Life before Randolph

This sacred-steel band isn’t interested in crossing over (at least not musically).

You don’t need to be a member of the House of God flock in order for the music of the Lee Boys to feel familiar.

The group’s sound is deeply rooted in the “sacred steel” style that has accompanied weekly services in the House of God church for more than 70 years – but secular/roots-rock fans have been treated to a big dose of the sacred-steel vibe over the last few years in the form of Robert Randolph and the Family Band, a favorite on the jam-band circuit.

Like the six members of the Lee Boys (four brothers and two nephews), Randolph grew up in the House of God denomination, and was equally steeped in the sacred-steel tradition — which began in the 1930s when the pedal-steel guitar was adopted as a more cost-effective replacement for expensive organs.

Like Randolph and his band, the Lee Boys have commingled the sacred-steel style with other influences — country, blues, classic R&B, jazz and funk. And although their mix is not quite as far-flung as Randolph’s, the Lee Boys also add enough rock urgency to the roux to come up with a rocking-gospel sound every bit as joyous and celebratory as Randolph’s.

Although the Lee Boys have been performing together since childhood, they’ve only released two recordings to date. In ’02, they issued It’s No Secret on their own label, so it was little heard by anyone who didn’t attend their shows. Then, last year, Arhoolie issued Say Yes! to critical kudos — which also considerably increased the band’s profile

Guitars gently weep

The Lee Boys are rootsier than Randolph, closer to the genre’s gospel beginnings, while Randolph is not at all shy about adding more contempo flourishes. But the Lee Boys, who perform Friday at Downtown After Five, were also like Randolph in that the older Lee brothers grew up as “preacher’s kids” in a strict household that didn’t allow them to listen to secular music — at least not for entertainment purposes.

“But our dad could see that we had a lot of musical potential, so he got us music lessons that exposed us to a lot of different styles,” says Alvin Lee, who plays guitar and midi guitar, while nephew Emanuel Roosevelt Collier handles most of the crying melody parts and high-flying solos on the 12-string pedal steel.

“We heard people like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, just so we would know what else was out there, for our musical education — but we weren’t allowed to just play that stuff around the house for fun,” adds Lee. Brothers Keith and Derrick Lee handle the vocals — Keith delivers the more rousing, dynamic tunes, while Derrick is up front on the more introspective, low-key tracks.

Many sacred-steel groups have felt pressure in recent years, ever since the style has “gone public,” to “keep the music inside the four walls of the church, to not take it out and play it in theaters and concert halls,” says Lee, 40.

And the Lee Boys probably would have been satisfied to just keep playing their music in church, raising the rafters with the Good News of the gospel message — until tragedy struck.

“What made me want to take the music outside of the church was when, in 2000, our dad died, and then my brother Glenn died eight months later, of cancer,” Lee recalls sadly. “Glenn and I were really tight, and it was a slow death, and it was emotionally really painful for all of us.” Glenn was one of the co-founders of the group; he played the key pedal-steel role that nephew Collier inherited after Glenn’s death

“There was something about that experience that made me want to take the music outside the church and play it for other people, so that more people could hear the music and the message,” says Lee.

Indeed, Lee subscribes to the same philosophy adopted in recent years by the Blind Boys of Alabama — who, since expanding the appeal of their music in 2000 by collaborating with rock, blues and pop artists, have played more shows in theaters and concert halls than they have in churches. When performing only in churches, they were “preaching to the converted” in the most literal sense.

But playing in secular settings means they might reach folks otherwise unlikely to find the music or the message.

“That’s exactly right!,” effuses Lee. “We’ve had people come up to us afterward in tears, talking about how moved they were by the music and by the message.”

Indeed, the band is “still playing the songs we played in church,” stresses Lee. “We’re trying to spread a tradition and a style that we’ve been playing all of our lives, and trying to keep this tradition alive. The inspiration and feeling that comes along with our music is the reason that people feel good.

“It is like the new music on the block, and it’s just getting ready to explode.”

Lee says he doesn’t mind the constant comparisons to Randolph: “Oh, no, we’ve known Robert for a while, he’s just the one who first took this style mainstream, so of course folks who never heard this music before are going to use Robert” as their sacred-steel touchstone.

He remembers that Randolph “didn’t start playing until later than we did.” Randolph is about 12 years younger than Lee — “so he was mostly off to the side — he didn’t play at the national level in the churches,” says the guitarist, who comes out of the Jacksonville, Fla., church, while Randolph is from New Jersey. “We didn’t know how good he was until we heard him at a state assembly.”

Lee is happy to let Randolph pursue a more mainstream direction with the music — Randolph’s new disc is being helmed by Dave Matthews’ latest producer, after all — while the Lee Boys hew closer to the rootsier, and sometimes more soulful, tradition.

“No, even though Lee Boys music is also inspired by blues and country, what we’re doing is still sacred-steel gospel music, which is what is important to us. Robert is very gifted, but if we were to cross over into the mainstream, I feel like we’d be just another rock or blues band.”

The Grateful who?

Like Randolph, Lee and his siblings are still discovering secular musicians whose emotive slide-guitar work is sometimes used by rocking-blues fans as a reference point for the sacred-steel sound. He hasn’t heard Ry Cooder, for example, and when it comes to the Allman Brothers, he’s more familiar with current band members like Derek Trucks and Oteil Burbridge than he is with Duane Allman — whose luminous, lyrical slide work is usually offered up as the gold standard for the instrument.

He also only recently discovered another roots-rock/classic-rock hero, at a certain renowned music festival.

“We were playing at this year’s MerleFest, and we met this musician, and got to talking, and he asked if he could sit in with us, and when we went out on stage with him, there was this huge roar.

“It was Bob Weir, from the Grateful Dead, and I didn’t understand that reaction from the crowd — because I had never heard of him until that day.”

[Writer and critic Kevin Ransom can be reached at kevinransom@hotmail.com.]


The Lee Boys play Downtown After Five, a free show at Pack Square, on Friday, July 21. Avec La Force Drum & Dance Ensemble (with members of The Afromotive) opens the show. 5-9 p.m. 251-9973.

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