Tony Cummings reports on that master of the pedal steel guitar and his funky accompanists, ROBERT RANDOLPH AND THE FAMILY BAND.
When specialist blues label Arhoolie Records began to release a series of albums deriving from an obscure African American denomination on the East Coast of America few people could have imagined that they were to be the springboard for one of America's brightest blues rock talents. But Arhoolie's 'Sacred Steel' volumes, showcasing the stunning talents of steel guitar virtuosos from the House Of God churches were the first release to shine the spotlight on Robert Randolph. Today with his fierily funky Family Band, Robert is receiving awards and accolades as one of contemporary music's most exciting talents and 2006's critically acclaimed tour supporting Eric Clapton has now been followed by the dazzling 'Colorblind' album on which 'Slowhand' guests.
Robert Randolph was raised as the son of a House of God deacon (his father) and pastor (his mother) and turned to the church in earnest at the age of 17. Seeking solace form the rough streets of Orange, New Jersey, following the shooting death of his best friend, Randolph embraced the teaching, preaching and music of the church he had grown up in. He got involved with the worship team by learning drums, but soon moved to the 13-string pedal steel guitar at the centrepiece of the service. The wail of the steel guitar had been a ubiquitous element of his spirituality. He told Cornerstone magazine, "I never thought about it really. It was just part of my church thing. As a young kid I only went to 'our style' churches; I didn't go to all the other churches. It's just a part of my whole culture I guess."
In Christian Herald Robert explained just how his church's unique take on worship music had evolved. "In my church - the House of God Church - during the 1920 and '30s, there were some guys who knew a couple of Hawaiians who played lap steel. These guys later became a part my church and started playing this style of pedal steel guitar which would sound like the human voice. In those days, southern black churches couldn't afford an organ or piano, so these guys' job was to strum the guitar and make it sound like a singer. Through the years, different guys picked it up and incorporated their own styles; people such as Calvin Cookes, Ted Beard, Henry Nelson and Lorenzo Harrison. Those guys were my guitar heroes. They created the sound that I came from,. I looked up to them the way some other guitarist might look up to a BB King or a Jimi Hendrix. My parents and grandparents all grew up in that church and I was born into it and picked up the musical style."
Randolph quickly rose through the ranks of sacred steel players, adding a freshness and youthful verve to the genre just as it was being introduced to the masses. Randolph appeared at the Sacred Steel Convention in1999 and was noticed by one Jim Markel who introduced him to a manager, Gary Waldman. The two quickly established Randolph as one of the top draws in the New York City club scene, opening for major acts like the North Mississippi All-Stars (NMA) and Medeski, Martin and Wood before becoming a headliner in his own right. John Medeski, along with members of NMA and Randolph, formed a new group called The Word and in 2001 released a critically acclaimed instrumental blues record that featured Randolph and the sacred steel style.
In 2002 Robert had formed The Family Band. The line up - Jason Crosby on keyboards and violin, Robert's cousin Danyel Morgan on bass and vocals, and Marcus Randolph (another cousin) on drums - was an exceptional one. "We all grew up in church playing," explained Robert. "My sister Lenesha sings on the album and with us at shows; my brother sings with us at shows, and so do some other cousins. I knew this sort of thing would happen; that's why I named the band The Family Band. In the States, some critics have likened us to Sly & The Family Stone. I think that's because we create that family atmosphere. Sly & The Family Stone came from church too; they had that gospel background and they created that vibe where if you grow up in church, you're used to everybody singing along and clapping and different things going on which make it sound like a good time."
Signed to Warner Bros, Robert Randolph & The Family Band released 'Live At The Wetlands' in the autumn of 2003. With its searing steel solos and bluesily funky sound it was a revelation and soon the band were touring coast to coast and dominating the growing 'jam band' scene on American college campuses. Ironically, Randolph had never even heard of the jam band scene prior to his arrival there. "I had no clue about it," he admitted, "no clue." Though upon further consideration he admitted the scene exists for a reason. "To tell you the truth, a lot of people in the 'jam band' circuit only go to those shows because the mainstream scene has gotten so bad. They've become fans of this scene because they can't hear good stuff on the radio anymore." So Robert Randolph & The Family Band brought the passionate music of the House of God to smoky bars and juke joints across they country. "Basically it was where I ended up," he offered. "It's just the scene we were plugged into first. I don't mind playing in any scene, to tell you the truth. I do what I can do and let it reach the people, whoever they may be." Asked by Cornerstone magazine if he was surprised to see so many white college kids at his shows, the admitted it caught him off guard at one time. "At the beginning I was [surprised]. But I realise that good music is good music. Everybody loves good music. Everybody has a soul. When you are able to make soul-stirring music it breaks down any racial barrier that might be there. God is God; he is everybody's God. There's no racial thing going on there."
