"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Last month's CD review

Robert Randolph and the Family Band
JapanTour -- Dec. 9 - 12
The cat is out of the bag on one of the best kept secrets in music.

The aptly titled Unclassified is the first major label release by Robert Randolph and the Family Band.

The group's roots rock R&B sound is slightly different from the standard guitardriven instrumentation, eschewing a second rhythm guitar for John Ginty's funky Hammond organ and piano. The key difference though is that the band is built around Robert Randolph's pedal steel guitar instead of the usual six-string electric sound.

While slide guitar is a rock and blues staple, the more fluid sound of the pedal steel guitar is generally associated with the slippery, weeping sound of Nashville's country crooners. The 10, 13 or 20 stringed pedal steel guitar is played seated at a desk-like platform, plucked with a pick, fretted with a slide and foot pedals are used to modify the sound. They may not look as cool as a low-slung Stratocaster, but they sound like a blues dobro on steroids in the hands of an expert like Randolph.

New Jersey native Randolph, 25, came to the instrument through the "sacred steel" tradition of the House of God Church. Congregations unable to afford expensive organs began substituting the pedal steel guitar to accompany choirs in the 1930's and an African-American tradition grew up apart from the instrument's country and western roots. Randolph's father was deacon in the church and his mother a minister and Randolph began playing pedal steel in church as a teenager, after his parents divorced. His father remarried with the daughter of sacred steel legend Ted Beard, who taught Randolph the basics and encouraged him to play in church.

Joined by cousins Danyel Morgan and Marcus Randolph on bass and drums respectively, the Family Band was born.

Randolph's sound is reminiscent of slide guitar great Duane Allman, Canadian rock and blues slide player Jeff Healy and Lenny Kravitz filtered through Stevie Wonder, with a dash of Stevie Ray Vaughn's blues fire thrown in for good measure.

Anchored by the Morgan's funked-up bass, Unclassified is energetic, soulful and driving, with Randolph's extended seat-of the pants soloing broken by occasional keyboard wails and screams and impassioned vocals from both Randolph and Morgan, whose clean falsetto gets a work out on the funky Stevie Wonderesque rave-up "I Need More Love" and the more mellow, minorkey "Problems."

Randolph may be the star attraction, but Morgan is the band's not-so-secret weapon with his complex slap and twang playing style giving the Family Band a driving funk-soul feel.

Randolph's gospel roots show through despite the secular songs, giving tunes like "Going in the Right Direction" a decidedly spiritual flavor in a Sly and the Family Stone kind of way.

The ballad "Smile" is a true family affair that features Randolph on acoustic guitar and shining guest vocals from Robert's sister Lenesha Randolph and cousin Ricky Fowler.

Playing to the frontman's true strengths, four of the 11 tracks on Unclassified are instrumentals. "Squeeze" has a southern rock jam feel to it, with the combination of pedal steel and Hammond organ evoking the best of the Allman Brothers Band The album's closing track, the instrumental "Run For Your Life" is so scorching it ought to come with a warning to keep it away from flammable liquids.

The level of talent, soul and great grooves found here ensure that more will be heard from Robert Randolph and the Family Band and their December tour of Japan should be one of the year's hottest tickets.

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