By BRIAN F. JOHNSON
Musicians are like pro athletes, where sometimes against their better judgment or the advice of doctors, they need to suck up their pain and get through a performance even when their body needs rest and recovery.
Robert Randolph should have been on the disabled list most of this spring. After a show earlier this year, the towering pedal steel extraordinaire tripped and landed on his right hand — his picking hand, the magic hand — and broke two bones.
“It was just a freak thing right after a show, and all of my body weight went onto my hand,” Randolph said during a recent interview with The Marquee. “It was scary. I’m still doing my rehab and I had to have a bunch of pins and screws put in. I’m still working on getting all of the flexibility back at this point, and it’s going well, so far. It’s getting better day by day.”
Unlike pro athletes though, musicians don’t have disabled lists, nor do they have orthopedic surgeons waiting at their beck and call for spare-no-expense medical procedures, and so when it came time for Randolph to play shows with his namesake Family Band, and to do a series of reunion shows with his sacred steel super-group The Word, the guitarist had no choice but to soldier through. “I just had to grit my teeth and do the best I could,” he said. “You know most the time people playing the show shouldn’t be playing. Half the time they’re hoarse or their backs are hurting from too many days on the road, but we’re programmed to do it and we don’t get the time to let our bodies recover — not that I want to sound like I’m complaining.”
Randolph, who was named as one of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists, grew up in New Jersey idolizing the folks who played in the House of God Church band and said that for a good part of his childhood he was completely unaware of non-religious music. When he and his Family Band first started to take their church sets to clubs on Friday nights they didn’t know that they could just clock-in a two-hour set — they were playing three and four hour shows because they were used to that from church. That naïveté coupled with the Family Band’s insanely energetic shows, and Randolph’s virtuosic picking resulted in the band being signed to Warner Bros. and touring almost 300 days a year. “We used to play the clubs and not get out until 1 a.m. and then we’d have to show up at a radio gig at 8 a.m. and do an in-store at 2 p.m., a soundcheck at 6 p.m. and another show at 10 p.m. and the label would wonder why the show wasn’t that good,” Randolph said. “It’s like, ‘We just did four performances in 24 hours.’”
In addition to the exhaustion of the schedule, Randolph found himself robbed of time for creating new music. Now on Blue Note Records, Randolph has been able to slow his roll, so-to-speak (although it often doesn’t appear as such) and is now writing music at a staggering rate. “I’m always writing now, so I have so many songs. I’m sort of just giving them to the label and saying ‘Here’s 18 or 19 great songs. You guys pick what are on the record,’” he said. “With so many different ways to get your music out there these days it doesn’t really matter to me. We’ve got the album, exclusive tracks, b-sides, stuff for the internet or satellite radio, so to me there’s always a way to give our fans new music.”
And new music they shall receive soon in the form of a new Robert Randolph and the Family Band album Got Soul scheduled for release this fall. “We’re at the tail end of finishing it,” said Randolph. “We’re cleaning some stuff up and mixing some stuff, but it’s almost finished. I’m still writing new music, but for this album I’m finished writing.”
Randolph explained that Got Soul is a blend of not only his influences, but of the styles that he’s been playing for the last decade-plus, and he explained that just like when he sits down to practice whatever mood strikes him he follows. “One day I’m feeling country-ish. One day I’m feeling pop-ish and one day I feel like doing a twenty minute jam. So this is just me tying all of those things together,” he said.
Two albums with two different bands each with their own tour this year, all the while writing like mad, and nursing a broken hand back to game-day proficiency seems an insurmountable task, but Randolph makes it sound like it’s all a walk in the park. “Luckily I don’t have too much going on this year,” he said, before adding, “Well, it is a lot, but it’s not one of those four-shows-a-week kind of years.”
Robert Randolph and the Family Band
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