For the uninitiated, here's the best possible way I can describe Robert Randolph's music:
Imagine if Jimi Hendrix and Mahalia Jackson had a child together. Present at the christening are Rev. James Brown, godparents Big Mama Thornton and Texas swing pedal steel legend Speedy West, Uncle George Clinton and step brother Sly Stone. Other guests include cousins John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf himself. This family of American influences is the backbone of the young boy's musical education, and they are all congregated in the famed House of God church where the pedal steel guitar is a key instrument used to communicate with the divine.
Those fortunate enough to be in attendance Friday, July 16th at The Pageant in St. Louis witnessed Robert Randolph & the Family Band deliver an exciting, fun and passionate show which turned the smoky music venue into a good old-time tent revival meeting in a seamless blending of the spiritual celebration and physical stamina.
Robert Randolph is the greatest living pedal steel guitarist and quite possibly one of the greatest of all time. As music fans, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to see the sunrise of a performer whose instrumental prowess, combined with a yearning message of the joys of being human and the pain of obstacles to overcome, makes for a satisfying, almost purifying musical experience. The audience swayed and shook in unity and even the bartenders were speaking in tongues.
The set consisted of a mix of originals such as "Nobody", "Smile" and "I Need Your Love" with inspired and sometimes unexpected cover songs like Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough", "Purple Haze" and a rip-snorting workout of Slim Harpo's blues classic "Shake Your Hips", during which the stage was full of audience members lost in a voodoo delta trance as Randolph slashed and thrashed some of the most gutbucket, edgy blues guitar you can imagine.
Itís a rare treat to hear sound innovators such as Robert Randolph actually interpret music, not merely cover it. This practice is an American musical tradition that has abated since the songwriting revolution of the 60s. It takes someone with the talent and musical vision of Mr. Randolph to put seemingly incongruous tunes into a completely different context. These cats could play "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and make it groove to the point where Mary could care less about her lost lamb because she's too busy shaking her ass.
The Family Band wielded considerable power and provided strong and agile support with plenty of room for complex and coherent improvisational tangents. These guys are tight. All are multi-instrumentalists and at one point each member took turns on various instruments without dropping a beat. Bassist Danyel Morgan deserves special recognition for his rock-solid command of the bottom end and his soaring, high vocal work on "Nobody". Drummer (and cousin to RR) Marcus Randolph kept the hard grooves rolling like a long-distance runner moving at 90 miles an hour towards a box of Wheaties. He's no slouch on the pedal steel, either, as the audience found out when he and his cousin switched places. Organist Jason Crosby plays a mean, growely organ providing tremendous texture and excitement throughout the show, especially during his solo on "Purple Haze".
Catch these guys when they're in your city. If you like powerful, emotional music played by guys who really mean it, this is your opportunity to see a band whose music and legacy will surely become part of musical history. Go watch it in the making.
(photo by Greg Berg)