Often thought to be at odds, blues and gospel music came a little closer together Friday night at Merrill Auditorium in Portland.

Stalwarts Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Guy Davis made their case for a down-home style of acoustic blues while the electrified Campbell Brothers, practitioners of a style of gospel music known as Sacred Steel, got things hopping later.

Scholars differ on the precise origin of the blues. Harris, first as a student at Bates College and later through worldwide studies that helped him win a MacArthur Fellowship in 2007, has been searching for the essence of this elusive but cathartic music for quite some time. Longtime fans may remember his early visit to Portland, opening for B.B. King at the then-Civic Center nearly 20 years ago.

Harris knows how to musically dig down deep while keeping that old-time sound fresh. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, he seemed to have women on his mind on this occasion. A soulful pulsing, chant-like take on “Black Woman Gates” was followed by “Devil Got My Woman,” with intricate finger picking elaborating on the mournful feeling behind the lyrics.

His set, like that of the other individual blues singers, was too brief to get more than a taste of what he could do. Each of the other two bluesmen referenced time constraints during their portions of the show.

Hart did get things rolling a bit with “Big Mama’s Door.” His stylized vocals made it hard to pick up on some of the lyrics but it was clear that he had some heated-up ideas about his “biscuit roller.”

Like the others, his finger-picking and slide guitar work layered infectious grooves with telling details.

Davis added harmonica on “Did You See My Baby” in a set that suggested his theatrical skills as he drew the chuckling crowd in with comedic asides. His cover of “That’s No Way To Get Along,” a tune known to Rolling Stones fans, also contributed a lighter side to the evening’s fare.

The three bluesmen joined forces to finish their one-hour portion of the program with a shared take of the classic “Little Red Rooster.” The crowd enthusiastically added sound effects to complete the suggestive tune.

The Campbell Brothers, a six-member band, followed the intermission with an hour-plus set that featured their unusual focus on Chuck Campbell’s pedal-steel guitar and Darick Campbell’s lap-steel guitar. A couple of passable instrumentals established the otherworldly sonorities of the ensemble, but the highlights of their spiritually minded repertoire were celebratory rave-ups that built tempos to maximum intensity. “Hell No, Heaven Yes,” for example, had the two steel guitarists and Phillip Campbell’s electric guitar weaving together with the repeated vocal refrain of the title to create a sense of collective transcendence.

A reharmonized “Amazing Grace” slowed things down a bit and gave vocalist Denise Brown a chance to add her soulful touches.

Phillip Campbell noted that after playing Orono the next night, the group hoped to be back at their home church in time for Easter.

Though it can mean different things to different people, a longing for something called home came through on Friday night as a common thread.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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