“well, I keep my head held up high
cause looking down never got me anywhere
don’t waste your time, worrying about me
cause I’m going to be just fine, just fine
don’t you worry about me, I’m going to be alright
well everybody wants all the answers
they makes us feel there might be a chance we’re
gonna make it through this world unscathed
but what I know and you know it too
you need me and I need you
and together you and me, we’re gonna make our way”
– “Just Fine,” Kevin Campbell
Y’all make me sweat, you know that? Less than a week before Kevin Campbell’s Memphis debut and the confirmed guest list could have comfortably fit around my dining room table. And it’s not a big table. But you came through in the end, and after a full-court press on social media and last-minute TV appearance, we got a loving roomful to enjoy a moving night of music and stories we won’t forget.
Although not a complete stranger to Memphis, it had been twenty years since Kevin last saw the place, and he spent a few days before the show getting reacquainted. Clearly we got in his head, because we were treated to both Sun and Stax covers. And like the spectrum between Johnny Cash and Otis Redding, Kevin’s own work covers a lot of ground. He played a triptych detailing the shock, grief, and healing after losing his mother, taking us through that process’s highs and lows. He shared stories of friends and family, even managing to show affection and appreciation for those that can drive him a little crazy. And he returned often to the rich tapestry woven throughout a long-term relationship, with the tales of those struggles and celebrations made all the sweeter by Melissa, his partner of 18 years, joining us in the audience (and assuredly taking better pictures than I did).
We didn’t talk about it directly and he didn’t address it on-stage, but Saturday was a hard and upsetting day, with white supremacists marching, attacking, and killing in Kevin’s home state of Virginia. Even in our sheltered setting, these ongoing struggles couldn’t be ignored. Kevin played a more recent piece expressing the pain and confusion he experienced in the aftermath of the 2016 election, which was met by palpable sympathy and a powerful round of applause. His penultimate song was “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” with its hopeful journey to an uneasy rest, and he finished the night with “I Keep Dreamin’,” his own effort to work through fear and anxiety to find a place of peace.
I seek music out to accompany me in that day’s headspace, and I think we tend to attract true listeners who do the same. Kevin’s performance was perfectly attuned to an evening when we needed to reflect on our shared experiences without forgetting that some among us face much greater challenges, a time when we needed to mourn but keep moving forward. Those are messages that Memphis music has been sharing for decades, and even translated by a Virginia-born west coast transplant, they felt right at home at this time and place.
Thanks for making us part of your journey, Kevin. Memphis sounds good on you.