"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.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Baker praises Japan's Iraq efforts

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker said Thursday the relationship between his country and Japan is "the best it has ever been."

In a luncheon speech at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, the 78-year-old Baker encouraged Japan to take its "rightful place as a great nation," but warned that with such a role come great responsibilities and implied that a willingness to project a nation's power overseas, including through the dispatch of military personnel, was part of fulfilling those responsibilities.

Beginning his remarks by offering condolences for the deaths of two Japanese diplomats in Iraq, Baker said, "We share the grief of the families and the Japanese people on the loss of these two brave public servants."

He praised the steps the government has taken thus far in support of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism and reconstruction effort in Iraq, and enumerated the U.S. successes in the rebuilding of Iraq.

He also addressed Japan's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, calling Japan "a great superpower" and reaffirming U.S. support for the effort and his personal belief that the prime minister was "up to the challenge" of leading the nation to a major role on the world stage.

Responding to questions about the possibility of terrorist attacks in Tokyo, Baker said, "Terrorism knows no boundaries." He said no nation was safe, but ultimately the best defense was strength and the best course for Japan was to join with other nations to show terrorists their attacks would not go unanswered.

The key political significance of Japan's dispatch of Self-Defense Forces to Iraq, regardless of the number, was that it symbolized the "unity of free peoples to face down terror." He said such a dispatch would demonstrate Japan's sense of responsibility as great nation and would be an expression of national determination for the country to "participate fully and freely in the cause of peace and stability."

The U.S. ambassador and former White House chief of staff under U.S. President Ronald Reagan said the global realignment of U.S. military forces currently being considered could lead to a reduction in U.S. troops in Japan. Whether any changes in the deployment of U.S. forces in Asia would involve reducing the number of personnel stationed in Okinawa prefecture or relocating them elsewhere in Japan was not yet know, he said.

The one thing Baker said he could be sure of was that, "nothing we do will diminish our commitment to the security of Japan. "

Baker reiterated the U.S. contention that evidence prior to the invasion of Iraq strongly indicated the presence of weapons of mass destruction, saying that the failure of the United States to find any WMD was an indication of the skill of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussien's regime at concealing such weapons, not proof the weapons did not exist.

Asked if the United States intended to take any action on WMD possessed by Israel in its efforts to eliminate WMD in the Middle East, Baker said Israel's possession of nuclear weapons was considered an accomplished fact and that his greatest worry was the threat posed by nuclear weapons in the hands of the "politically unstable regime" in North Korea.

"An accident is one thing, but an accident with a pocketful of nuclear bombs is something else," he said. Such an accident could take many forms from an error in orders by a junior officer in the demilitarized zone to a deteriorating political situation prompting a preemptive strike.

Copyright 2003 The Yomiuri Shimbun