The Dickens Campaign Heats Up Brooklyn on a Chilly Winter Night
On Jan. 29 at the Brooklyn venue Barbès, the jazz trio The Dickens Campaign performed songs inspired by the work of famed folklorist Alan Lomax (1915–2002), whose audio and video recordings captured the joys, struggles and sorrows of everyday rural life.
All week long, New York weather forecasters had been harping about how cold it was. Weary urbanites yearned to retreat and gather round a welcoming fire. Inside Barbès, clubgoers did not find that. They sat in the frosty space bundled in coats and scarves. But musically, they did find the nourishing campfire they sought.
The evening celebrated the release of The Dickens Campaign’s new album, Oh Lovely Appearance (Mole-Tree Music), which features drummer-bandleader Deric Dickens, guitarist Jesse Lewis and cornetist Kirk Knuffke. The album’s tracks are an homage to Lomax, and the renditions span from the serenely faithful to the highly experimental.
Located in the Park Slope neighborhood, Barbès is a small back-room bar outfitted with a dozen slatted folding chairs, three wobbly cafe tables and narrow standing room. In short, it’s a cozy, artist-friendly performance space, Brooklyn-style. That night, the standing room was filled with engrossed listeners.
Knuffke was unable to attend this performance so the adventurous Chris Speed filled in on tenor. Braving the frigid atmosphere, Lewis blew into his hands, Speed pumped warm breath into his sax and they got down to work.
On the opening archival piece “As I Went Out For A Ramble,” Dickens laid down a fluid and hypnotic “train” pattern with brushes while Speed tenderly stated the melody and Lewis’ acoustic fingerpicking set a soothing momentum. It became apparent that this night would offer an alternate and equally satisfying take on the album’s material. While Knuffke had chosen to play the tune as a fairly straight and grounding CD opener, Speed wasted no time in roaming afar, deftly exploring timbres and veering outside of traditional harmonies. The set continued to evolve in that trajectory with a restless mix of jazz and Southern roots music.
The trio brought out the raw, bluesy swagger of the Sacred Harp song “Hallelujah,” with Dickens providing an open-toned surging pulse for the raucous interplay while Speed dug deep and Lewis rang out with wide, open droning chords on his capoed acoustic guitar.
Dickens counted off the most groove-defined tune of the set, “My Baby Likes To Sing,” and shimmied into a snakey, New Orleans-flavored rumba-blues. Lewis played an electric guitar here, aggressively bending and crunching a blues-based solo. Speed injected some screeching overtones into his fat sound and Dickens unleashed funky, syncopated solos. Maybe the crowd imagined it, but the temperature—no, the humidity—seemed to increase.
Throughout the night, the band’s confidence escalated. Further highlights included the beautiful time-stretching flow of “Paul Motian,” Lewis’ shredding on “Roustabout Holler,” Speed’s soulful hymn-like solo intro on the poignant “Oh Lovely Appearance Of Death” and the entrancing arc of “Waiting,” where Dickens lifted the trio, pulsing like a jazzy Levon Helm.
In a mischievous left-turn, the band closed with Knuffke’s original composition “Twice My Heavy.” Lewis leaped in with diabolical, stabbing metal chords and Dickens goaded Speed into a wide-leaping, screeching apex. It was stylistically the furthest detour from the night’s theme. But the freeze had thawed, and a little hellfire didn’t hurt.