Randolph plays a righteous steel guitar

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

October 16, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison

For weeks, I heard the buzz about Robert Randolph and the Family Band -- heard this cat Randolph can play the steel guitar with lyrical grace. Heard that his sound is old and new, sanctified, Southern-fried, uptown and freewheeling.

Of course, all of it turns out to be true.

When I finally heard the relentless, propulsive music on the group's recently released major-label debut, Unclassified, I was charged and drained. I wanted to hear (and feel) more, and that's always a good thing.

I'm tempted to call the guys a rock band, because the energy is so high-octane. But that label really doesn't fit. Randolph leads the group with a steel guitar, giving the songs, at times, a distinctive twang. Country? Soul? Uh-uh. Those labels won't do. Like a lot of great music, Randolph's sound isn't going to easily fit into one slot. And the group knows this very well. Why else would the guys call the album Unclassified? When you break it on down, it's about transferring energy, communicating through a kaleidoscope of styles: blues, funk, rock, whatever hits and feels right.

On his cell phone at a tour stop in Charlotte, N.C., Randolph tries to sum up his organic approach. "Being that we had recorded a live album with really long jams, we just wanted to capture that same vibe on the album," says the singer-musician, 26. "Everybody singing along, just a real fun vibe. Nowadays, people don't like to put that energy into recorded music anymore."

Randolph and the fellas evoke the we-don't-give-a-damn-just-get-up ethos of Sly and the Family Stone and vintage Santana. Like those legendary groups, the Family Band, at the drop of a back beat, mixes flavors wildly. The quartet just follows the inspiration. It all flows from the Spirit, you see. As the O'Jays would say, There's a message in the music.

Born and raised in Irvington, N.J., Randolph grew up in the church, which explains the sanctified sound that burns through Unclassified. But the performer had it rough coming up.

"We were close to Newark and Orange," he says, "so things got really bad. I'm talking about murder and crime and drugs. As a child, when you're around all these things, you somehow become a part of it because you're curious. And I became a part of it too."

While Randolph often found himself in trouble -- cutting class, hanging with knuckleheads who were always up to no good, his parents provided a solid spiritual foundation. Every Sunday, they dragged his butt to the House of God Church in Orange, where his father was a deacon, his mother a minister. But Randolph's parents divorced after the boy finished high school. He was lost for a while as he ran the streets and hung out on corners with his shiftless homeboys.

Eventually, though, Randolph found his way back to the church. Once a drummer for the youth choir, the artist, at 17, switched to the steel guitar -- an instrument that has been a part of the House of God Church since the 1930s. Usually associated with country and Hawaiian music, the steel guitar was used initially as a substitute for organs, which most black churches, back in the day, could not afford.

Randolph supported the choir and accented the preacher's sermons with his licks on the steel guitar. Outside the church, though, he hooked up with his cousins Danyel Morgan (bass) and Marcus Randolph (drums), and the guys extended the holy rock-and-soul that germinated in the Lord's house. Inspired by the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the band recorded a demo, which found its way to the promoter for the North Mississippi All-Stars. The group opened for NMA at Manhattan's Bowery Ballroom. Soon afterward, the Family Band played clubs in Greenwich Village and released independently the critically lauded Live at the Wetlands.

The singer-musician says, "There was some pressure, saying that we were wrong for going away from the church. But I didn't feel that what we were doing was negative, especially since the music was so positive."

Randolph's singing may not be that strong. At times, he sounds unsure of himself at the mike. But he more than compensates for it on the steel guitar, making the instrument cry, moan, wail and shout. He achieves what players typically strive to do: make the instrument human.

"I have a lot of influences, man," Randolph says. "Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Al Green, Anita Baker. Her style of singing is so smooth. I try to play like her voice, but it's hard."

Randolph wants to make music that inspires folks to move. But ultimately, the man has his eyes fixed on longevity.

"So many of my peers are doing this gangsta stuff," says the singer, who sports cornrows when he's not rocking a fedora. "I just don't wanna do that. ... I just want to use my musical talent to bring that old-time vibe back, a more positive way of approaching life. I'm not a preacher, but I try to steer people to a better path."

Amen.

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