Jim Campilongo makes the move from SF to NYC -- and finds the musician in himself
Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
Jim Campilongo would have made the move from San Francisco to New York City sooner or later. His career as a musician demanded it. But the events of Sept. 11, 2001, sealed the deal.
“I was there in New York during 9/11, and I just wanted to get the hell out,” said the electric guitar virtuoso, who had made a name for himself here on his home turf as the leader of the Ten Gallon Cats, a popular Western-swing-inspired instrumental band. “There was chaos and sadness. But when I got back to California, all of a sudden I realized I had bonded with New York City on some level. It was a deep emotion, and like a lot of deep emotions, it’s intangible and hard to describe.”
A Bay Area native, Campilongo uprooted himself and relocated in 2002, and — as it has for other transplants such as saxophonist Joshua Redman, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, bassist Lee Alexander, drummer Kenny Wollesen, guitarists Charlie Hunter and Adam Levy and others — the calculated risk paid off.
Campilongo’s most visible flirtation with the big time is his affiliation with Norah Jones, notably in the Little Willies, a busman’s holiday side project for the Grammy-winning, multiplatinum singer that also includes her beau, bassist Lee Alexander, guitarist/singer-songwriter Richard Julian and drummer Dan Rieser.
Currently on tour to promote his latest self-produced CD, Heaven Is Creepy (an Electric Trio date that features guest vocals by Jones and rising star Martha Wainwright), with a stop Tues., Sept. 19, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, Campilongo echoes commonly held sentiments about the Big Apple’s allure for professional musicians.
“The music scene is amazing,” he said in phone call during a recent tour stopover in Los Angeles. “It is what, for my whole life, I thought being a musician should be like. There’s music every hour of the day. You can go out of a club, go next door and there’s another great band. You can walk around the block and you’ve got three restaurants that are screaming—two of them have jazz bands, and another has something totally different and amazing. It’s so inspiring.”
However, Campilongo added, it wasn’t easy to give up the security of hometown fame and stake his fortunes on making a splash in a big pond. “I was really scared,” he said. “I was afraid I was having a midlife crisis. On some level, I was a pretty big fish in San Francisco and I was living pretty comfortably. I had to start all over when I went to New York.”
Campilongo kicked off his recording career in San Francisco in 1996 with Jim Campilongo and the 10 Gallon Cats. The twangy, Western-swing and rockabilly-inspired instrumental outfit rode the irresistible twin-guitar attack of Campilongo’s blazing Telecaster and Joe Goldmark’s mercurial pedal steel, echoing such country guitar greats as Don Rich, Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West.
Although he experimented with song structure, instrumentation, mood and texture over the course of four more CDs (on his own Blue Hen Records label) while in San Francisco, including 1998’s noirish Table for One and 2000’s eclectic Live at the DuNord, Campilongo had a hard time expanding his reputation accordingly.
“I really got a lot of good press in San Francisco,” he acknowledged. “But when I came back from New York after 9/11, I started doing this ‘Campilongo With Strings’ thing that was really different, and nobody wrote about it. I had Bobby Black on steel guitar and these great string arrangements. We played a gig at the Noe Valley Ministry that did really well, and Norah even came to one of the gigs at Bruno’s, but nobody wrote about it, and I felt really frustrated by that. I realize that I was playing all the time, and the press can’t write about me very 20 minutes, so I’m not bitter, but it made me think I should move and be the new kid on the block.”
Already musically connected to Jones — by way of his San Francisco friendships with bassist Alexander and guitarist Levy — Campilongo had little trouble getting into a Manhattan groove. “Norah Jones gave me great credibility,” he explained. “Large audiences saw me. But playing every week at the Knitting Factory, which segued into the weekly Living Room gig, was even bigger than that.
“I went to New York with the attitude that if I play, it will get attention and it will reap some rewards,” he continued. “Take a guy like Charlie Hunter — if he sets up on a street corner and plays, he’s going to create a stir. He’s undeniably good and he’s going to make people happy. Somebody like Buckethead is going to do that. Chet Atkins could have done that. And when I moved, I thought, I’m gonna have to do that — hopefully, I’m good enough that I’ll create a little buzz. And it happened. The other thing that was big was that two jingle houses started calling me. I started playing on commercials.”
Thanks to his flexible and expressive acumen on the Telecaster, Campilongo started getting calls to lay down instrumental tracks for TV pitches for Porsche, Bridgestone tires, Tide and SBC. “When I went to the musicians’ union office, Local 802, up on 48th Street, and picked up my first check,” he recalled, “it wasn’t that big, but it was like a million dollars to me.”
All that activity has contributed up to a new self-image. “I’m a musician now,” Campilongo said. “I’m doing jingles, playing with Norah Jones, writing songs (with people like Jesse Harris) that have lyrics and are going on other people’s albums. It’s not ‘Jim Campilongo, that rockabilly guy with the Ten Gallon Cats’ anymore. I always thought I was a little more than that.”
On his next album, Campilongo intends to extend his range even further by going back to influences other than such guitar heroes as Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan. He envisions it, he said, as “a guitaristic rock record” that will reflect his affinity for “the really raw stuff that’s part of my musicality—Iggy Pop, the Sex Pistols, John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band.”
That may come as a surprise to listeners who are just getting to know Campilongo as the jazzy country player who has recently steered away from the hot, flashy pyrotechnics of his Ten Gallon Hats era to explore what he calls “an impressionistic jazz mentality” that deals with “space and openness” (somewhat influenced, he said, by a 1977 album, Of Mist and Melting, by guitarist Bill Connors).
“The past couple months, I’ve felt like I’m really finding this place, and it’s really starting to happen. I’ve been cooking this thing and I’m ready to take it out of the oven.”
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