Maria Muldaur
and the Campbell Brothers

Hot August Night at the Skirball:
Sunset Concert Series

August 22, 2013

By Ross Altman

Maria Muldaur - Campbell BrothersI love LA! But not for the reasons Randy Newman does. It has nothing to do with the beach or the blondes or Ventura Blvd or the perfect weather. No, I love LA because where else can you go to our major Jewish cultural institution and wind up at a Christian revival meeting? I kid you not; I know my people, and you could not spit without hitting a landsman at the concert I went to last night—Maria Muldaur and The Campbell Brothers Sacred Steel at The Skirball Center’s Sunset Concert Series—a beautiful outdoor venue snuggled against the rolling hills at the crest of the 405 Freeway gridlock.

Please don’t tell my Rabbi where I was; you see I was supposed to be at another meeting across town at The Steve Allen Theatre—the Daniel Pearl Foundation’s annual Panel Discussion by journalists from countries that have no Jews and don’t recognize Israel—like Bangladesh and Pakistan (where Daniel Pearl was murdered on February 1, 2002)—moderated by—whom else—The Jewish Journal editor Rob Eshelman, where these three young reporters have been interning for a week as a part of their fellowships.

Is this a great city or what? Each of these two great local Jewish institutions are dedicated to furthering cross-cultural dialogue—what the Pearl Foundation calls Harmony for Humanity—which can be as bizarre in its own way as this Gospel concert at The Skirball.

Maria Muldaur was recently reviewed in these pages—for her concert at McCabe’s—where she performed some of her hits left out of last night’s show—like Midnight at the Oasis and I Am a Woman—W-O-M-A-N—the Lieber and Stoller classic.

Last night was devoted to what she deftly called Spirit and The Blues—and which the Skirball’s own promo literature less coyly dubbed a “meeting of the minds” between the all-black Campbell Brothers Sacred Steel Gospel band and her “swamp funk” down-and-dirty blues—which she honed in the folk clubs of her home town Greenwich Village—not on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, mes amis.

If you wanted to see a concert that looked like America—well the Skirball Center was the place to be—black band, white girl singer, singing and shouting their New Testament hearts out to this decidedly Old Testament audience. Both Maria and the Campbell Brothers—who play pedal steel, lap steel, MIDI guitar, electric bass and drums like a rock band that has infiltrated a Nashville recording session heavy on steel guitars. If you’ve never heard them and you leave your wits at home they will blow your minds.

They were all very courteous in not mentioning Jesus even once—but Savior will do—and His name was liberally sprinkled throughout the concert—in songs like Don’t Let the Devil Ride (or He Will Want to Drive) and Hell No—Heaven Yes.

What let me know I wasn’t in church (unless it was a Holy Roller church) but at a concert is that a goodly number of my brethren couldn’t sit still and listen to the music but let their happy feet take them up to the front of the stage and the aisles and party like it was 1999. The audience indeed was an essential part of the show—and the proportion of dancers to listeners increased throughout the Hot August Night at the Skirball—which managed to capture just a little bit of Neil Diamond’s classic 1972 show at The Greek—indeed his Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show would not have been out of place.

Call it Gospel music; call it Sacred Steel; call it Spirit—in terms of the volume, the high- energy beat, the timbre of the electric guitars, drums and Maria Muldaur’s belting and at times soaring vocals it was dance music straight out of Harlem—which is not that far from the Campbell Brothers’ home base of Rochester, New York. (Maria Muldaur now lives in San Francisco). I saw lots of people dancing; I saw nobody praying.

There was, however, one all-too-brief concession to the realm of truly sacred music—and that was the Campbell Brothers’ instrumental version of Amazing Grace—the one classic hymn that made its way into their repertoire. Not the whole song, perhaps—but the first two minutes were truly glorious—when the drums sat out and just Darick Campbell’s lap steel and Chuck Campbell’s pedal steel touched Lincoln’s mystic chords of memory in a solemn, unspoken reflection on John Newton’s (1725-1807) song’s history of having been born on a slave ship in mid-Atlantic crossing. Unfortunately, then the full band kicked in and the moment was lost. But at least one sacred moment was reached—and poignantly so. When they aren’t selling religion they manage to quench one’s thirst for it.

