My Night Opening for M. Ward

By Christopher John Campion
Christopher John Campion’s appearances at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett have coincided nicely with the milestones and turning points of his career in music. Matt Licari

The first time I ever attended a show at the Stephen Talkhouse I was a young, typically clueless, and most of the time hammered 22-year-old frontman for an aspiring rock ’n’ roll band out of Huntington. My rock star dreams were first ignited then subsequently inflated by my great musical love in life, the Rolling Stones. The plan was, as the Stones had done, to go out and play gigs tirelessly, grab the world by the balls, and never let go. Despite a heroic effort on my part it just didn’t happen. The closest I came was maybe cupping them . . . but even that’s probably an overstatement of wistful revisionist imaginings. 

But I never quit. Even after it became abundantly clear that the lofty perch set by the Glimmer Twins wouldn’t be reached, I kept going. When you do that you eventually cross an invisible line and become what we working musicians call “a lifer.” I can’t very well back out of a 30-year music career now, can I? And do what? Sell aboveground Harrow’s pools? I’m giving it away here that I’ve actually thought of that. Man, I gotta get a better fallback fantasy. That one has no zip at all. Apologies if that’s what you do, I’m sure it’s a nice living. 

The point is that now I just do what I do, which is play shows, both big and small, sometimes presenting my own work, other times horsing around playing covers in the pub. Some gigs pay decent bread, others don’t and you rely on a tip jug to make what you can to get by, and despite what you might be perceiving as a burgeoning Eeyore tone here, I assure you I’m very grateful for the life I have behind a microphone making my living playing music. 

I knew I would never stop, and that is a pledge I made to myself while watching Buddy Guy at the Stephen Talkhouse back in 1988. 

I wasn’t at that show as a blues aficionado or anything, quite the contrary. Around that time, having soured on classic rock radio and seeking something fresher, I was all about the Replacements and REM, getting into the Pixies’ first album, listening to college radio and WLIR-type bands almost exclusively. A friend of mine took me because he needed somebody to go with him. 

He was heavily into Stevie Ray Vaughan at the time and, as a result, delving insatiably into all the great blues guitarists. He pitched the show to me by using the Stones’ musical tree, whereby they were hugely influenced by Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy had been the guitar player in Muddy’s band, and so forth. Then he desperately pleaded, “You gotta come, dude, this is literally where the Stones came from . . . there’d be no Stones without him!” 

A stretch to be sure but his angle did have some truth to it, and by that cleverly conceived piece of salesman syllogism I jumped in his Jeep and was off an hour and a half down the road to the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett — insensitively canceling my plans to get high and play Wiffle Ball with some other friends. I was a busy guy back then.

We arrived halfway into his set, and as we walked in, there was Buddy just a few feet away from us onstage, wailing away, playing cosmically sweet and purposefully sour notes that sounded like they were coming straight up from the center of the earth and out through his fingertips. He was beaded with a workingman’s sweat, sinewy arms extended, he and the guitar fully engaged and beating the crap out of each other and us in a sublime display of musical rhapsody. 

As I bore witness to this I remember thinking two things: 1) This guy looks like he couldn’t care less about success or failure. He’s gonna do this no matter where he is or what the circumstances are till the day he dies. And you know what? So am I. 

And with a big swig of a Bud bottle a psychic change happened, and a silent oath was taken. 

The other thought I had was the question I’ll bet thousands of first-time Talkhousers have wondered throughout the years while unexpectedly watching some musical giant come to life before their eyes in that small, rustic room. I said to myself, How the hell did they get this guy to come all the way out here and do this?

The answer is simple. It’s the Talkhouse, man, you gotta play it . . .

And play it I did. My band Knockout Drops would go on to have many memorable nights in there, sharing the bill with such notable acts as Marshall Crenshaw, Michelle Shocked, and the hypnotically strumming Woodstock legend Richie Havens. One of the most cherished memories of my career was glancing over side-stage in the middle of singing a tune and seeing Richie smiling and tapping his foot while we played. I still coast on that one sometimes when I get down about stuff.

The other night I played a show at the Talkhouse behind my new solo record, “Watch the Gap” (shameless plug!), opening for M. Ward, an artist I truly admire and one who definitely gets added to that aforementioned illustrious list. My set went really well, for the most part; spazzed on a few things but nothing that glaring. 

The Talkhouse has many incarnations based on the night of the week or the time of night. If you go there on a Saturday night after midnight at the height of the summer season, you’ll know of which I speak. ’Tis quite a different scrum in there then — one that in my younger day I used to love to take a victory lap through after our sets but nowadays would incinerate me within seconds. 

We took the stage at 8 on a Thursday night so the room had that mellow coffeehouse vibe happening, and I elected to talk a bit over the mike and have some laughs with the audience. It cost me a song or two out of my set, but I think it was the right move, rather than beat them over the head with a bunch of segued songs and be a total stranger to them up there (remember it was mostly M. Ward’s crowd). 

I did surprisingly well at the merch stand after, selling a bunch of books and records, had some nice conversations with people, and made some new friends/fans, so I’d say it was a good thing that I chose to play it that way.

Then, as per my design in lobbying so hard for the gig, my gal and I got to watch M. Ward at the Talkhouse. If you’re not familiar with this guy, I highly recommend you get acquainted. Whether it be his work in the duo She and Him (with the actress Zooey Des­chanel) or Monsters of Folk (a collaboration with Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes), it’s all well worth it, but I like his solo stuff best. His compositions feed the senses and the soul. 

He performed a nice blend of new and old, playing staples like “Primitive Girl,” then shifting to his new album, “More Rain,” and doing the single “Confession” and another track off it I really love called “Little Baby.” His new record is killer — pick it up! 

My favorite part of the night was when he went solo acoustic in the middle of his set, doing a rippin’ and inventive instrumental and then launching into a beautiful rendition of his song “Chinese Translation.” Right as he did that I realized I was in the exact same spot, just inside the front entrance and behind the partition, where I had made that pact with myself watching Buddy Guy all those years ago. I had my arms around my fiancée, Chrisie, who was right in front of me as we watched M. Ward unfurl his guitar brilliance, a different style from Buddy’s but the same level of commitment, and I thought, Yup, I’m still in the right racket.

Christopher John Campion is a singer-songwriter and the author of “Escape From Bellevue: A Dive Bar Odyssey,” published by Penguin-Gotham.