Sunday, November 16, 2008

Introductions: Robert Randolph and the Family Band

Robert Randolph and the Family Band are (left to right):

Danyel Morgan (bass, vocals)
Robert Randolph (pedal steel guitar, electric guitar, vocals)
Marcus Randolph (drums)
Jason Crosby (organ, piano)

Whenever someone asks me to describe the music of Robert Randolph and the Family Band, I never know what to say.


I think we need an entirely new genre to describe what Robert Randolph and his Family Band do.

RR&TFB (which is how I'll refer to them from this point on - they have a very long band name) would seem like any other modern funk/rock band, except for the instrument played by lead guitarist and bandleader Robert Randolph.

He plays pedal steel guitar.

RR&TFB may well be the first rock band led by pedal steel. The instrument differs from a regular guitar in many ways: It has 13 strings; it is played flat with a series of pedals for chord-changing; and the player uses a slide over the strings. It has roots in Hawaiian music and is typically used in country music and gives it that distinctive crying moan.

When Robert Randolph plays it, it becomes a whole other animal. Once you hear a RR&TFB song, you'd be hard pressed to identify the lead guitar as the same thing used in the Grand Ole Opry.

How did a guy from New Jersey end up playing a country instrument in a rock style? It all goes back to his church, the House Of God. This denomination uses pedal steel instead of the more typical organ. This style of playing is called Sacred Steel and it's what Robert Randolph grew up hearing and playing.

After growing up in the Sacred Steel tradition, it wasn't long before Robert had the desire to marry his pedal steel skills to contemporary rock and r&b. He recruited a couple cousins, Danyel and Marcus on bass and drums, to join him in a band. After original organist John Ginty joined, the band was complete and the buzz began to spread.

RR&TFB built a reputation through great musicianship and showmanship. Guitarists started to take notice of this guy playing pedal steel as a rock instrument. The Family Band eventually toured with the likes of Dave Matthews Band and Eric Clapton. 2002 brought their debut solo recording, Live At The Wetlands. Their infectious energy shown on this album brought further acclaim, and a couple years later they recorded their studio debut Unclassified. Life has been good to Robert, Danyel, Marcus and new organist Jason Crosby ever since.

I'll never forget the first time I heard RR&TFB. I must have heard the name Robert Randolph somewhere, because it sounded vaguely familiar. I was watching VH1 and saw the video for "Thrill Of It," the first single from their latest album Colorblind. Of course, that weird-looking guitar caught my interest. What really did it for me was the musicianship, how good the song sounded. "These guys are good," I told myself. Of course, I had to find out more. A trip or two to the internet later and I was hooked. In March 2007, I bought Unclassified and started my journey.

What's so great about Robert Randolph and the Family Band? How can one explain greatness? Let's start with the pedal steel. Most of the time, Robert plays it like it's an electric guitar. Let me tell you, he's a great guitar player, no matter what kind of guitar he's playing. He's been compared to the likes of Duane Allman and Jimi Hendrix, and I think he'll get close to living up to those comparisons. Of course, the pedal steel can be played in ways an electric guitar cannot. Robert uses the full potential of his instrument, making it growl, cry, scream, and even talk. Only a truly talented guitarist can make a guitar sing like a human voice. Hendrix could do it, and so can Robert Randolph.

I think the fact that Robert's music has church roots contributes to the fun factor of his music. A church musician must be able to get people in a frenzy. He or she has to play with emotions, bringing them up and down and finally releasing them. RR&TFB understand this dynamic. If you let go and allow the music to carry you, you'll be moved in ways you can't rationalize. Robert's music is a great stress-reliever.

The rhythm section of Danyel Morgan and Marcus Randolph anchors the emotional impact of Robert's guitar playing. Danyel plays a mean bass guitar, often bringing out the funkiness of the instrument. He's a fine singer too, adding falsetto to the emotional mix. His voice is almost the equivalent of Robert's pedal steel. Both sounds can take you higher. Marcus Randoph isn't a flashy drummer, but he plays steady and focused. He does a lot more with the beat than just keep it. He keeps your feet stomping and your hands clapping.

John Ginty and Jason Crosby are both fine organists, and they add to the church atmosphere. I think there is more organ present on The Family Band's first two albums compared to the last one. I missed the organ on the new album, and I hope they feature it more in their next project.

The Family Band's songs are usually very upbeat. The band packs many different tempos and styles in a song, if they're so inclined. The more funky, rocking tunes have roots in the band's jam ethic. Over the years, Robert has learned to contain his jams and structure them into songs. That structure doesn't diminish the fun, though. Sure, he performs fewer instrumentals, but he keeps the energy.

Some of their songs are performed in a slower, more vocal-oriented style. The band can display a whole lotta soul. A few of these songs aren't my thing, because I prefer the faster-paced rockers. It is good to know that Robert and his band aren't one-trick ponies, though. Robert is going to give you all the music he loves.

Songs to hear:

"Deliver Me"
"I Need More Love"
"Ain't Nothing Wrong With That"
"Soul Refreshing"
"The March"
"Thrill Of It"
"Going In The Right Direction"
"Jesus Is Just Alright"
"Ted's Jam"
"Run For Your Life"

Albums to buy:

Just get all of them. There are only three!

I'd recommend you buy them in the order I did.

Unclassified shows RR&TFB at their best. The songs are there, but they didn't forsake the heavy jamming that made them popular.

Colorblind takes things a step further. The extended jamming isn't there, but the songs certainly are. There is some good stuff here, but I think most people would prefer one album over the other. It depends on how much you love instrumental pedal steel. This one also has some great guest appearances from Eric Clapton ("Jesus Is Just Alright") and Dave Matthews ("Love Is The Only Way").

If you like what you hear from the above albums, move on to Live At The Wetlands. If you liked Unclassified, you'll especially love this one. Be forewarned, though, that lyrics are few and the songs are all over 8 minutes long. If that's going to bother you, wait for their next release. If you can hang with a lot of pedal steel jamming meant to get you on your feet, this is a good investment.

Final Thoughts: You have to give credit to Robert Randolph and the Family Band for doing something different musically. Not only do they blend different genres into one loud, dance-worthy soup, but they do it with an instrument you don't typically find with this kind of music. Robert Randolph is changing the game, and doing it with really fun, energetic songs. He's also bringing a positive message to the people. You can dance, let loose and have a good time without misogyny and criminal behavior. Robert Randolph and the Family Band show that modern urban music can be fun and clean at the same time. Sometimes his spiritual roots come out, as with the song "Blessed," but the music is good regardless of the message.

Robert Randolph and his band know how to play, and they feel the music very strongly. They want to make you feel it too, and I think they succeed. If you like guitars, you've never heard a guitar that sounds like this. It's new, it's hip, and it's going to change the way we look at instruments. Robert Randolph is an excellent guitarist, and he should not be missed.

Now you know. Go listen and enjoy.

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