Photos by Lou Montesano
If you haven’t discovered Robert Randolph yet, hopefully, for your sake, that’s about to change. Because, let it be said plainly and clearly, Robert Randolph is to his chosen instrument what Jimi Hendrix was to his.
Tall praise, for sure, but take a close listen and, just as you hear the electric guitar being revolutionized through Jimi’s Fender Stratocaster, Marshall stack and Vox wah-wah pedal, you’ll hear Randolph reinventing the form and function of the pedal steel guitar, a venerable instrument found chiefly these days in Nashville-style country music, but also known in Randolph’s formative gospel days as the “sacred steel.” Keep listening and you’ll feel the ways the playing of both players can smack you flat in the face with raw physical power. You’ll hear the ways they sneak into your brain through some side door with irresistible electric tone. And, virtuoso playing aside, you’ll realize they’re both drawing on some of the deepest roots of American music– African-American rhythm, blues and soul being their common ground. If Hendrix is where “Beethoven Meets The Blues,” Randolph is where sacred steel breaks out of church to “Tear the Roof Off The Sucker.”
In the run up to the January release of Got Soul – Robert Randolph and the Family Band’s first album on the Sony Music Masterworks label – Elmore had a chance to chat with Randolph about where his musical inspiration comes from, what’s cool about the new album, and where he wants to go from here.
On his influences:
“The Staples were big. They sang inspirational songs with a positive message. It’s great music – it still sounds fresh listening to it today. Growing up in the church, I was listening to great pedal steel players– it’s called ‘sacred steel’ in our church. Those were the guys I wanted to sound like. Later, the big secular music influences were James Brown, Stevie Ray Vaughan and basically everyone on the STAX label.
On signing with Sony Music Masterworks:
“I feel like I’m over the hump now with Sony. There’s no distractions. All I want to do, and all they want me to do, is make great music.”
On the new album:
“I wrote thirty songs for Got Soul and we cut twelve. I wanted this record to be just about the power of good, wholesome music.”
On the future:
“A few years ago, I was with Eddie Kramer and Carlos Santana in a studio, and there was a moment they were both saying how, back in the day, they never thought they’d be here still making music at this age. Santana said, “You are who you are.” What I took from that is, it’s about continually building, being confident to be yourself. I just want to continue to find opportunities to put out great music. You find that, with good songs and great playing, everything falls into place. Making good music, that’s the goal. Everything else is secondary.”
“Good music, great playing” – it just doesn’t get any better than the cover of the Sam & Dave classic, “I Thank You,” on Got Soul. It’s a tune Randolph said has been suggested to him many times over the years, and he brought in Cory Henry to share lead vocals. It’s musical dynamite, the perfect entrée for anyone to Robert Randolph and the Family Band’s music– keynote to the year he finally breaks out?
Intense, incandescent, the music of Robert Randolph– tunes, tone, spirit– stands as tall as, if not taller than, anything on the contemporary music scene. The classic phrase once used to describe the Grateful Dead on their best days should now be accorded to this guy: he’s not just the best at what he does, he’s the only one who does what he does.
Read our review and see more pictures of their November performance at Brooklyn Bowl HERE.