The luminous crescent moon that hung in the night sky over Higher Ground in South Burlington March 12 wasn’t so enchanting as the performance of Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams had just offered. In fact, it’s a safe bet the Showcase Lounge in the South Burlington venue hadn’t seen such a spell cast in recent memory.
Without any fanfare, much less even an introduction, Campbell and Williams graciously ascended the small stage with their rhythm section of drummer Justin Guip and bassist Jeff Hill, and just as cheerfully began to interweave acoustic and electric textures on an almost equal selection of original material and judiciously chosen covers. From the former category, “Surrender to Love” dovetailed nicely with a Louvin Brothers tune the likes of which Williams admitted she grew up with. so she and Campbell couldn’t help but recall the country duos of the past including Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner as well as the more contemporary likes of Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris.
Yet the pair distinguished themselves as they displayed a musicianly savvy of the highest order that commanded a rapt and largely silent attention from the seated audience. Given they don’t vary their setlists dramatically, it only makes sense that Campbell, Williams and co. moved effortlessly from, for instance, “Samson and Delilah,” once a staple of the Grateful Dead repertoire, to a Loretta Lynn number, but that didn’t render that fluidity any less impressive because the pacing worked effectively. And while Campbell never really called attention to his proficiency with multiple guitars and mandolin, every one of his solos was earmarked with pinpoint precision, reaffirming his long-term membership in Bob Dylan’s band as well as his contributions to the last regular touring lineup of Phil Lesh and Friends. Left alone on stage just past the hour mark, Campbell introduced an instrumental with Celtic roots with the ingratiating charm both he and his wife exhibited all night, then proceeded to render its intricate changes and finger-picking as if it were a tune he wrote himself and thus imbued with his own natural style. And that same ingenuity and technical skill came to the fore when he played the Fender Telecaster on Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” a subdued tour-de-force that well illustrated his spoken homage to the recently-deceased, visionary banjoist Bill Keith.
Response from the fairly-reserved, mostly long-in-the-tooth attendees remained muted, but became markedly louder at that point, but the acclamation approached uproarious as the quartet began “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin’,” a direct reference not just to Campbell and Williams’ eclectic influences, but the former’s association with Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen (a fairly regular performer at Higher Ground himself); Guip and Hill accentuated the bluesy riffing with the authority and grace with which they handled more delicate material earlier in the evening and, after Campbell’s customarily extended solo electric intro, added rhythmic cacophony to The Band’s “Chest Fever” as climax of the show.
Still, it wasn’t a rowdy but rather a genuinely romantic moment that was the highlight of the night. Campbell, Williams and Hill offered Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s “Attics of My Life” with such a rare combination of tenderness and deep feeling, the tune became the logical extension of all the honest passion and musicality that preceded it. If it’s true, as Larry Campbell stated, that he and Teresa Williams’ visit to Vermont was everything they hoped it would be, there’s little doubt the feeling was mutual from the observers in the club by the time their singing and playing were done.