Tuesday, May 26, 2009

May 26: Robert Randolph, "Unclassified"

Artist: Robert Randolph
Album: Unclassified
Year: 2003
Label: Warner Bros.

Though countless guitarists have attempted to master the fine art of the pedal steel, few have found as much successes "playing flat" as they have with the traditional guitar. This is mostly due to the entire approach and dynamic of the instrument changing, and therefore, far different skills are required. Working the approach entire reverse, Robert Randolph burst onto the scene in 2000, and is nothing short of a pedal steel virtuoso. After being spotted at the Scared Steel Convention, Randolph quickly found himself opening for acts like the North Mississippi All Stars, and recording the brilliant The Word record with jazz masters, Medeski, Martin, and Wood. With his brilliant backing band, The Family Band, Robert Randolph has released three brilliant albums since, with the groups' 2003 record, Unclassified, shining as their finest work to date.

Using the pedal steel as the primary instrument in a band is something that is rarely heard, let alone within a rock or "jam" setting. However, Robert Randolph deploys his talent flawlessly throughout Unclassified, and the album is a true delight to experience time and time again. In essence, the sound of Robert Randolph takes American gospel and smashes it together with the classic rock and roll aesthetic. Taking influence from everyone from Sly & The Family Stone to Eric Clapton to Earth, Wind, And Fire, the music the band makes is a refreshing shock to the system for an overly dull era of music. Perfectly combining gospel, rock, funk, and elements of the "jam band" scene, the music of Robert Randolph And The Family Band is pure enjoyment. The live performances of Robert Randolph And The Family band further this spirit, and they are some of the most marvelous live musical experiences one can find. The diversity in style and delivery found within Robert Randolph And The Family Band is like no other band in history, and they truly are in their own, brilliant musical category.

Though Randolph may be the frontman, The Family Band are absolutely amazing musicians in their own right. Conjuring the spirit of P-Funk era Bootsy Collins, bass player Danyel Morgan pumps out some of the deepest, funkiest grooves that have been heard in years. Drummer, Marcus Randolph is nothing short of sensational, as he leads the group through tempo-shifting joyrides, presenting wild time signature changes throughout the album, and even within individual songs. John Ginty jumps in, playing both a standard piano, as well as a Hammond B-3 organ, giving Unclassified a bit of a more gritty, yet bluesy mood. The shared lead guitar work of Robert Randolph and Morgan is nothing short of stunning. Riff checking Jimi Hendrix, and creating "Maggot Brain" like textures on "Good Times (3 Stroke)," it is clear that The Family Band are easily among the finest musicians on Earth. With each member of the group lending backing vocals, the shared harmonies give the music even more depth, and are the perfect finishing touch to their fantastic sound.

To be specific, the style in which Randolph plays is called "sacred steel," and it draws its name from the fact that, much like Randolph's playing, the style originated from church bands. Randolph himself was trained in the House Of God Church, a church that has been using pedal steel in their services since the 1930's. This background comes through in the music, and it also takes the level of "soul" in the music to a new level. Randolph's voice is a perfect combination of grit, soul, and pure vocal talent. Singing his heart out on every track, his religious background comes through as many of the songs are so good, they are often called "religious experiences" by listeners. The lyrics on Unclassified range from joyous, life affirming celebrations, to social critiques of the current culture. In fact, many of the songs, like the albums' opening track, "Going In The Right Direction," can be interpreted in a number of ways. While some may take their lyrics as having a religious undertone, many people interpret them as tales of caution and joy taken from Randolph's New Jersey/New York upbringing. It is this ambiguity within the lyrics that makes the songs all the more relatable and enjoyable for all audiences.

The album title, Unclassified, is a perfect statement as to the originality and individuality found within the music of Robert Randolph And The Family Band. Their catchy, addictive blend of gospel, soul, and funk, all with the energy of rock and roll makes them one of the most entertaining and uplifting bands in history of music. Playing an exceptional pedal steel with all his heart, Robert Randolph is undeniably one of the most talented and inventive musicians alive today. His backing band are equally as talented, and when the entire group gets "into the groove," they are nearly unrivaled when it comes to making pure musical magic. With a sensational live show to equal their studio work, Robert Randolph will certainly remain a band to be reckoned with for the next few decades. Though their current three studio albums are all well worth owning, it is their 2003 release, Unclassified, that is their finest work, and it is beyond an essential album for every music collection.

Standout tracks: "Going In The Right Direction," "Squeeze," and "Run For Your Life."

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