Hi 84 / Lo 60
|Volume 72, Issue 51,
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Life & Arts
Family band shines in 'Colorblind'
by BEN HILL
Imagine going to church on Sunday and finding a full-scale block party in progress, complete with a gospel choir and horn section centered on a four-piece band. A young black man who sings a lot like Lenny Kravitz is fronting the band from behind a 10-string pedal steel, an instrument almost exclusively found in country music, and he's playing some of the most joyful and vicious slide guitar licks ever. Minus the preaching and other aspects of the service, this could be Bonnaroo.
Though hardly comprehensive, this is a decent description of sacred steel and its most famous practitioner, Robert Randolph. The term sacred steel sounds like something an 1980s metal band might call one of its albums, but thankfully Randolph and the Family Band may as well be in a distant universe. To understand this style of music and Robert Randolph, one has to look back at the distant origins of the electric guitar.
The solid-body electric guitar as most people know it was not the first type of electric guitar, though they share many similarities. The first was called a lap steel because it sat across the performers' lap and was made of mostly steel. Because of its higher action -- the distance between the strings and the guitar's neck -- it was played with a metal slide, like a square-necked Dobro or the Weissenborn played by Ben Harper. It yielded a sound that came to define the Hawaiian music that was popular during the ‘20s and ‘30s before being assimilated into country music.
However, the guitar's sound also caught the ears of Troman and Willie Eason, members of the House of God, Keith Dominion church, a Pentacostal denomination prominent in Florida, New York and Tennessee. The Eason brothers soon began incorporating the instrument's peculiarities into the services they played at, a move met with such enthusiasm that the lap and pedal steel are now integral parts of this denomination's worship music. Somehow this style managed to stay under pop music's radar until Randolph showed up.
Randolph is a virtuoso by most standards; he's been playing pedal steel since age 17 and his style has been shaped by rock guitar, making his music appealing to blues legends like Eric Clapton. Colorblind, Randolph's new album, has the fire and showmanship of his live performances, though without the lengthy jamming he's known for. He keeps the music concise by avoiding excess and making his solos count.
The Family Band's focus shifts toward songwriting while in the studio, and the group has come up with some solid ideas like "Ain't Nothing Wrong With That," which reprises the beat and choral sections from Outkast's "Hey Ya."
But the album really begins with "Deliver Me." The band is at its best alone with little ornamentation, and Eric Clapton's appearance on a cover of the Doobie Brothers' "Jesus is Just Alright" aside, the guest artists on Colorblind come up short. Dave Matthews, Leroi Moore and Rashawn Ross sound fine, but their presence doesn't feel right -- they're obvious outsiders in the Family Band's world.
Colorblind is Robert Randolph's best to date.
The songwriting is catchy, and the power of the group's musicianship and originality will leave an impression on new listeners while satisfying devotees.
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