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Cirque Du Soleil
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Patricia Barber
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Cirque Du Soleil
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Resolution
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Amos Lee
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Cover Story [Issue # 23 ]
Robert Randolph & The Family Band: Divine Steel

By Dean Truitt

Colorblind ( CD Warner Bros. )



While rock music is generally not known for spawning virtuosos to the same degree as the jazz or classical fields, the genre has yielded a select few who have so completely rewritten the language and range of expression on their instruments that their seismic wake influences other artists to approach music with an entirely new outlook.


Both Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen altered the technical and sonic capabilities of the guitar. Immediately after their respective debuts, one can hear a profound change in the musical landscape. At the same time, neither has been stylistically matched with any more creative validity than a parrot phonetically retracing human voice patterns. More recently, Blues Traveler’s John Popper has shifted the perceptions regarding a harmonica’s potential horizons. The latest musical pioneer to forge entirely new lands on his instrument is the rising maverick of pedal steel guitar, Robert Randolph.

For most people who even have a vague idea of a pedal steel’s tone, the instant association is with the sleepy, weepy molasses drawl of sound that spills across traditional county music records. Anytime a track contains the steel’s shimmering drip, it radiates the warmth of Americana or roots-tinged music. The pedal steel’s indelible presence historically resembles the aural equivalent of looking at a sepia-toned photograph. Almost always played seated, the relatively small 13-stringed, boxy instrument is exceedingly difficult to master, which is the primary reason for its relatively small circle of accomplished masters. For the past 50 years, a handful of pedal steel players have dominated Nashville recording sessions.

Robert Randolph’s ascent is astonishing on a number of levels. He discovered the instrument in the House of God, Keith Dominion’s sect of the Pentecostal Church. Within the group, sacred steel was an integral part of the worship service. Randolph developed an affinity for the sound and quickly gleaned the basics watching others performing in the church. Taking the euphoric, exuberant feel of his church services, he shifted that joyous, passionate heat onto his instrument. After a few years of playing in his native New Jersey, he and his cousins, Marcus Randolph and Danyel Morgan, on drums and bass, eventually found their way into the New York City club scene. The groups’s fervent performances and deafening industry buzz transformed Robert Randolph & the Family Band into critical darlings and jam band heroes.

Randolph is aware of his position and hopes that his example might offer new ideas to those following him, just as his influences inspired him, speculating, “I’m trying to create a new field and a new style that’ll influence some kids to go, ‘Wow, I can be Black and be from the inner city and I don’t have to be a rapper.’ I look at Sly Stone, how he came in and just ripped the music industry apart. I think music fans are ready for that again.”

After spending several years on tour in support of his first solo release, Unclassified, Randolph had garnered a far-reaching, diverse range of fans. Not surprisingly, some of his greatest admirers were musical icons. Once he began the process of writing and recording his sophomore studio release, Colorblind, the musician wanted to show his monumental creative growth, largely as the result of associating with rock music’s icons. In discussing his fortune to count such an amazing array of new peers, Randolph beams, “I wanted to really take this opportunity from a lot the musical geniuses that we have today in the music world, from: [Carlos] Santana, [Eric] Clapton, Rick Rubin, Daniel Lanois, Dave Matthews, and all these people. We wanted to capture the celebratory side of life. Having all that input, these guys were there to help me write great rock songs and be really celebratory. We wanted to create a kind of reborn Sly and the Family Stone meets Zeppelin meets Robert Randolph meets The Beatles, something like that.”

To have any one of the aforementioned names involved in one’s record would be a remarkable triumph, but to have all of them is inconceivable. In particular, Eric Clapton has served as a special mentor who has paid special attention to guide his young friend’s boundless talent. Randolph acknowledges, “I had a chance to tour with Clapton first and really get to know him. Through that time, he had become a really close friend. He wanted to have a lot of input on me growing as a singer and as a songwriter around the great guitar playing that was already there. Talking with him led to recording the version of that song, ‘Jesus Is Just Alright with Me’ together. From listening to so many different things and writing so many different tunes with him was what led to us having that great collaboration that we did.”
However, Clapton’s involvement far surpassed giving him musical tips. He went so far as to offer Randolph insight into developing and nourishing a lifelong career. From lengthy discussions and watching Slowhand perform, Randolph realized, “Clapton’s thing is when you have the guitar, you expand and write so many great songs that allow you to have a long career. He said, ‘Listen, you’re a great artist and I just want to make sure you’re here for a long time.’ I got to watch him on tour and learn from him and then sit down and play guitar thinking about [the] structure of writing songs. If you look at this guy, he’s got: Cream, Derek & the Dominos, and had his own thing. He’s had so many different musical things that went into in his own career. That was a great thing to learn from him: how to be unpredictable and not focus only on guitar, but focus on how guitar allows you to expand into other things.”

