Music review: Robert Randolph and his steel strings of glory
Written by Brian Q. Newcomb
July 6, 2010
Much as T Bone Burnett turned a spotlight on Americana's country gospel roots on his soundtrack for the Coen Brothers' film "O Brother, Where Art Thou," which turned music fans attention back onto the likes of Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Norman Blake, Ralph Stanley, The Whites, and many more, he conspires with ace pedal steel player Robert Randolph to do much the same with the African American church music tradition.
Burnett is one of my favorites – not only is he a fine writer and performer with a storied history going back to Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Tour with his Texas bandmates in Alpha Band, but Burnett has had a knack for producing some of the best albums from some of my favorite artists.
From commercial successes like Los Lobos, Counting Crows, The Wallflowers, and of course the Robert Plant & Alison Krauss 2007 Grammy-winning Album of the Year, "Raising Sand," to more critical successes with Leslie/Sam Phillips, Elvis Costello, Peter Case, Tonio K., Bruce Cockburn, The BoDeans, and many, many more, you can count on Burnett not only for helping an artist tap into their best possible sounds and dig deep to deliver their most memorable songs, but to create a connection that – for lack of another word – strikes me as spiritual.
And so, it's no surprise that someone thought to bring Burnett together with Robert Randolph, a young pedal steel player with amazing potential that has yet thrive on a studio recording. Raised in the "sacred steel" tradition of the House of God, an African American Pentecostal tradition, where the pedal steel guitar sound was adapted to replace the Hammond organ, providing a less expensive, more mobile alternative.
It says something about this faith community that they could adapt a "secular" instrument for worship, thus sanctifying a worldly tone. But it's also clear that Randolph has brought the music into places the church folk who encouraged him to learn the instrument at 17 never intended - and they still rebuke him for taking God's music into clubs.
All the youthful energy, musical virtuosity and promise of Robert Randolph were present on that first early recording (2001), "Live at the Wetlands," as a sweaty mix of spiritual calisthenics and dance-floor sexuality struggles for dominance. You can't hear "The March," "Pressing My Way," and "Tears of Joy" and not feel the soaring spiritual connection that influenced the early efforts of Randolph and his Family Band, but there's no doubt that "Shake Your Hips" found the band grounded in a very human party. You can hear how Randolph's band mixes churchy gospel sounds with the funk and bluesy rock of their mainstream heroes: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sly & the Family Stone, The Allman Bros., and George Clinton.
But two studio albums have failed to make Randolph the household name his talent suggests, after playing alongside Eric Clapton and Dave Matthews Band. "Unclassified" ('03) was an attempt to turn RR&FB into a contemporary Christian music act, a rather pathetic soulless effort, even if some of the songs worked at some superficial level. "Colorblind" ('06) was considerably better, emphasizing a recovery of the band's funk roots on the winning "Ain't Nothing Wrong With That" and duets with Clapton on "Jesus Is Just Alright (Doobie Bros. version)" and with Matthews on "Love Is the Only Way."
Which is to say, that while Robert Randolph has made a splash in this first decade of recording and touring, he needs a record that folk can take seriously, a good record that brings together that which is most unique, intriguing and pleasing about his sound, and the T Bone Burnett produced "We Walk This Road" is that record.
But of course he overshoots this modest goal in the liner notes when suggesting that it "is a celebration of African-American music over the past 100 years." This is not a studious academic work (no matter how hard Burnett worked them in the studio), like a Ken Burns' national public television 13 part documentary, or even a four disc collection that moves from field slave songs to church music and blues, etc.
The movement here is more organic, as it captures the spirit of the music's evolution from what it was to what it is, although the smart use of vintage sounding recordings of traditional gospel/blues songs, that segue into the new Robert Randolph versions has a profound effect. It's especially effective on the opening "Traveling Shoes" and Blind Willie Johnson's "If I Had My Way."
To Randolph's benefit, Burnett has turned down the band, softened the tempos and opened up some space for his eloquent and emotionally fluid steel soloing to get the attention it deserves. But there are surprises in the song choices too. Take Bob Dylan's fine but overlooked "Shot of Love," the third and perhaps the last from his "Christian" era. There's "Walk Don't Walk" by Prince – now if I was going to get Randolph to cover one gospel song by this guy it would probably be "The Cross" – and John Lennon's "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama."
Plus, Burnett brings along some great songwriters from his past: Peter Case, who's "I Still Belong to Jesus" gets a wonderful reading, and Tonio K. These two collaborate with Randolph and Burnett on numerous tracks that move from traditional roots to thoroughly modern statements. Ben Harper shows up sing and play slide on "If I Had My Way," and Leon Russell adds a delicate piano to the set closing "Salvation."
Lyrically, the project aims at a spirituality that won't be confined by conservative religious conceptions, just as Randolph's music can't be contained in any building or subculture defined as "Christian," rather it has the potential to create a sacred space wherever it's played.
The Rev. Brian Q. Newcomb is Senior Minister at David's UCC in Kettering, Ohio, and a long-time music critic published in Billboard, CCM Magazine, Paste, The Riverfront Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among others. Additional content from Brian is available in his Quincessentials blog at myUCC.