Music » Music Features

Sacred Steel Live

Pedal-steel guitar virtuoso Robert Randolph delivers The Word at B.B. King's.


Robert Randolph can't wait to get to Memphis. The 24-year-old electric pedal-steel guitarist has heard a lot about the Bluff City from native sons Luther and Cody Dickinson, and he is as excited about the food as he is the musical history. "Luther told me all about Memphis," he explains, mentioning Al Green and Aretha Franklin before asking, "Y'all got some good barbecue?"

In six months, Randolph has gone from playing worship services at the Pentecostal-based House of God Church in Orange, New Jersey (where he is a parishioner), to becoming one of the hottest performers on the New York City music scene. The sudden success has Randolph wide-eyed, but it's obvious that he takes whatever the Lord gives him in stride.

"I still can't believe everything that's happened," he admits. "I didn't know this whole music scene existed, that people go to shows like this. I only knew about the scene that you see on TV -- and if you weren't on TV, then you didn't get to play shows."

According to the liner notes of The Word, Randolph's collaboration with the Dickinsons' North Mississippi Allstars and organist John Medeski, it was the Arhoolie compilation Sacred Steel Live that set his secular career in motion. While on tour with Medeski, Martin & Wood, the Allstars became fascinated by the House of God Church's "sacred steel" sound of electric steel guitars used to buoy the bluesy gospel hymns that anchor their services. Randolph's inspired version of "Without God," the sixth track on Sacred Steel Live, particularly resonated with Luther Dickinson. Medeski shared the obsession, and following a long string of coincidences, Randolph opened an Allstars show in New York in October 2000 and began recording The Word two weeks later.

"Actually, I never really took it serious," Randolph laughs. "One Friday I met the Allstars -- I opened up for them at the Bowery Ballroom -- and things just went from there! We talked about making a record the first time I met them."

Recorded in just four short days, The Word (named by Allstars bassist Chris Chew) is much more than a concept record, more, even, than a gospel album of a higher order. From the rollicking guitar play between Luther Dickinson and Randolph on "Waiting On My Wings," one of the album's two originals, to the group's heady improvisations on North Mississippi classics "Blood On That Rock" and "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning," The Word transcends all expectations. The five musicians organically coalesce into the ultimate jam band -- which, for all intents and purposes, they have become.

"That's how we play at church -- very spontaneous, spur-of-the- moment," Randolph explains. "You can't rehearse to play at church. I can tell the bass player, 'I want to play this, I want you to sing this,' and it will all come together on stage. The crowd will feed off it, and it's a lot of fun."

Despite rave reviews in The New York Times and Esquire, Randolph has had to fend off the disapproving elders in the House of God Church, who resent his success away from the church. Randolph easily brushes aside such criticism, saying simply that "church people are church people and they don't want you playing nowhere else but the church." Yet he will continue to play Sunday services for as long as he can.

After all, the House of God Church is where he discovered the electric pedal-steel guitar. Randolph was 16 when he first picked it up, and today he credits the instrument with saving his life. "The more I'd get into playing, the more I'd hear that this friend or that friend was jumped or put in jail or shot. And the more I heard things like that," he says, "the more I wanted to stay in my house and play the pedal-steel."

While gospel remains his greatest influence, Randolph cites R&B and hip hop as equal inspirations. "I've been getting into more stuff lately, because people give me tapes of the Allman Brothers and Jimi Hendrix, the Meters, and all these other people. But I only grew up listening to hip hop, gospel, and R&B -- no blues, no Southern rock, no nothing."

Nashville session greats Buddy Emmons, Paul Franklin, and Lloyd Green top his list of favorite electric steel players. But Randolph wants to take the genre to a new level -- and he must rely on his own resourcefulness to do so. His most recent improvisation is a custom-made 13-string pedal- steel. "The tuning is real weird, something I came up with on my own," he says. "The whole idea of the 13-string is just something crazy that I did. I get a pretty good sound out of it."

Someday he hopes to record with the likes of Michael Jackson and R. Kelly. But for now, talk returns to Memphis and the two shows that Randolph and his family band (cousins Marcus Randolph on drums and Danyell Morgan on bass, with John Ginty on Hammond B-3 organ) are playing at B.B. King's on Beale Street. "We're all ready to get down there -- I'm packing my bags now," he says excitedly. Before hanging up the telephone, he has one question. It's mind-blowing, but given Randolph's easy charm and spontaneity, it makes perfect sense. "How far is Graceland?" he asks. "I wanna go see Elvis' pad!"

Robert Randolph, B.B. King's Blues Club, Thursday, October 11th, and Friday, October 12th - $10

Local Beat


On Friday, October 12th, at the Hard Rock Café, will present the Memphis version of a national showcase series that also serves as a fund-raiser for the Nicole Brown Charitable Foundation, which assists victims of domestic violence. The four local artists who will play the event are JoJo Jeffries, Memphis Troubadours regular Kim Richardson, Beale Street stalwart Reba Russell, and former Premier Player Award-winner Carol Plunk. The show starts at 9 p.m. with an $8 cover. There will also be a silent auction.

Another benefit concert this week will also showcase local artists. A host of local bands will be playing at the Overton Park Shell on Sunday, October 14th, with all proceeds from food and beverage sales donated to the Memphis Fire Department in honor of the firefighters assisting with the efforts in New York. The show consists in large part of up-and-coming bands with a rootsy bent, including The Gabe & Amy Show, Bumpercrop, The Great Depression, The John Murry Band, The Gamble Brothers, Johnny Romania, and The Speakeasy Band. The concert is scheduled to begin at 12:30 and run through 8 p.m. Admission is free.

Construction for the Stax Museum and Stax Music Academy is well under way -- on time and slightly under budget according to Soulsville, the project's governing organization. But Soulsville is still raising money toward the project's $20 million goal (funding is about 75 percent in place) and WRBO-FM Soul Classics 103.5 will lend a helping hand this week with Soulathon, a radio telethon that will broadcast from the Stax site at 870 E. McLemore on Wednesday, October 17th, and Thursday, October 18th. Those wishing to donate to the Soulsville project can also call the organization at (901) 946-2535 for details.

Odds and ends: The release of The North Mississippi Allstars' long-awaited, original-material-dominated new album, Phantom 51, has been pushed back to November 6th. The Allstars will be back in town next month for a show at the Young Avenue Deli on Friday, November 23rd Also at the Deli next month is former Whiskeytown frontman and all-around alt-country poster boy Ryan Adams. Adams will perform on Wednesday, November 7th You can read plenty about Brooklyn rockers Oneida elsewhere in these pages, but if you can't make the band's gig at the Map Room on Monday night, October 15th, you can still catch them at 5:30 p.m. that afternoon at Shangri-La Records Finally, on a not-quite- local note, the greatest rock-and-roll artist of all time -- Chuck Berry -- will celebrate his 75th birthday next week with a special concert in his hometown of St. Louis. Berry will perform at The Pageant on Thursday, October 18th, and will be joined by the second-greatest first-generation rocker -- Little Richard.

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