ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, APRIL 10, 2003
By Steve Newton
Although he’s only 24, Robert Randolph has already done much to help popularize the pedal-steel guitar, both through his recordings on the revelatory Sacred Steel series of albums and via his own group, the Family Band. And he still feels strongly indebted to the instrument: when he was a youngster growing up in the poor part of Irvington, New Jersey, it helped keep him out of trouble. You can’t get sucked into the dangerous gang life when you’re stuck at home feverishly practising your steel licks.
“As a kid I was involved in, you know, street things,” recalls Randolph from a San Diego tour stop, “but once I started playing music I kinda got outta that.”
It also helped that Randolph’s father was a deacon, and his mother a minister, at Irvington’s House of God Church. This denomination of the Pentecostal Church has a unique, 60-year tradition of musical services that began because steel guitars were inexpensive stand-ins for pipe organs.
“Years ago, churches couldn’t afford organs,” explains the bowler-wearing picker, “so guys had to go out and buy these lap steels and try to imitate what the organ would do.”
Randolph began playing a six-string lap-steel guitar at the age of 16, and worked his way up to the 13-string pedal steel he’s now known for. Along the way, somebody from his church turned him on to Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose raucous blues-rock style began colouring Randolph’s gospel-based playing.
“That’s what basically got me goin’,” he relates. “I tried to play like Stevie on a pedal-steel guitar. Not so much trying to study his notes, ’cause you can’t study people’s notes. You can only study the passion that they put into songs. That’s what I go by.”
By 2000, Randolph had formed the Family Band, which includes his two cousins—bassist Danyel Morgan and drummer Marcus Randolph—as well as Hammond organist John Ginty. Last year this lineup produced Live at the Wetlands, a jubilant document of one of the last-ever performances at the fabled, now-defunct New York venue. And the Family Band just finished recording a new studio CD, working title Unclassified, which is set for release in June. “This next album kinda has the same feel and energy as the Wetlands thing,” reports Randolph, “it’s just as positive, too.”
The last time he performed in Vancouver, Randolph was part of the Word, an instrumental collaboration between himself, keyboardist John Medeski, and the North Mississippi Allstars. Their gig at the Commodore in January 2002 was one of the top-five concert highlights of the year, and it’s likely that the upcoming Family Band show—on Saturday (April 12) at the Royal—will be equally galvanizing. Lord knows the world could use some kind of joyful noise right about now.
“All I like to do is make great music to uplift people,” states Randolph, “to get them dancin’ and happy about life, you know, bein’ here.”