Taking The Wheel Review

  September 12, 1997

On Stage: Making a personal statement in cabaret and on compact disc

NEW YORK (AP) - Not many young singers quickly make the leap from unknown to soloing at Rainbow and Stars, the tony Manhattan nightspot that floats above the clouds in the middle of Rockefeller Center.

David Campbell, age 24, arrived on these shores from Australia last October. Next month, Oct. 28 to be exact, he begins a three-week engagement at the club, the home of such cabaret supernovae as Rosemary Clooney, Vic Damone, Ruth Brown and Maureen McGovern.

At the same time, Campbell is celebrating the release of "Taking the Wheel,'' his new artfully constructed compact disc, which is as good a clue as any to what the man is all about.

"This recording has been a great experience for me because I've had to trust myself and trust what I was hearing in my head - without being ignorant of the people around me and their advice,'' he says. ``The buck stopped with me everywhere.''

Campbell has shouldered the responsibility well. What the 14 tracks on his CD reveal is a confident, high-energy performer with an astonishing ability to connect with a wide variety of songs spanning more than 60 years of songwriting.

"Every song has to mean something to me or there's no use singing it,'' he says.

Three generations of songwriters are represented on the recording - from musical theater masters like George Gershwin, Burton Lane and Stephen Sondheim to pop icons of more recent years like Paul Simon and Peter Allen and, perhaps most importantly, a new generation of writers, most of them little known outside the music business or world of cabaret. These younger composers include Ann Hampton Callaway, Craig Carnelia and especially John Bucchino, whose songs, including the title number, are showcased on three cuts.

"John's song `Taking the Wheel' is perfect for what I'm trying to say about my life - it's the main statement of the album,'' Campbell says. The number is a take-charge anthem, celebrating the risks and rewards of doing not only what you have to do but what you want to do.

 So far, Campbell has done just that. His rapidly accelerating career started in Australia, a place where audiences first knew him as the son of singer Jimmy Barnes, a major figure in Down Under rock music.

Raised by his mother, Campbell grew up listening to the likes of Nat "King" Cole and Johnny Mathis. At 18, he went to live with his father, who has been one of his strongest supporters.

Dad even suggested a song, "It Will Always Be You,'' for Campbell's new CD. The number, written by one of Barnes' good friends, Don Walker, worked so well that two different versions are included on the recording.

People began to take notice of Campbell in 1995 after his participation in a master class given by musical theater legend Barbara Cook at which she announced, "Honey, I can't teach you anything. You know what to do.''

What's more, cabaret star Michael Feinstein happened to be in the audience in Melbourne, Australia. Feinstein was so impressed with Campbell's performance that he got him a gig last October at the annual Cabaret Convention in New York City's Town Hall.

While here, Campbell appeared at Eighty Eight's, a Greenwich Village club. "I was hoping to stay three weeks at best,'' the singer says. "I stayed three months.''

It's then that the fuss started - gushy reviews, comparisons with Streisand's club debut some 35 years earlier and turn-away crowds at Eighty Eight's.

"I don't read the hype because at the end of the day people are going to judge you on your work. I don't let the hype go to my head - I put it on my back and make it a challenge,'' Campbell says with a laugh.

Look at the number which opens the CD - "Grateful,'' a song of thanksgiving written by Bucchino. Campbell sees it as a way to acknowledge all the success that has happened to him in such a short time.

Yet the emotional center of the recording is "Yard Sale,'' a quiet story song, written by Tom Anderson, about a young man getting rid of his possessions before facing life's final battle.

Campbell follows it on the CD with "Bridge Over Troubled Water,'' which emotionally supports the song that proceeds it. The spirituality and uplifting nature of the Paul Simon classic comes through in a way that is new and surprising, even for those who have listened to the song for years.

Campbell said it was a long process picking the songs for the album. A medley of songs by fellow Australian, the late Peter Allen, didn't make the cut, although Allen's "I Honestly Love You'' did - in a simple, direct arrangement that shows off its potency.

Allen is one of the many childhood influences on this recording. Others are the Beatles, Sammy Davis Jr. (a current obsession) and, of course, the hard-driving rock of his father. Campbell didn't study music. "I think it gives my singing a raw edge. I'm never concerned with notes, particularly during a live performance. It's important to feel the emotion.''

That emotion has found its way into a budding acting career, too, a path Campbell hasn't totally forsaken.

Campbell attracted notice in a homegrown musical called "Only Heaven Knows'' and the Australian production of Terrence McNally's play "Love! Valour! Compassion!''

 In the United States, he auditioned for director Harold Prince for a role in ``Whistle Down the Wind.'' He didn't get the part - which may have been a good thing. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical never got to Broadway, ending its run last February in Washington, D.C.

For the immediate future, his concentration will be on cabaret. After break-in engagements in Fresno, Calif., San Francisco andLos Angeles, Campbell will arrive at Rainbow and Stars.

"I want to push the boundaries even more while I'm there,'' he says. ``I just saw Ruth Brown at Rainbow and Stars. She munched that room up and spat it out. It was fantastic. I have never seen anything like it. I'm not going to go as full out and as far out as she did, but, then again, I might. Maybe I'll just go in there and take it all on.''

The News Times, September 12, 1999 By MICHAEL KUCHWARA AP Drama Writer