Day-glo dreams

Unlike the frantic inspiration that precipitates one of Keith “Scramble” Campbell’s improvised-in-midconcert paintings, the psychedelic, 3-D effect they create doesn’t necessarily “just happen.”

Specific techniques, such as juxtaposing particular colors, are employed to produce the artist’s signature, eye-teasing resonance. Questioned further about his method, the Orlando-based Campbell (he’s in Asheville for the summer) tries to elaborate. But it proves hard going for both of us — and luckily, his ready compassion soon surfaces, in the form of an easier explanation.

“I just tell people it’s magic,” he offers.

Works for me.

Appropriately enough for an artist who has built a cult fame by disgorging heat-of-the-moment tributes while the music roars, Campbell shows better than he tells. On a recent visit to the painter’s ethereal night gallery — downtown Asheville nightclub Stella Blue — I was fitted with a pair of 3-D shades and turned loose to wander the club with a portable black light (a permanent version of which will soon be installed), the better to view the painter’s pulsing memorials to assorted music icons, painted while he simultaneously dances onstage or through the crowd.

Campbell’s whimsical, day-glo figures cavort with the comic grace of street graffiti. At first glance, his rendition of a Neil Young and Crazy Horse concert seems centered around the fiery spectacle of the band itself. Viewed through the glasses, however, it’s the surging audience that pops into the foreground. One upraised hand commands immediate attention: Hot pink, reaching into the tide of worship, it seems a vivid emblem of Campbell’s blissful vision.

“I use only positive colors and symbology,” he says. “My [message] is, absolutely no negativity in anything. If I don’t have something nice to say, I don’t say anything at all.”

If that sounds too good to be true, it’s also worth noting that Campbell doesn’t plan to patent his brand of actualization: “I want other artists to do what I do, to try and do their own take [on a show]. There needs to be more artists out there being part of everyday life.”

Besides the music, Campbell is also upholding an artistic tradition started by Andy Warhol and carried on by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring: He’s created an Absolut Vodka ad (for the AIDS Absolut Vodka benefit in Philadelphia). Campbell’s version is distinctly his own: “Absolut Love/Absolut Vodka,” with its beautifully intertwined lovers and lush symbology, glows with a pagan sorcery. Campbell admits that studio works like this one are artistically tighter than live concert pieces, because he can take more time with them, but it’s obvious where his heart lies.

“The live ones have more energy,” he observes. “It’s a different vibe. I’m a musical instrument, playing licks just like they are, except it’s a visual sound.” He points to a couple of paintings. “I was right across from Leon Russell, right onstage, feeding off the music. I was onstage with Bela Fleck and Merle Saunders — right there with people I’ve listened to for years.”

Sometimes Campbell even finds himself onscreen with his idols. Walking pre-concert at the Citrus Bowl with members of U-2 to a spot where they could sign his artistic tribute to them, Campbell’s visage was flashed on the Jumbotron as part of a face-by-face look at the band, doubtless to the confusion of thousands of die-hard U-2 fans (“Hey, who’s the new guy?”).

Campbell has painted live homages of everyone from Fats Domino to Yoko Ono, from Lenny Kravitz to Arlo Guthrie, from Taj Mahal to King Crimson. The artist’s most recent subjects include Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and company, as well as Rusted Root — both done at the recent Atlanta leg of the H.O.R.D.E. tour. Campbell will soon depart for assorted spots on the Lilith Fair circuit. He has “toured” with the Lollapalooza and Further festivals, among many others, and produced artwork for just about every notable event in between, including Woodstock ’94 (he contributed an original piece to the Woodstock Wall), the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, and the prestigious New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Campbell’s been featured on the front page of USA Today, among a plethora of national, regional and local publications.

Almost all of Campbell’s concert paintings are signed by the musicians themselves. Jimmy Buffet once remarked that Campbell’s surrealist take on him looked like something he had once dreamed himself. “I don’t try to do a realistic portrait,” Campbell explains. “I do an essence of a person … from their energy.” Legends like the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir have displayed the artist’s work in their homes and studios.

But Campbell is committed to honoring the energy of local, as well as world-renowned, talent. During a Bele Chere-weekend Goodies concert at Stella Blue, the artist will not only capture the theatrical band on canvas — he’ll equip them with specially painted 3-D outfits to wear onstage.

His messages of peace and love notwithstanding, the real unifying force in Campbell’s work seems to be his overwhelming passion for music.

“When I first started out, none of the paintings were for sale,” he recalls. “I was producing a book of stories, the adventure of getting there as much as the product. I wanted to keep them all together. … [Now] I’m in a weird predicament. I make a painting, and someone wants to buy it before it’s even finished. But I want to hang onto it for a while, because it’s my souvenir of the show. I’d rather have a painting than a T-shirt. As the year transpires … they’re easier to let go.”

Campbell’s frenzied way of working can be tough on his clothes — simultaneously dancing and painting means he never emerges from a show with a square inch of body left unsplattered. But watching his own wild performances and then viewing the finished product, he suggests, is similar to enjoying the band itself.

“The painting is like a tape of the show,” he remarks. “I’m trying to mix in elements of how I saw it, and I want you to feel how you’d feel if you saw a live band, then went out to buy the CD.”

For Campbell, substance always comes second to spirit. “A lot of the time, I don’t have the credentials to meet [a] band,” he notes. “The occasional manager will say, ‘What are you going to do with that painting?’. But it’s even more fun [when] I’m not ‘allowed’ to be there. The fun of getting there was the art — the painting is just a byproduct.”

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