:: Robert Randolph and the Family Band :: Fox Theatre :: March 3 and 4 ::
By Brian Kenney
It’s not really about how good you play guitar, it’s about how you play guitar. It’s about the passion, it’s about the phrasing, it’s about personifying an inanimate object and making that thing stand up and command a presence as if it was a preacher. It’s about making that guitar tell a story.
This is how Robert Randolph approaches his art, and this is how he approached his latest disc Colorblind. This is also how he approached recording with his boyhood hero, Eric Clapton.
His weapon is not the usual six string slung-over-the-shoulder Strat or Les Paul, but the pedal steel guitar…all 10 or 12, or in his case, 13 strings of it. For Randolph, playing the pedal steel has not been a puzzling, mystifying endeavor as it has been for so many who have placed the perplexing steel lap jack over their knees. It has been a family endeavor and a spiritual one.
“I just wanted to be a player in church,” Randolph said of the spiritual roots of playing the pedal steel, in a recent interview with The Marquee. “Our church, the House of God [Orange, New Jersey] is where I grew up watching guys play the pedal steel guitar. Then when I started to play the bars, I started to meet some people.”
Randolph’s location in the Grammy-worthy hierarchy was secured long before he stepped onto the stage of last year’s Grammys for a show-stealing Sly and the Family Stone tribute, flanked by Sly, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, and Black Eyed Peas’ Will.I.Am, among others.
His location was etched in stone long before Clapton requested to sit in and record new tracks for his latest offering Colorblind and long before Grammy nominations; before he received tour invites from Santana, the Allman Brothers, and last year the Black Crowes and Dave Matthews; before his collaborations with John Medeski and the North Mississippi All Stars; and, of course, before his yearly sets at Bonnaroo.
Yes, before all of this, there was “The March.”
“Y’all ready for ‘The March?’” Randolph asks on Live at the Wetlands, before breaking into a quick-picking rollicking soul jam so identifiable with this lap pedal steel prodigy, that it set the tone for his career. “The March” is both identifiable and immediate — and immediate is a word so identifiable with Randolph.
Early on, he heard Stevie Ray Vaughan and his interest was immediately peaked. Born into a musical North Jersey family (cousins Danyel Morgan [bass/vocals], Marcus Randolph [drums], and Long Islander Jason Crosby [Hammond B-3 organ, piano] round out the rest of the Family Band), Randolph’s interest in the pedal steel had humble but spiritual beginnings
Word spread quickly, especially in the clubs of Manhattan where Randolph, along with early interpretations of the Family Band, had some of his first gigs; where industry folk galore lined up to meet, see and witness Randolph, who many in the industry called a “prodigy” of a lost art. Soon enough, Robert Randolph & The Family Band: Live at the Wetlands catapulted this unassuming North Jersey-born player into a limelight that in the past stood reserved for the likes of Duane Allman and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
An immediate impact in music followed, with musicians literally pouring out of the woodwork to play with him. Dave Matthews was an early supporter. “When I first saw Robert, what struck me was this beautiful sincerity in what he’s doing,” Matthews has said on his website.
The singer/songwriter was among the most recent guests on Randolph’s latest disc Colorblind. “We only had three guests (on Colorblind), Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews and Leela James,” said Randolph. “It’s like when Duane Allman came out. When he first appeared, everyone wanted to play with him. Santana and [Steven] Tyler wanted to do something [with me], but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work.”
He didn’t exactly turn down Tyler and Santana, but instead he — and Colorblind producer Tommy Sims — opted to save those rough drafts for a rainy day. “Sometimes it works right away and sometimes you save those songs for later down the road. If I could, I’d have put out a double album,” Randolph said.
The legendary Sims had a big part in shaping Colorblind, which features Clapton on a cover of the Byrds’ “Jesus Is Just Alright With Me” and Matthews on a tune entitled “Love Is the Only Way.”
While he humbly recognizes his popularity growing, and he is aware of the clout of the artists who desire to work with him, Randolph isn’t caught up in the hoopla that goes with it, and part of that could be because he never saw a concert until relatively recently. “I’d never been to a concert before the year 2000. So I have no great concert memories or a memorable show that inspired me. I watched all the old guys on lap pedal steel play and I can tell you a hundred stories of those guys bringing the house down,” he said.
:: Robert Randolph and the Family Band ::
:: Fox Theatre :: March 3 and 4 ::
Spectate if you Gravitate:
• Eric Clapton
• Stevie Ray Vaughan
• Jimi Hendrix