Man of steel: Robert Randolph reinvents the guitar sound |

Man of steel: Robert Randolph reinvents the guitar sound

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Published: Stewart Oksenhorn The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Rock ‘n’ roll – especially the kind driven by the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll instrument, the electric six-string guitar – may have seen its glory days pass by. Sure, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks and Jack White have come up with some new licks over the last decade, but the era when Jimi and Stevie Ray and Duane roamed the Earth and left a new and wondrous sound behind them feels mostly done.Maybe it’s time for a different kind of guitar to emerge. Robert Randolph thinks he’s got just the thing: steel. The steel guitar may not be the sexy beast that the six-string has been; steel, in its various forms, has been associated with the less glamorous musical styles as Hawaiian, gospel and country. But Randolph, a 31-year-old from the rough urban neighborhoods outside Newark, N.J., has been putting sizzle into the steel guitar. And over the last few years, he’s started to see the trickle-down effect.”I did a charity event in New York City last night,” Randolph said on Wednesday from his home in Morristown, a few miles west of his hometown of Irvington, “and a guy told me his son – 11 years old, a little white kid from Queens – wanted to know where he and his three friends could buy steel guitars. That shows you how the thing has been touching a lot of people.”Randolph, who began by playing the sacred steel style, a gospel form that originated in the House of God church in Florida in the 1930s, is preparing to give his instrument perhaps its biggest spotlight yet. Next year, Randolph will be part of a 16-city tour in honor of the 40th anniversary of the death of the ultimate six-string idol, Jimi Hendrix. Randolph will lead a trio of steel players in a three- or four-song segment in the concerts. The tour is scheduled to also feature top electric guitar players, including Joe Satriani, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Eric Johnson. But Randolph fully expects that the sacred steel portion of the show will hold its own. Despite the slight disadvantage of having to sit while performing – the steel guitar is played seated, with a slide – Randolph is a high-power presence onstage.”I know I can get louder than most guitar players,” he said. “I have more notes. I know that I can get higher notes and lower notes. People see how special the steel guitar is, how it stands up to the guitar.”That audiences are witnessing the capabilities of the steel guitar – and just how special a musician Randolph is, regardless of the instrument – is hardly a brand-new thing. Randolph and his Family Band – which features his cousins Danyel and Marcus, both talented steel players themselves, and his sister Lenesha on backing vocals – have opened tours for Eric Clapton and the Dave Matthews Band. Clapton contributed to Randolph’s 2006 album, “Colorblind,” on a cover of “Jesus Is Just Alright.” In 2003, Randolph made Rolling Stones’ list of the Greatest Guitarists of All Time, landing at number 97. He was 25 years old at the time, and had been performing for all of two years. Randolph expects to raise his profile, and that of the steel guitar, in the coming year. Apart from the Experience Hendrix tour, Randolph & the Family Band will release, in April, their third studio CD. The album, completed but as yet untitled, was produced by T-Bone Burnett, who has been on a tear lately, with projects ranging from Alison Krauss & Robert Plant’s “Raising Sand” album to the soundtrack for “Walk the Line,” both Grammy winners.”There’s no record out there like this record,” Randolph said of the upcoming album. “It’s got a constant flow, a theme. We listed all these songs we were going to play, and by the time we got done recording them we realized we’d been influenced by every style of the last century, back to ’20s gospel, old blues, the ’60s, ’70s Bob Dylan, ’80s Dylan, a ’90s Prince song that most people don’t know.”Randolph added that the album was at one point considered completed, under the title “Bone Dry Bones.” That version of the album had been started as the McCain-Obama debates got underway. But as the country and its political landscape – and especially the stature of Barack Obama – shifted, Randolph began rethinking what he wanted to say, and partly re-did the album.••••When Randolph began playing the steel guitar, in his early teens, it wasn’t to make albums or to play concerts. It was in praise of God. His father was a deacon of the House of God Church in Orange, N.J.; his mother, a minister. Randolph began as the drummer for the youth choir before finding the instrument on which he would make his name.In his early life, church music was the only music he knew. “I was in music pre-school my whole life,” is how Randolph puts his awareness of the big world of sound.That began to change in 1997 when a friend turned him onto the blues of a deceased Texas guitarist. A friend from church had been given a tape, and thought Randolph had to hear it.”It was Stevie Ray Vaughan,” Randolph said. “I’m not kidding – I listened to that every day for three years. I said, ‘That’s how I want to play. I want to play the steel guitar like that.’ That got me started.” Another big step in his musical education came in 1999, courtesy of Jim Markle, a friend from Florida. “He found out how ignorant I was and sent me two huge boxes of everything, from P-Funk to old James Brown to Merle Haggard. He said, ‘I think you’re the one guy who knows how to incorporate this stuff into your music. And who knows where you’ll be 10 years from now?'”It was in 2001 that Randolph emerged from the church to perform at a tiny club in Manhattan’s Alphabet City neighborhood. News of the kid playing a rowdy form of gospel spread fast. Among the first to hear the word were keyboardist John Medeski of the groove-jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, and the members of the blues-rock band North Mississippi Allstars. A gospel-jam group, the Word, was quickly formed with Randolph, Medeski and the North Mississippi Allstars, and Randolph was on his way. (The Word, which has played infrequently over the years, reconvenes for a handful of shows beginning the end of this month.)Since then, Randolph has added much to his gospel foundation. Most of it is music rooted in African-American culture: funk, R&B, blues. But from the beginnings of the Family Band, Randolph has had a foot in the very white-oriented jam-band scene, and his music is intended for a wide audience. (Recall the title of his last album: “Colorblind.”)Randolph is still looking to add flavors to his sound. In T-Bone Burnett, he thinks he has found the ultimate guide into other realms.”He’s a music historian,” Randolph said. “I learned so much being under him. T-Bone doesn’t talk just about the current record; he talks about what you should be doing 20 years from now. You hear the stories, listen to old songs you didn’t know existed, that nobody knows. Only T-Bone knows where to find this stuff.”Randolph said that his latest newfound influences include Howling Wolf and Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions. Randolph had planned to cover the Impressions’ anthem “Keep on Pushing” – a song he had never heard of – but that idea was scrapped.Another recent discovery was Leon Russell, who joins Randolph on a song from the upcoming album. The song is called “Salvation,” and Randolph believes it will create an association between himself and the 67-year-old Oklahoma-born rock pianist that will endure in the public consciousness.”This is going to be a song you hear many people cover,” Randolph predicted. “It’s going to be in people’s ears a long time.”

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