Of the spirit and for the spirit | AspenTimes.com

Of the spirit and for the spirit

Stewart Oksenhorn

Pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph made his Jazz Aspen debut as an opening act at the 2004 Labor Day Festival. With the new CD "Colorblind" set for release this month, Randolph returns to the festival for a Saturday performance. (Ben Watts)

The first notable aspect to Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ latest lineup is that it is the most eclectic collection of artists yet. The festival opens tonight with pop-country singer, LeAnn Rimes; then switches gears considerably tomorrow, as Jazz Aspen ventures into hip-hop for the first time, with rapper Kanye West. The festival heads into classic rock territory with Sunday’s solo flight by the Eagles’ Don Henley, and concludes Monday with Matisyahu, who, being a Hasidic reggae-rap singer, is an emblem of diversity himself.A less apparent way of looking at the festival is that it is the first Labor Day outing grouped under a theme. And that theme, surprisingly enough, is gospel.Not that the sounds of gospel are going to dominate on the main stage. None of the artists is, strictly speaking, a gospel singer, nor is any one of them out of the Christian-rock mold. But, perhaps as a reflection of current times, plenty of them have shown leanings toward the heavenly, the spiritual, or even the out-and-out religious in their music. Others hint more subtly toward a spiritual influence.On his current album “Youth,” Matisyahu, with his band, Roots Unity, makes a sound that comes straight out of the modern dance-hall style of reggae. In its themes, however, Matisyahu is more closely connected to such roots reggae artists as Burning Spear, who see the music as a vehicle for transmitting the core reggae messages of humility, connecting to the past – and, above all, connecting to God.Matisyahu, of course, has earned attention and sales (“Youth” reached No. 4 on Billboard’s album charts) for putting a unique spin on the reggae ideals. A devout Hasidic Jew, Matisyahu doesn’t shy away from overt statements of his faith, references to Jewish history, and the importance of the Hebrew people maintaining their presence in the holy city of Jerusalem. Matisyahu appears in the customary dress of the Hasids, with long black coat, white shirt, tzitzit – fringes that dangle below his coat – and side locks.Robert Randolph gives credit to his church for rescuing him from the tough street life in urban Irvington, N.J. That church, the House of God, in the nearby town of Orange, also gave Randolph music. The House of God church is home to the sacred steel style, a unique form of gospel centered around the pedal steel guitar. Randolph took the music out of the church and away from gospel, but his spiritual influences remain a foundation of his blistering style.

Randolph was first heard as a member of The Word, a gospel-leaning side project of avant-jazz keyboardist John Medeski and members of the North Mississippi Allstars. On Randolph’s albums with his Family Band, the music sounds more like funk, rock and soul than gospel. But on his forthcoming album, “Colorblind,” due out Sept. 26, the songs – “Blessed,” “Deliver Me,” and a cover of “Jesus Is Just Alright,” featuring a cameo by Eric Clapton – reflect a belief in God and the holiness of life. As Randolph said in a 2004 interview with The Aspen Times, “It’s always going to have that connection to church music. Because that’s my teachings. There is that gospel connection coming through.”Kanye West is known for working many sides of hip-hop, from hard-core raps to more positive grooves to comic riffs. But West has also been vocal about his Christian faith, most evident in the powerful “Jesus Walks,” which earned a Best Rap Song Grammy in 2004. To a marching rhythm, West raps about connecting to God, and asking God to keep him away from sin – hardly your standard hip-hop line. The lyrics confirm that West sees himself as a believer as much as a rapper. That point was emphasized by the January Rolling Stone, picturing West in the guise of Jesus.

Susan Tedeschi was a blues/R&B singer-guitarist, whose early albums put me in the mind of Bonnie Raitt, not the Bible. Then out of nowhere came last year’s “Hope and Desire,” a tremendous album with huge gospel overtones. Apart from the more overt touches, like covers of Bob Dylan’s tender “Lord, Protect My Child” and Dorsey Burnette’s “Magnificent Sanctuary Band,” and a cameo by the old-school gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama, Tedeschi’s latest is clothed in the sound of church music, with organs and harmonizing vocals.LeAnn Rimes followed her hit album “Blue” with “You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs,” featuring versions of “I Believe,” “Ten Thousand Angels Cried” and “Amazing Grace.” In the wake of Sept. 11, she released “God Bless America,” an album as God-loving as it was patriotic, adding “The Lord’s Prayer” to her repertoire.Del Castillo, an Austin, Texas, band is deeply influenced by Mexican sounds on its recent CD. But the title track, “Brotherhood,” is inspired more by Christian faith: “Only peace and love will flow from my Padre Santo / Cuz I know He’s watching me,” goes the lyric. In the liner notes, the first being to get a thank-you is GOD (capitals in the original).Los Lonely Boys, another Texas outfit, spotlight their religious beliefs in “rale,” which sings the praises of “the good man upstairs.” For those not paying sufficient attention to the lyrics, the album – titled “Sacred” – features a photo of the Boys (brothers Henry, JoJo and Ringo Garza) standing humbly under the shape of a cross. In the liner notes, the Lord gets a thank-you “for revealing this music” to them.

Finally, there is the Polyphonic Spree, a Texas indie rock group with no apparent religious angle to their sound. Dressed in their customary colorful gowns and with smiles fixed on their faces, the Polyphonic Spree only looks like a group of Hare Krishnas.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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