Cover Story [Issue
Robert Randolph & The Family Band:
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
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 Travelers John Popper has shifted
the perceptions regarding a harmonicas 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 steels 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 steels
shimmering drip, it radiates the warmth of Americana or roots-tinged music.
The pedal steels 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
Robert Randolphs ascent is astonishing on a number of levels. He discovered
the instrument in the House of God, Keith Dominions 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 groupss 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,
Im trying to create a new field and a new style thatll influence
some kids to go, Wow, I can be Black and be from the inner city and I
dont 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
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 musics 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
To have any one of the aforementioned names involved in ones 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 friends 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, Claptons 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,
Claptons 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,
youre a great artist and I just want to make sure youre 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, hes got: Cream, Derek & the Dominos, and had his
own thing. Hes 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
Based on his talks with Clapton, Randolph realized that he wanted to dig deeper
into songwriting and push his groups 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 performers 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, Aint Nothing Wrong with That, the
band grabs the listeners 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 Dont
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, Randolphs 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. Hes a writer from England
whos in the Nashville scene. Hes 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 someones down, they can put that song on and it will help lift them
up. If they dont feel like rocking out, just go ahead and ease on into
that one. We recorded it, but I couldnt sing that one nowhere near as
good as Leela James did. We searched around and she seemed like a perfect fit
because shes a close friend.
Another inspiring track is the soulful, sultry beauty of Angels.
Again, the master of steel is quick to credit the tracks 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 dont like to give women the credit they deserve for really
showing us a whole new way of life. When a woman comes along, thats really
your earthly angel. Shell pick you up when youre dirty, with socks
all over the place and stuff like that (laughs), or when youre depressed.
Thats 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 weve been so many places that sometimes
we have to make that place our home. Most people get to go home after work,
but we dont get to have that feeling all the time. Were gone from
home so much. (Sings), Homecoming, home, were bout to go home.
Wherever were going, we want to bring everyone into our atmosphere when
were 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.