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This article by Richard Skelly was prepared for the June 30, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From Church to Club: Randolphs’ Musical Journey
Pedal steel player, song writer, and vocalist Robert Randolph was a little dismayed that elders at his church were not encouraging to him to take his unique brand of souped-up sacred steel music outside of the church. But his mother, a minister at the Church of God in Orange, and his father, a deacon there, encouraged him to “spread the gospel” of the sacred steel tradition — and he has. During the last few years, Randolph and his Family Band have earned a growing reputation for their intense, energy-packed shows, a blend of sacred steel (Gospel) tradition, blues, and soul-filled roots rock ‘n roll.
After gaining a solid following by playing at the Wetlands night club in lower Manhattan for three years, until it closed shortly after 9/11, Randolph and the Family Band are in demand at virtually every blues and folk festival around the U.S. and in Canada. Adding their home state to their tour, the musicians appear at Asbury Park’s Red, White & Blue Summer Concert Series at the Stone Pony on Friday, July 2.
Randolph, who will turn 26 on August 8, began playing drums at the Church of God in Orange as a seven-year-old. Raised in Irvington, he took up pedal steel at 17, an instrument that is at the heart of the sacred steel gospel tradition.
Randolph always wanted to take the pedal steel to the masses, and his dream began to take shape when a fellow parishioner lent him an album by late blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan’s style of Texas blues and roadhouse rock opened up whole new vistas of appreciation for Randolph.
“He was the first guy I really listened to,” Randolph explains from his new home in Morristown, where he moved recently to be closer to his managers, Gary Waldman and Jim Markel. “Before then,” he says, “I’d only heard people like (lap steel player) Chuck Campbell from the Campbell Brothers.” The Campbell Brothers are a sacred steel gospel group that performs mainly in churches, though in recent years, they’ve branched out to folk festivals around North America.
After starting out playing the standard six-string, Randolph graduated to a 13-string pedal steel. “I can be more versatile with the 13-string,” he says. “I can play country, I can play rock, I can play blues, I can play jazz, and I can also do some of the Stevie Ray Vaughan stuff.”
It was less than four years ago that Randolph left his day job as an assistant paralegal at a law firm in Roseland to make a go of his unique, fiery blend of gospel, blues, and roots-rock. Randolph has made a rapid rise to the top. His dream of bringing sacred steel music to the masses has come true, despite what some elders in his church said. The elders disapproved of Randolph’s playing out in night clubs like Wetlands, but it was through playing this club, as well as Mercury Lounge and Tobacco Road, that he came to the attention of Dave Matthews, who has become an important mentor.
Randolph and his Family Band, which includes Jason Crosby on Hammond B-3 organ, his cousin Danyel Morgan on bass, and his brother Marcus Randolph on drums, spent much of the spring opening shows for Eric Clapton in Europe.
In fact, the band hasn’t had a month off in over three years, Randolph says. “The last four months have been intense,” he says, “and even before this we were opening shows for Dave Matthews and the Allman Brothers.”
“There are so many great people at so many different levels, and we’ve also done a lot of TV shows, Letterman and the Today Show. It’s been a great thing, to share with people the sound and energy of the sacred steel playing, and it seems to be something the older rock ‘n roll fans can relate to.”
Randolph says his parents won’t come to a nightclub where alcohol is served, but they will come to an outdoor festival or to shows at other venues. He credits his parents with being “100 percent supportive” of his efforts to take pedal steel music to the masses.
“Our church is established all over the East Coast, from Boston all the way down to Florida, and the sacred steel tradition has been going on since the 1930s,” he says. “That was when you’d first see guys playing lap steel and pedal steel in the church. It’s got a long tradition, but it just hasn’t reached out to the people the way it should have reached out by now.”
Randolph’s first big break was the chance to record for Chris Strachwitz’ Arhoolie Records, a small record company based in northern California that specializes in a variety of ethnic folk music and obscure blues musicians. Arhoolie Records has released several excellent albums and a video documenting the African-American sacred steel gospel music tradition.
More recently, Randolph and the Family Band were signed to a multi-album deal with Warner Brothers. Their debut for the label, 2003’s “Unclassified,” has been a critical success, but has not yet racked up huge sale numbers. The band’s earlier release, on Randolph’s own Dare Records label, is a live album from Wetlands that perfectly documents and captures the energy and spirit of the band’s spirited shows. On “Live at the Wetlands” Randolph performs soaring, super-quick pedal steel solos, while energetic bass and drums highlight the melodies. The group romps and stomps their way through their set to an adoring crowd at the club, performing originals like “Pressing My Way” and “The March,” as well as a superb, inspiring version of Slim Harpo’s blues classic “Shake Your Hips.”
Randolph says “a lot of the chord changes are the same,” in gospel and the blues music and “that’s why the real bluesy stuff has a soulful, gospelly edge to it.” California soul-blues singer E.C. Scott once said that gospel is about the afterlife while blues is about the life we’re living right now, and Randolph says, “that’s right on the money!”
Of the tour in the spring with Clapton, which continues this summer in the United States, Randolph says, “he’s been telling a lot of people he’s really enjoying our music. He selected us from a list of bands to open for him and play with him.” Clapton has Randolph join his band on stage later during his concerts, “and playing with him has just been awesome,” he says. “Some of the tunes he likes to close with are the old Cream tunes, so it’s been really cool.”
After taking the month of August off, the band will start a tour in September, opening for Lenny Kravitz. Then they will have the chance to expose the sacred steel, blues and gospel traditions to a whole new audience, perhaps one that isn’t so steeped in the classic rock and blues-rock of Clapton’s fans.
“We’ll be on tour with Lenny, and we’ll be doing some shows on our own, and by winter time, we’ll be recording another album,” Randolph says. The band played a sold out show in Asbury Park in March at the Paramount Theater, next to Convention Hall.
“I like playing in Asbury Park,” says Randolph, “because of the history. It’s one of those towns where lots of people used to go for music. Now, half the town is getting revamped and there’s a new vibe to it.”
Robert Randolph and the Family Band, at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, on Friday, July 2. Doors open at 6 p.m. Also playing, Matt O’Ree and the Blues Hounds and Borialis.
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