13 strings to heaven

Robert Randolph can bend a guitar note to where it seems to cry, like some broken soul’s voice shattered by a sob. But because he is at heart a believer in both the human and the Holy Spirit, Randolph prefers that most notes be twisted in the opposite direction, to where they seem to shout in exaltation.

Randolph, 24, the hotshot prodigy whom everybody who’s anybody wants to jam with these days — he was among the highlight additions at December’s Warren Haynes Christmas Jam in the Civic Center — likes the sounds he wrangles from his pedal steel to lay audiences out with joy. He wants people dancing and shouting, stomping feet and clapping hands — even if, as he sometimes jokes, the white folks in the crowd often clap on the wrong beat.

At any given show, Randolph, topped in characteristic black bowler, starts off perched behind his pedal steel; before it’s over, he will have kicked his seat to the floor as he’s jumped to his feet, overcome by the power of his own music. At least once, he’s been so wound up he’s licked the strings.

“When I hit the stage and see the fans there wanting something that I can give them, something just takes over,” Randolph noted by phone from his Morristown, N.J., home.

In interview, he is still somewhat the guy on stage, emphasizing key words and peppering conversations with “y’know?” and “you know what I mean?” — small versions of his shouted entreaties to enlist concert crowds in his own enthusiasm.

When he’s performing in clubs these days with his dynamo group, The Family Band, Randolph sometimes forgets where he is. He feels like he’s back in his boyhood church, he says, where he first started playing pedal steel.

“Sometimes, we know not what we doin’,” he explains. “God is in control, you know what I mean?

“Once we start playing, you can’t shake [that feeling],” he adds. “The crowd’s, y’know, freakin’ out, and they dancin’, and everybody’s havin’ a good time. It just feels like that church service for me, which is always the thing when people come together and they dancin’ and clappin’ and singin’ along.”

The Steel Age

With steel guitar, players roll what is typically a small steel bar over the strings with their left hand, using their right to pluck notes with a series of finger picks.

Until recently, the style was almost exclusively synonymous with either Hawaiian pop or Nashville country.

The steel tradition, dating to 19th-century Hawaii, morphed out of those islands’ gorgeous slack-key guitar style. The first steel guitars were held in players’ laps; later electric versions become known as lap-steel guitars.

Hawaiian sounds had invaded mainland culture by the 1910s, making their mark on Music City following World War II. Budd Issacs is credited with first bringing the more complicated pedal steel into the Nashville lexicon (the 1953 Webb Pierce song “Slowly”), while session greats like Buddy Emmons later raised the instrument into twang-music cliche.

But about a decade before steel guitar traded in its hula skirts for Stetson hats, the electric lap steel had found another home in the House of God, an African-American Pentecostal denomination where music and dance are integral to worship. By the 1930s, steel guitarists were often leading church bands, beginning the then-insular tradition known as “sacred steel.”

In the 1970s, the lap steel was usurped by the pedal version in the House of God. Innovative players were soon making physical changes to the instrument, leading it in new directions largely unheard for years by secular ears (check out the 1996 Arhoolie Records compilation Sacred Steel).

The music, as Randolph puts it, was “boxed in” the church back then.

It was House of God pedal-steel player Chuck Campbell who opened the box, formally introducing a young Randolph to the instrument’s rigorous charms.

Steel resolve

The first time you see a pedal steel, it just looks wrong. It’s like somebody cut the neck off a regular guitar, yanked out the frets and added more strings, and then confused the whole thing with a keyboard, sticking it up on a stand and adding foot and knee pedals (for altering pitch).

The “electric table,” as aficionados call it, is not exactly the sexiest instrument out there, but Randolph was never attracted to playing anything else, he says.

Campbell gave Randolph his first steel guitar — a six-string lap model — when Randolph was 16. Campbell did so at the bidding of Randolph’s father, a deacon at the family church in Orange, N.J., where Randolph’s mother was minister, as had been his great-grandfather.

“[My father] didn’t want to buy a pedal steel because it cost too much money and he didn’t know if I was serious about it,” Randolph explains.

He showed an immediate affinity — though early practices, his father has noted, were agonizing to hear.

The young man soon graduated to a 10-string pedal model, then to the customized 13-string instrument he now plays.

His pedal-steel tone often recalls the slide work of Duane Allman, whom Randolph had never heard of until recently. There’s also some serious Texas shuffle to The Family Band’s music — “Shake Your Hips,” from the band’s debut album Live at the Wetlands (Dare/WB, 2002), kicks off like ZZ Top’s “La Grange” — no doubt owing to Randolph’s newfound obsession with Stevie Ray Vaughan.

But growing up, Randolph didn’t listen to much but church songs, maybe a little rap and R&B. When he found his true calling, it’s as if he began absorbing music like a sponge.

Randolph only recently gave up his day job as a paralegal to play music full time. But the new life suits him, he says. It’s pushed him as both a player and a vocalist.

Randolph has a solid singing voice, great for shouting out to the crowd. For the biggest vocal chores, however, he trades off with cousin Danyel Morgan, the bass player, whose high, emotive tenor adds a crossover-R&B stamp to the act a la Sly & the Family Stone.

Cousin Marcus Randolph works the drums like a man possessed, while John Ginty fills out The Family Band on Hammond B-3 organ. At shows, Randolph typically introduces Ginty, the group’s only white member, as a cousin as well.

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