It’s a real family affair with this band as Robert Randolph has his cousin Danyel Morgan on five string bass, another cousin Marcus Randolph on drums and his younger sister Lenesha Randolph as background vocalist. An additional rhythm guitarist/keyboard player and a lead guitar complete the line up.
The 13-string pedal steel guitar is a great instrument to watch someone play, and Robert Randolph is a charismatic virtuoso who clearly loves playing. The band rip through most of the songs on their third and latest studio album “We walk this road”. It’s a fine mix of both spiritual and secular music, produced by T-Bone Burnett, the uber-producer who wrote the soundtrack for the Coen’s brothers film “O brother where art thou”. The album spans a century of American music covered in Randolph’s distinct combination of Gospel, Rock and Blues.
After a couple of numbers, Robert Randolph introduces another pedal steel player, Chuck Campbell. This is the man who taught him how to play and they duet and swap guitar lines for the rest of the set. A third pedal steel player Derek Campbell comes on next and they launch into “I need more love” off the album “Unclassified” that came out in 2004 and was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Rock Gospel Album.
Next it’s another track off the new album, an uptempo version of “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama”, written by John Lennon and with a self explanatory title that couldn’t be more relevant in this day and age. As a nod to their roots in the House of God church (which has a sixty year history of producing pedal steel players) they launch into “Amazing Grace” and with three pedal steel guitars it’s a number that positively soars. Next they play an exuberant cover of the Blind Willie Johnson song “If I had my way”, it starts with a looped sample of the original and transforms into an uplifting singalong. Worth putting the original into YouTube to hear what it sounds like :-).
They finish with an inspired cover of “Purple haze” which would have made Jimi Hendrix proud. Robert Randolph uses this number to showcase his amazing dexterity on the steel guitar, riffing in real Heavy Metal style. It’s good and loud and really shows what this instrument is capable of, check it out here:
After that, they encore with another song off the new album that includes a call & response between two of the pedal steel guitars as they trade alternate guitar licks. This morphs into a version of “Maggie’s Farm” in which the bass and drums get to do a little solo each. Their final song is “Ain’t nothing wrong with that” from their second album “Colourblind” released in 2006. With lines like “Rock ‘n’ roll or old soul, it don’t matter”, “Disco, calypso, it don’t matter”, “Break dance or slam dance, it don’t matter” it perfectly encapsulates what this band is about. Feel good American music played at any time in the last century anchored by the traditional sound of the 13-string pedal steel guitar. Uplifting stuff indeed, timeless music worth checking out and definitely worth catching live.
As a taster, here’s my favourite Robert Randolph song “I need more love”:
And in his first film role, playing Bo Diddley in “Who do you love?” yet another film about the Chess record label: