Eric Clapton called

Robert Randolph is evidently shooting for the stars — and maybe even the heavens.

Asked to describe his upcoming CD, slated for June release, Randolph says the disc “is really going to surprise a lot of people — it’s going to be a lot better than the last one.”

Robert Randolph
Son of a preacher man: Robert Randolph, second from left.

Yikes. That will take some doing, since Randolph’s 2003 studio debut, Unclassified, was one of the most joyous, celebratory, rockin’-est records of the last few years. The music on that disc was built on a gospel foundation — Randolph spent his teen years playing “sacred steel” guitar in the House of God Church — but it also drew on Sly Stone rocking-soul, Hendrixian guitar freakouts and the slap-happy, deep-funk grooves of Parliament-Funkadelic.

And even though Randolph and his group, the Family Band, are steeped in established, rock-ribbed genres, they mix these influences in a way that’s been rarely heard before. What’s wholly unique about Randolph’s music is that he plays an instrument — pedal-steel guitar — typically associated with country and Hawaiian music. On some tunes, he plays the less countrified and gnarlier lap-steel — and, on occasion, even the iconic solid-body electric axe.

Unclassified caused such a stir that, this time around, everyone had a suggestion for the virtuosic player. Carlos Santana, Steven Tyler, Dave Matthews, Rob Thomas and Eric Clapton all called up with ideas.

Clapton actually plays on one tune — a cover of “Jesus is Just Alright.” Since Randolph had a strict “churchy” upbringing, and was rarely exposed to secular music until the last several years, he refers to it as “the Doobie Brothers tune.” (The Doobies had the hit with the song in ’72, but it was actually recorded by the Byrds a few years before that — a version well worth checking out.)

Daniel Lanois also played on and produced two of the new songs. “He’s had a big hand in the recording process, helping it all come together and working with Mark Batson [who produced the rest of the record],” says Randolph during a recent phone interview from the road. He confirms that the Lanois-produced tunes do, in fact, evoke the sort of humid, Southern Gothic atmospherics that shimmered through other Lanois-produced discs like the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon, Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball.

“But the songs Daniel produced are also really soulful, and one tune, ‘Shake,’ is a funky-shuffle kind of thing,” he goes on.

Asked to elaborate on what makes the upcoming disc so much “better” than the stellar Unclassified, Randolph remarks that “We’ve really evolved, not just as a band, but also as singers and songwriters. The last record, we went in to the studio and came up with it really quick in just three weeks. But this time we decided we should take more time to really capture what it is we do. If you look at all the great records, by bands like U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, they take their time, and craft them so that they [sound] just right.”

Hmm … many roots-rock fans might argue that they prefer the lean, fiery spontaneity of a session like Unclassified to U2’s sometimes-bombastic arena rock, or to the Chilis’ often-pro-forma punk-funk. But that’s probably another conversation …

As much as Randolph’s music evokes previous generations of guitar heroes and soul rockers — everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone to the Allman Brothers and Ry Cooder — he says those artists weren’t even on his radar when he was first learning to play the steel guitar: He didn’t get turned on to most of them until after he moved out of his parents’ house.

“Around the house, we only listened to gospel. I never heard of Jimi Hendrix until about five years ago. So it’s just in the last few years that I’ve been getting into all this great music from outside of the church. Like, a lot of people say my steel playing reminds them of Duane Allman’s slide guitar, but I never heard of Duane until a few years ago, either. But now, I really love his music.”

Randolph does have an explanation for the funk-soul connection, though. “A couple of years ago, I discovered Sly Stone, and I could hear where his music was coming from, because he grew up with church music, too. A lot of soul music started with gospel, you know.”

Indeed.

Randolph began playing the “sacred steel” guitar as a teenager in Orange, N.J. His father was a deacon and his mother was a minister in the House of God Church there. The sacred-steel tradition in that church goes back to the 1930s, when the steel guitar was first used as a substitute for more expensive organs.

Although he was raised with the strict discipline that most “preachers’ kids” know too well, Randolph began mixing it up with a rougher crowd in his public high school, not long after his parents divorced. So it would have been easy to go the other way. It was music, and especially the steel guitar, that kept him grounded and gave him a purpose — something to keep him off the streets, where some of his old pals entered gangs and eventually ended up in “the system,” as they say on Law & Order.

“Preachers’ kids are the worst,” says Randolph with a laugh. “You grow up with all this strict upbringing, but then you get to school, and start hanging with friends who don’t go to church. And then when you get to college, you’re exposed to things that you’ve always been cut off from, and you just go wild.”


Robert Randolph & The Family Band appear at the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) Friday, April 14. 8 p.m. $25. 225-5851.

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