He started out in church, but what he's doing now makes some say that he's playing the devil's music. Sacred steel guitarist Robert Randolph doesn't pay it any mind. "I'm the one out there, and I'm seeing how the music has uplifted so many people and so many people are now feeling better about life because of the music we play and the songs that we sing. So, I let people say what they want to say on that end."
Randolph had previously only played gospel music in the House of God Church in Orange, N.J. The concept of substituting a steel guitar for an organ began in the '30s, when neighborhood Pentecostal churches too poor to afford an organ discovered the steel guitar was just as expressive for much less money. Hook up a wah-wah pedal and you can make the thing talk.
Randolph first stepped out of the church when he was invited to join the North Mississippi Allstars and Medeski, Martin & Wood's Jon Medeski for The Word, a blues/ jazz/rock/gospel fusion group that put out a self-titled release in 2001. Recruiting two cousins to join him in the Randolph Family Band, Randolph found his sound in demand in the secular world, cutting Live at the Wetlands on his own Dare label.
For his Warner Brothers debut, 2003's Unclassified, Randolph lets loose a bunch of funked-up, greasy rock that sounds like a supergroup with Larry Graham on bass, Hendrix, Santana and Stevie Ray on guitars and Stevie Wonder on organ.
There's a '70s feel to the music. "More Love" sounds like Wonder's 1970 release "Superstition." "Nobody" sounds like a Hendrix outtake from 1970's Band of Gypsies. The country-flavored instrumental "Squeeze" sounds like the Burrito Brothers on speed. "Smile" sports a Stevie Wonder-style vocal, and "Calypso" is a nod to Santana's Abraxas phase.
Although Randolph's playing sounds like he's absorbed a lot of Hendrix, he says that Stevie Ray's his main man. "What made Stevie Ray Vaughan different was his soulfulness, the way he'd bend those notes and the way he voiced a lot of those things. Nobody's gonna be like Hendrix, but to me, Stevie Ray was a much more soulful musician. He made every note count, was squeezing that orange to get that last bit of juice."
Randolph has been doing some orange squeezing himself. His over the top performance at Bonnaroo with North Mississippi Alllstars' Luther Dickinson in 2002 won him a new circle of fans in the jam arena. The guitarist has a number of fans among fellow musicians as well. For his next recording project due out in early May, Randolph will be getting together with some of his more famous friends. "I'm doing one big inspirational project where I got Clapton and the gospel guy Kirk Franklin, and Al Green--people that I met along the way. These are all songs that everybody's familiar with. You know the old Doobie Brothers song (sings) "Jesus is just alright with me?" Me and Clapton did that one; we got about six or seven guests on there, singers and guitar players."
Even though the music that Randolph is becoming known for these days is secular, his message still comes from the church. "There are so many people out there today with a lot of music which is so geared toward sex and violence. I just like to give younger kids hope through music, through songs, just in life."
He says he sees his group as a band of missionaries. "What the business allows you to believe is that if you sing about the good things in life you're really not gonna be cool, from a consumer standpoint. I like to give people the adrenaline to want to go out and build on something that I'm really committing my heart and soul to, singing and playing about love and happiness and those things."
Robert Randolph & The Family Band play Raleigh's Disco Rodeo Thursday, Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 at the door.