The Campbell Brothers have been performing and recording for two decades—and at some of America’s finest venues, like The Hollywood Bowl and The Kennedy Center. Maria Muldaur is a folk blues icon, with a big voice that belies her small frame. Mid show she earned a standing ovation with her sensational, heartfelt vocal-that-wouldn’t-quit version of Percy Mayfield’s (Ray Charles’ cousin) Please Lord Send Me Someone to Love—which she had also done at McCabe’s. Her performance was more than a song—it was a song, a sermon and a prayer all rolled into one. She reached out into the audience as only Al Jolson could do and lifted them up as one with her passion. It was a bravura performance melding a longing for world peace with a desire for personal fulfillment. When she cried out “Who is gonna answer my prayers?” the audience did—with cheers that would have raised the roof had we not been outdoors. We became her lover.

And then the truly mystical happened: Right in the midst of her version of a song she learned from Mississippi Fred McDowell—who wrote it—called It’s a Blessing, a meteor soared high above the stage—and lit up the night sky with one of nature’s wonders, as if to say, “I am not unmoved,” from the Lord on High. Things like that don’t happen every day—but they happen around Maria Muldaur and The Campbell Brothers, perhaps in response to big brother Phil Campbell’s slide guitar solo on McDowell’s sacred song—which Maria recorded early on with Bonnie Raitt playing slide—who learned it from Mississippi Fred McDowell himself.

Phil Campbell then let the audience in on a great big secret you won’t get from Wikileaks or the NSA—the musical roots of Gospel and the Blues are so closely intertwined it’s hard to know where one leaves off and the other begins. “The same musicians who played the blues at the juke joints down south on Saturday night played gospel on Sunday morning in church.” Phil Campbell--this great rock guitarist and bandleader—is hiding out in a gospel group. Neil Diamond’s Brother Love is a Campbell Brother. Who knew?

Jerry Lee Lewis after all is Reverend Jimmy Swaggert’s cousin—and similarly brought the feel of an old-time revival meeting into his rock-and-roll persona and foot-stomping music. Maria Muldaur brings that same intensity to her performances—and nowhere more appreciated than at last night’s Skirball Sunset Concert with Blues, Jews and a Whole Lotta Good News Goin’ On. Their joyful closer thus accentuated the positive: Lord, I Just Want to Thank You for Being So Good to Me. Jill Fenimore and I joined the chorus in shouting out “Thank You!”

The final concert in The Skirball Cultural Center Sunset Concerts takes place this Thursday, August 29 at 8:00pm and features Dendê & Band performing high-energy Afro-Brazilian music. All Sunset Concerts are free and open to the public on a first-come, first served basis; parking is $10 per car.

On Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 2:00pm Ross Altman will present “The Musical Legacy of the Great March” to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington (August 28, 1963) at the Allendale Branch of The Pasadena Public Library at 1130 South Marengo Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91106; For further information, contact the Allendale Branch Library at 626-744-7260 . Free and open to the public.

On Sunday, September 1 at 10:15am Ross will perform his 33rd annual Labor Day Sunday concert at The Church In Ocean Park at 2nd and Hill St. in Santa Monica; 310-399-1631 . Free and open to the public.

On Sunday, September 29 from 7:00 to 10:00pm Ross will host 100 Thousand Poets and Musicians for Change at The Talking Stick Coffee Lounge at 1411 Lincoln Blvd. (at California) 310-450-6052 . See also:

And on Wednesday, October 10, 2013 at 7:00pm at The Santa Monica Synagogue at 1448 18th Street in Santa Monica Ross will host Harmony for Humanity for Daniel Pearl World Music Days on what would have been the murdered journalist’s 50th birthday. Free and open to the public.

Ross Altman may be reached at