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Randolf to steel JAS stage

Stewart Oksenhorn

Robert Randolph is the young man who made good. Raised in Irvington, N.J., a rough, urban suburb of Newark, Randolph, a child of divorced parents, leaned toward the lures of crime, drugs and truancy. But the church – the House of God in nearby Orange, where his father was a deacon and his mother a minister – was a balance against those influences. And within the church, music was the biggest shield from the street life. Randolph, the drummer for the youth choir as a kid, found a sense of joy and purpose in gospel music.In his midteens, Randolph discovered the sound that would become his salvation. The House of God is home to the sacred steel style, a unique gospel form built around the pedal steel guitar. Within a handful of years, Randolph had taken the sacred steel sound, mixed it with other influences, and brought it first into small clubs in Manhattan, then into the jam-band world. This summer, Randolph and his Family Band took the music onto the biggest stage it has ever seen – an arena tour that had Randolph opening for Eric Clapton, and joining Clapton for a few songs each night.Back home, however, the church folks aren’t as thrilled as might be expected.”There was plenty of resistance,” said the 26-year-old Randolph, who plays today at Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival. (Randolph was also scheduled to perform in a JAS After Dark concert at the Snowmass Conference Center last night.) “And there always will be for people who come from the church and then want to share their talents with people in clubs and arenas, because they’re two different worlds.”Randolph is hardly despairing over the holy fuss. For one thing, his career is in overdrive. For another, he sees himself in good company among other musicians who have parted ways with the church. “Aretha, Sam Cooke, up to people like Al Green, Beyoncé, the Staples Singers,” Randolph listed. “All of them have dealt with the same thing.”Like Cooke’s soul or Beyoncé’s r&b, Randolph’s music is quite a distance from the sacred steel he first heard in the church. Sacred steel traces its origins to Florida in the 1930s. It spread to House of God churches in Georgia, New York and Michigan that didn’t have enough money to buy an organ, the traditional center of gospel music, but could afford the relatively inexpensive pedal steel, an instrument more commonly associated with country music. A handful of stars arose in the sacred steel world: Rochester, N.Y.’s Campbell Brothers currently, and Willie Eason, an influential Philadelphia musician in the 1930s. But even those breakout stars, while playing a rocking, rambunctious music, stuck reasonably close to the gospel line, playing songs of devotion. Randolph, meanwhile, fell under the spell of the twin guitar demons, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. And he has made no apologies about taking the music out of the kingdom of heaven and bringing it to the realm of rock. Randolph is following the path of the musician more than the path of the righteous.”I’m the one who tried to make it as secular as possible so the music could be heard by all different audiences,” said Randolph, whose Family Band consists of cousins Danyel, Marcus and Lenesha Randolph on bass, drums and backing vocals, respectively, and keyboardist Jason Crosby. “I’ve changed it a lot so people can see what you can do, all the options you can do with it. I’ve taken different styles of music – Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Allman Brothers, Hendrix – and taken that in. So now there are kids taking what I’ve done and hopefully finding something else they can do with it.”Randolph, who still plays at the House of God Church in Orange, says the music retains at least one essential element: “It’s still meant to make people feel good,” he said. “I bring it forth and give people joy through the music.”Interestingly, the first people outside the church to groove to Randolph’s music were the jam-band fans. Randolph’s first ventures away from the House of God were at a tiny club in Manhattan’s Alphabet City neighborhood in 2001. Word spread fast, and among the first to hear the word were keyboardist John Medeski of groove trio Medeski, Martin & Wood and blues-rock band North Mississippi Allstars. Within months of entering the clubs, Randolph was drafted into The Word, a gospel-jam band that featured Medeski and the North Mississippi Allstars.”That was my first connection with any musicians, really,” said Randolph. “They heard a demo of mine and wanted to include me on that recording. They had the idea for a gospel album, and they wanted to bring in another sound. It was a great introduction.”That album, “The Word,” and a subsequent tour, introduced Randolph to the jam world. He has since jammed with String Cheese Incident, Trey Anastasio and Ben Harper, and was featured at the jam-heavy Bonnaroo Festival. Randolph played the closing show at the Wetlands Preserve, a New York club crucial to the formation of the jam scene.Of late, Randolph has been finding an even wider audience. His debut studio CD “Unclassified,” released last year on the Warner Bros. label, was nominated for two Grammy Awards, and Randolph performed at the Grammy Awards ceremony last winter with George Clinton, OutKast and Earth, Wind & Fire. He was named one of the Top 100 Guitarists of the rock era by Rolling Stone magazine. This summer, he played some 30 dates with Clapton; an earlier tour had him opening for the Dave Matthews Band.Randolph is walking a tightrope that divides the sacred from the secular. “Unclassified” opens with “Going in the Right Direction,” the message of which – “I’m glad I found you just in time” – can easily be read as praise to the Almighty. In fact, all the references to “you” can be seen as Randolph conversing with God, and there is an uplifting vibe that runs through every song. But the jamming sensibility on “Squeeze,” and the feel-good mood of “Soul Refreshing” depart from the sounds of gospel. And the songs that Randolph has been contributing to during Clapton’s sets – “Cocaine,” “Got My Mojo Working” – aren’t likely to make it into his performances at the House of God.”But it’s always going to have that connection to church music,” he said. “As many different scenes as I’ve been into, being part of the church could never leave me. Because that’s my teachings. There is that gospel connection coming through.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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