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Robert Randolph

Robert Randolph

Sacred-secular steel

by James M. Manheim

From the June, 2015 issue

he tradition of so-called sacred steel, the pedal steel guitar as used in African American churches, developed within a single Pentecostal denomination with a very long name: The House of God, Which Is the Church of the Living God, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth Without Controversy, Inc. Church musicians began to experiment with the steel guitar, a Hawaiian import, in the 1930s, at the same time as it found its way into country music. Most House of God churches are in the Deep South, but the church has spread to the Northeast, and, in the 1990s in New Jersey, Robert Randolph learned the difficult instrument and began to attract attention at church conventions in Florida and then in New York City jam band-oriented clubs.

Randolph grew up in church, untouched by secular music, and part of the appeal of the recordings he's made with his Family Band (several cousins are members) is the unusual new stylistic compound that developed as he taught himself about music beyond gospel. The group's monster dance jams take off from the 1970s funk of Earth, Wind & Fire and the Ohio Players, a scorching version of whose "Love Rollercoaster" graces its latest album, Lickety Split. On top of this is a layer of rock guitar--Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton (a major Randolph champion), and Jimi Hendrix, whose way of defining vast musical spaces through the manipulation of a single note shows up in concert instrumental solos like "Ted's Jam." A Randolph show also still includes a few gospel pieces that give the steel a chance to sing in its country mode.

In the end, the guitar's the thing. The pedal steel is capable of horn-like blasts as well as flights of whining melodic ultra lyricism, but few players since the electric steel guitar's 1930s pioneer, Bob Dunn, have taken advantage of its full sound palette. Randolph is an extraordinary virtuoso who gives out constantly changing counterpoints to the band's funk beats:

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he can contrast a shimmering, almost organ-like sound to the wall of rhythm guitar, or step forward with solos that rival Hendrix. And he does it all seated, manipulating pedals and often taking vocals while he spins dense guitar lines.

Robert Randolph and the Family Band play the Ann Arbor Summer Festival Mainstage at Power Center on June 28. The only possible impediment to a good time might be the ushers, who may or may not let people follow their inevitable inclination to dance in the aisles.     (end of article)

[Originally published in June, 2015.]


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