Based on his talks with Clapton, Randolph realized that he wanted to dig deeper into songwriting and push his group’s boundaries. Having dominated events like the Bonnaroo Festival, Robert Randolph was confident his band could deliver remarkable live shows. With his revivalist preacher charisma, unstoppable passion, and limitless talent, the performer’s goal was to create a classic record. On Colorblind each track carries the intense energy of his spirited live shows, but takes the listener on a souful journey.

From the opening track, “Ain’t Nothing Wrong with That,” the band grabs the listener’s ear and refuses to let go. With thunderous clapping, a greasy steel guitar riff, and an infectious vocal, Randolph kicks off the party. He credits a man who knows a few things about partying with style for the genesis of the song. He admits, “Believe it or not, that song was kind of inspired by a song [Aerosmith singer] Steven Tyler let me hear by a band called The Pretty Things, who were an old English band. The song was ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ and Steven said, ‘Man, you just remind me a lot of this old stuff and you could be the one young guy that could have party vibe going on with a great rock tune, but still be kind of new, urban, and joyful.’ So, that was one of the later songs that we wrote for this record. On the whole record, I was searching for this total party, tambourine, foot-stomping feel, but let it be kind of a new age thing.”

Though much mellower, Randolph’s song “Stronger,” shows sensitivity. He credits writing with skilled collaborators to developing his artistic vision and reflects, “I wrote that song with a guy named Steve McEwan, which was very early on, about a year and a half ago. He’s a writer from England who’s in the Nashville scene. He’s written a lot of big country songs and whatnot. At the time, it was right after the post-Katrina thing and a lot of people were down and out around the world. We wanted to have a song that if someone’s down, they can put that song on and it will help lift them up. If they don’t feel like rocking out, just go ahead and ease on into that one. We recorded it, but I couldn’t sing that one nowhere near as good as Leela James did. We searched around and she seemed like a perfect fit because she’s a close friend.”

Another inspiring track is the soulful, sultry beauty of “Angels.” Again, the master of steel is quick to credit the track’s inspiration. He relates, “’Angels’ was a guitar riff inspired by Daniel Lanois. It came from me and him sitting in a room and really coming up with all these swirling, atmospheric guitar sounds. It was something that was really kind of new in my world. He was saying, ‘This is going to be a great kind of love song for you.’ Having that idea, we wanted to have a song that talks about me and where I am right now. I was able to find that angel in my life. Sometimes, as men, we don’t like to give women the credit they deserve for really showing us a whole new way of life. When a woman comes along, that’s really your earthly angel. She’ll pick you up when you’re dirty, with socks all over the place and stuff like that (laughs), or when you’re depressed. That’s where that song came from. Me and Dave [Matthews] sat down and came up with a cool thing there.
As a man who has spent the last few years touring the globe with his relatives and best friends, Robert Randolph aptly concludes his recent album with “Homecoming.” He explains, “The inspiration for that one was that we wanted to have a smooth, almost urban feel. It was funny because it was the perfect ending to the record. The song talks about us being on the road with a lot of the bigger bands like Santana, Clapton, Dave Matthews, and Phish. That song gave us the opportunity to talk about how we’ve been so many places that sometimes we have to make that place our home. Most people get to go home after work, but we don’t get to have that feeling all the time. We’re gone from home so much. (Sings), “Homecoming, home, we’re ‘bout to go home.” Wherever we’re going, we want to bring everyone into our atmosphere when we’re on the road, because it basically is our home.”

Now that With the triumphant release of Colorblind, Robert Randolph & the Family Band can expect to be seeing a lot more of the road for years to come. Welcome home.



Colorblind
Warner Bros.

Divine Steel Robert Randolph & The Family Band Colorblind


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