, and they entered this commitment with some trepidation – who wouldn’t? But they have the heart and the musical understanding. What surprised me most, however, was the strong connection they made with a secular audience. Was it the sacred setting (St. Joseph’s), the weather (summer at last), or this particular group of blues aficionados? Perhaps all of the above.

The brothers pretty much stayed with Trane’s melodic ideas. Their instruments helped create unique textures, and as they let go, their own voices rose to the fore. Realizing their own potential, Carlton Campbell and Daric Bennett played fabulous solos that brought listeners to their feet. I recalled Branford Marsalis’ words about the term jazz improvisation. Creating ideas on the fly requires blood, sweat, and tears – and years of practice. These young players already have facility, well-developed musical vocabularies, and the ability to connect. The audience roared.

The band also played some warm-up tunes – that is, gospel tunes to warm up the crowd. If this is how to rev up the Sunday morning folks, I want to be there! The Rousters, the legendary John Dee Holeman, and Phil Cook played on this occasion as well. If you haven’t made it to the Bull Durham Blues Festival, you owe it to yourself to go.

The Bull Durham Blues Festival continues on Saturday night, September 6 at the Historic Durham Athletic Park. The doors open at 5 p.m. and the music begins at 6 p.m.