Joyful noise

“I’m not that good of a singer, and I need my guitar to sing for me,” Robert Randolph confessed in a recent interview.

“Everybody else in my family are great, great singers, and I just wasn’t given the voice,” he continues. “I try and sing anyway, though. When I’m struggling with notes, I use my four-legged baby to help me out.”

Listening to his rapturous pedal-steel playing, it’s easy to speculate that Robert Randolph’s talent was a gift from above.

“I’ve been born into the sound,” is how Randolph puts it. “In our church this is the main instrument. There’s no organs.”

On the club and festival circuits, Randolph has nourished his gospel roots with a compelling blend of R&B, rock and jam-band sensibility. The music of his Family Band (which is, very literally, a family — featuring Randolph’s cousins Marcus Randolph on drums and Danyell Morgan on bass, plus “honorary cousin” John Ginty on the organ) carries the energy of a tent-revival preacher hopped up on a Red Bull cocktail and sweatin’ hard for the Lord on a sultry August evening.

Since he was discovered at the First Annual Sacred Steel convention in Florida in the spring of 2000, Randolph has rapidly ascended the musical stairway to heaven, playing with the likes of Derek Trucks, North Mississippi Allstars, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, and Medeski Martin and Wood. In fact, Randolph is a central figure in The Word, a quintet spearheaded by keyboardist John Medeski.

“Playing within a group … it’s interaction with other group members and you feed off of one another, and it’s kind of like you’re married to a bunch of guys, you know what I mean? You’re just feeling one another, and you know everybody’s moves, and you read minds musically … spiritually, musically … you understand?”

Given Randolph’s background, you might expect to hear veiled sermons in his lyrics — not so. But, borne on his music, his words do carry a liturgical cadence that’s hypnotic in its repetition.

“When I’m playing,” says Randolph, “it’s not so much if it pleases me or not. When I’m writing a song I’m not writing a song to please me; I’m writing it to have a conversation with someone, you know what I mean? Somebody else has to relate to this song or this music that I’m playing.

“You can’t please your own self all the time, especially in music,” he continues. “Music is just a way of speaking to people. Music helps you when you’re down and out about something. When your girlfriend dumps you, you go and turn on the radio and listen to some song, or if you’re a musician you’ll go and start playing, because that’s how you get through those hard times or whatever. Music uplifts people.”

Robert Randolph and the Family Band’s debut album, Live at the Wetlands (due April 2), vividly captures Randolph’s musical conversation with the audience and with his band. The six tracks, stretched out over 70 minutes of music, brim with full-tilt boogie, gospel, R&B, and jam flavorings. Randoph’s “family” lay down infectious aural rhythms and beats that allow Randolph to wail his pedal steel in a miraculous supplication that taps the divine in all of us.

But live shows, says Randolph, are when “it all comes together … that’s when you get a chance to get in touch with the music, the feel of it, the spiritual side of it. The positive.”

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