Steel Away, Man

Charleston City Paper | September 30, 2006
After a landmark performance at the first annual Sacred Steel Convention in Florida in early 2000, New York-based pedal steel guitar player and songwriter Robert Randolph stepped outside his church scene, launched a now-blazing career into the secular music world, and currently stands as one of the jam scene’s most saintly figures.

Randolph started playing the pedal steel as a teenager at the House of God Church in Orange, N.J. (just outside of NYC) where the music department had been implementing “sacred steel” guitars for decades. In his first-ever show outside the church setting, he opened for the popular North Mississippi Allstars at the sizeable Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan. Music fans and critics immediately took notice.

By late 2001, Randolph was opening for and collaborating with members of the Allstars and Medeski, Martin & Wood. He toured the States in 2002 behind a project called “The Word” with organist John Medeski and all of the North Mississippi Allstars. Later that year, the pedal steel wiz and his own backing group, The Family Band, released a smashing debut, Live at the Wetlands (Sci Fidelity).

“It’s been a fun ride,” says Randolph, speaking from his home near NYC. “The performance on stage right now is about the same as it was early on for the band. We’re more controlled now, you know? Back in the early days, we was just going out and playing … sometimes like, four- or five-hour shows. We have that same kind of vibe live as the performance on Live at the Wetlands. At that time, weren’t really trying to make a live CD; we were just playing and recording.”

The exciting live album showcased Randolph’s fiery chops, soulful voice, and improvisational skills. It demonstrated a fresh, new style of high-octane, gospel-tinged blues-rock … super-hot stuff not heard since the early heyday of the Allman Brothers.

The Family band featured bassist Danyell Morgan and drummer Marcus Randolph (both Robert’s cousins), and organist John Ginty (mostly on Hammond B3). The sound of the band is consistently raw, energetic, full-on funky, and positive. Jason Crosby recently took over keyboard duties.

“You go through stuff every day on the road, but once you get out there on stage, that’s when you forget all of it,” says Randolph. “Whatever problems you have, you let it all go because people are out there smilin’ and singin’ along and being positive. Dealing with the challenges …the toughest stuff to deal with is the stuff that doesn’t have to do with playing music. Just sitting down and being creative — that’s how we get through. We focus on how to get better, improvise, and push ahead.”

In the spring of 2006, Randolph and the band geared up for an August release of their sophomore album, a much anticipated follow-up to the critically-acclaimed debut album, Unclassified. Rolling Stone called the debut one of “The 50 Best Albums of 2003.” Esquire wrote, “Robert Randolph’s studio debut introduces him not only as a blue-chip musician but also as someone who’s worth the most precious commodity of all your faith … Unclassified isn’t just a stunning declaration of talent; far more important, it’s a blue print for a long career to come.”

The album features the talents of studio producers Daniel Lanois and Mark Batson, with guest performances by Eric Clapton and Dave Matthews.

“We’ve just finished our new album and it’s due to come out in early August,” Randolph says. “I just focused on writing great songs with the same kind of energy that we have. I’ve had the chance to talk with and work with some of the greatest artists out there, so I’ve used their input on what we should do, too … people like Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, the Dave Matthews Band … all these people have been instrumental in some kind of input on what they’d like to see us get into. Hanging out with these players and singers has been the greatest thing.”

Randolph: “If you got the talent, just use it and go, you know? I’m not into being pegged as a jam band or a rock band or blues or whatever. I feel like we’ve become a great band. This new album is going to open up a lot of doors for us. It’s gonna be cool.”

Charleston City Paper

Founded in 1997, the locally owned and operated City Paper is Charleston's only weekly alternative newspaper and the second-largest publication in the metro Charleston area. Reaching a strong mix of active, affluent locals and tourists, the City Paper has thrived...
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