ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JAN. 24, 2002
A few hours before the Word took the stage at the Commodore last Saturday (January 19), I was reclining in my cozy New West living room, barely awake. The idea of driving downtown in the pissing rain to see a band that wasn’t going on until 11 p.m. was getting less and less appealing. But I’d promised two music-loving buddies that I’d get them in to see the instrumental blues-jam project with its young, destined-to-be-a-legend pedal-steel player. Not one to disappoint friends who might be inclined to buy me pricey Commodore drinks, I made the trek downtown, yawning all the way.
But not for long.
Live music has always been able to alter my frame of mind, but I can’t recall ever being so quickly transformed from sleepy burnout to entranced audience member. From the second the Word took the stage and casually launched into “Joyful Sounds”—the opening track of its new self-titled CD—I was transfixed. Maybe it was the strong spiritual thread flowing through the music, but brother, I got a real warm feeling in my bones, and I wasn’t tired anymore.
For the next two hours pedal-steel wizard Robert Randolph, organist John Medeski, and the North Mississippi Allstars (guitarist Luther Dickinson, bassist Chris Chew, and drummer Cody Dickinson) preached an awesome brand of inspired, uplifting roots improv. With its surging Hammond B3 and shimmery slide, the quintet continually evoked the down-home spirit of the early Allman Brothers, but with more of a funky, gospel-jazz bent. Halfway through the set Randolph momentarily vacated his well-deserved spot at centre stage to take over the drum kit while Cody Dickinson showed off his own invention, an electric washboard first heard on the NMA’s 51 Phantom. It looked like a regular metal washboard with some effects pedals strapped to it, but when Dickinson scrubbed at it it produced a weird electronic racket that seemed to both mystify and amuse its widely grinning creator.
The group performed most, if not all, of the music on The Word, and when the time came to throw in a well-known cover tune, they could do no wrong with Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”. That selection gave Randolph, an avowed Stevie Ray Vaughan fanatic, plenty of opportunity to set his pedal-steel guitar ablaze with some blistering blues raunch. For a guy who learned how to play his instrument in church, he sure knows how to raise holy hell.