In the summer of 2003 Warner Bros released the band's 'Unclassified' album and with dates with the Dave Matthews Band and some rave reviews the album sold well. But hearteningly Robert Randolph & The Family Band also pursued the Christian audience playing at several US Christian festivals. Robert spoke to CCM magazine about his determination to keep a foot in the Christian music world while remaining relevant to the mainstream. He said, "A lot of people who grow up in church don't take those teachings with them when they go outside [in the mainstream world]. We can help somebody else get through rough times just through what we've been taught about God. Especially being a young African American musician, I see so many of my own brothers and sisters not trying to deliver a good message in a world today. All these people have all these talents and have nothing good to say about life. If I don't sell a million records, but if we help people move toward being a better person in life and lean more toward believing in God, that will mean a lot."
As it turned out, it was to be three years before 'Unclassified' received its eagerly awaited follow up with 'Colorblind'. He explained to journalist Andrea Farias why the follow up took so long. "We just wanted to take our time and get a lot of input from different artists, from people like [Eric] Clapton, Dave Matthews, even people like Marvin Winans, on how to take it to the next level. That was cool. Once we got to that point where it'd already been awhile [since 'Unclassified'], we just wanted to take our time and really use that opportunity, 'cause when the opportunity comes to work with great people like that, you've just gotta go with it and take your time. It was fun getting input from [Carlos] Santana and Eric Clapton especially, because they're pioneer guitar players, which is kinda what I want to do. And their thing was to try to come up with the best song that you can come up with or create your own vibe. And most of those guys, when they saw us, they see this great celebration of life, kind of party vibe, so they helped me kinda capture some of those things in the studio.
"It's great, just to be able to have that thing with them. It's fun to be able to be appreciated by people from all genres of music-rock, R&B, soul, gospel, all kinds. And for them to really want to help me out and help me get to the next level, that's enough.
Robert went on to speak about his relationship with Eric Clapton. "I toured with him and I got a chance to really get to know him. We would sit down, do a sound check, and just talk about music. He was working on his record at the time. One day we were sitting down to eat when all of a sudden the old version of [The Doobie Brothers'] 'Jesus Is Just Alright' came on. He said, 'Why don't we just try this one? This will be great up there.' So we got into the studio and we knocked that out. So to be able to have that relationship with him and just see him in the studio recording was a great thing."
Robert was asked whether it was important to him that the guests on his album were on the same wavelength spiritually. He responded, "I've worked with so many other songwriters, some of us just wasn't in the same headspace. That's always important-to get somebody who does believe and who knows. Take a song like 'Ain't Nothing Wrong With That'. I worked on it with two producers, Drew & Shannon, who are from Nashville. We talked and talked about making this thing that's joyful, about pulling everybody in and just have it be a thing where you can have a good time. We wanted a great rock song that lasts forever without really trying to preach to somebody, saying, "You need to do this or do that." And it just so happened that, working with them, they were in the same headspace and believed in the same things that I believed in. And that was a huge part of this record."
Although Robert will admit that for some, Robert's sublime musicianship and winning way with scorching pedal steel solos is just another fix of party-on hedonism, others in the audience do catch the spiritual vibe behind what he does. "Some people do come to the shows and are spiritually uplifted. The message that we portray, and the thing that we're trying to do, is to really love life and enjoy life. If you don't love yourself, you really don't love nobody else. For example, last night, I was in a restaurant and a guy walks up to me and says, 'Hey, Robert, can I just give you a hug?' And I'm like, 'Yeah.' And he's hugging me like I'm his dad or something. So he started to tell a story of how he spent about eight months in jail. And when he got out, the first song he heard was a song from Unclassified called 'Going In The Right Direction'. And he said it instantly changed his life. A song like that talks about getting people to love themselves and love life and really enjoy being here. I grew up in the inner city, in northern New Jersey, and all of the time I would see some of my friends say, 'I don't care! So what?' A lot of people get into that mind frame, so you want to get them to love themselves and then get them to believe in God and everything else, you know."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.