Friday, November 26, 2010

Sacred Steel: Robert Randolph and the Family Band

Growing up in Irvington, N.J., Robert Randolph was so involved in playing the pedal steel guitar—his “sacred steel”—in church that he didn’t hear much popular music. No small irony that since then he has been running and collaborating with many A-list popular musicians, among them Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews and Santana.
Go to one of his shows and you hear the dichotomy. Sometimes it’s like being in church. Other times, it’s like attending a high voltage rock concert or a funk/rhythm and blues show. In all cases, it appears that Randolph has the skill to do anything he wants with his sacred steel.
Randolph was trained on the “sacred steel” in the House of God Church. But his path changed after a friend gave him tickets to a Stevie Ray Vaughan concert, according to his website. “After that, I wanted to play pedal steel like Stevie Ray played his guitar,” the website said.
By 2000, Randolph and his new group, the Family Band were making its mark on the New York club scene, gathering a following even though they hadn’t yet secured a record deal. Their popularity spread to other cities.
Randolph’s reputation continued to grow the following year when he joined the Word, a gospel/blues style collaboration between avant-jazz organist John Medeski and members of the blues/rock North Mississippi All-Stars band. The musicians toured together, with the Family Band opening for The Word.
Randolph and the Family Band released their debut album, Live at the Wetlands, in 2002. It was a recording of an August 23, 2001 concert at the legendary Wetlands night club in New York City, which closed soon after the performance.
That same year, ABC hired the group to write its new NBA theme song. Entitled “We Got Hoops,” the song was used for both NBA and WNBA promotions, even though it only appeared in three telecasts.
The group released its first studio album, Unclassified, in August 2003. That same year, Rolling Stone Magazine listed Randolph as #97 on its list of the 100 greatest guitar players of all time.
“A pedal steel guitarist who made his name playing gospel, Randolph’s family band is one of the most intense live acts in all of jamdon,” wrote the magazine. “His thirteen-string instrument has a chillingly clear tone, and his solos are dotted with howling melodies and perpetually cresting, lightning-fast explorations.”
By this time, Clapton had started to take an interest in Randolph, and the Family Band joined the famous guitarist on his 2004 tour. The following year, Randolph joined Metallica lead guitarist Kirk Hammett to play on “Trinity,” an instrumental featured on Carlos Santana’s All That I Am CD.
Released in 2006, Randolph’s next album, Colorblind, featured guest spots by Clapton and by Dave Matthews, whom the Family Band has joined for some shows over the years. NBC and the Discovery Channel used a song from Colorblind, “Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong With That,” for promotional purposes. ABC used another song, “The Thrill of It,” for its College Primetime games throughout the 2007 season.
As a live act,the band began to appear more often before television audiences through venues such as the David Letterman show and “The Jimmy Kimmel Live Concert Series.”
Randolph tapped veteran producer T Bone Burnett for his latest album, We Walk This Road, released earlier this year.
Now 31, Randolph, in the following interview with Beldon’s Blues Point, talks more about where he’s been and where he’s going:

BBP: Robert, tell me what’s going on with you right now, as we speak.
Randolph: I’m just out doing some of these shows with the Experience Hendrix Group right now. Celebrating Hendrix’s 40th anniversary. Also touring and supporting our record that’s been out, the T-Bone record We Walk This Road. So there’s kind of a lot going on.
BBP: So what specifically are you doing with Experience Hendrix?
Randolph: What we do is we go out and uh…I’m just part of the show that is, you know…I just go out and do a couple of songs with me and Steve Vai, me and Jonny Lang, we go out and do a couple of Hendrix tunes. Probably four or five…Purple Haze, Foxy Lady, Them Changes, and I think there’s one more…Red House.
BBP: I see. Is it easy to learn the steel pedal guitar and how did you go about learning it? What drew you to that instrument?
Randolph: Uh, you know, growing up in church, that’s where I learned how to play. I learned a lot of stuff growing up in church and watching other guys before me play. I wanted to be like those guys. Those were basically my Muddy Waters and Jimmy Hendrixes, you know, my world growing up. So I got a chance to witness those guys. I wanted to be like them until one day I started watching Stevie Ray Vaughn play, then I sort of wanted to play like him.
BBP: Yeah I did notice that. And I was wondering, I saw you on the Letterman show one time. How did you meet David? How did that come about?
Randolph: What? Letterman?
BBP: Yeah.
Randolph: He had seen us play. Actually, Paul Shaffer and a bunch of those guys came. They started to come to our shows early on, late at night when we started doing club shows. Because I guess at that time it was sort of like the big buzz thing and New York City and next thing you know we got on Letterman. He wanted us to come and I jammed with Paul and them and then we did a thing with our band. I guess it all kind of works out.
BBP: I understand that when you were growing up you really didn’t hear a lot of non-religious music. You basically heard a lot of religious music and you discovered non-religious when you of came of age. Tell me a little bit about that.
Randolph: I’ve been in church my whole life. My parents playing gospel music and my grandparents were preachers and stuff. Growing up in church. The thing is we had always sort of been—we used to listen, sneak and listen to R and B and things like that and hip-hop growing up. But I hadn’t really heard of rock and roll, I hadn’t really listened to rock or blues or any of that. So I got about 17-18 years old, 19 and I really started to get into it. I’m still being turned on to a bunch of stuff and that’s one of the things that T Bone (Burnett) sort of helped us with this time around, to help me get into American roots music with old blues stuff, going from a lot of the stuff that influenced blues, which is the earliest of the gospel music. You know, Sister Rosetta Tharp and Blind Willie Johnson and a lot of that stuff. So it was a great process to sit with T-Bone Burnett.
BBP: How did you guys come to a meeting and how did he come to produce your album?
Randolph: Really, when we started talking about recording a new record, you know, we started talking about a record, and you know we were trying to look for a producer who understood what gospel was, what blues is and how everything sort of comes full circle, you know with blues rock and gospel and how it all mixes. And T Bone was the guy who understood and when you got an artist like me who comes from a gospel background and you know sometimes a lot of young artists, they sort of get strayed away into this world of “let’s just do what’s on the radio,” “Let’s just do this and do that.” And T Bone’s like, you should just worry about making good music or bad music. Sitting down with him, he had already come to the meeting with this compilation of recordings of all of this music going all the way back to the sixties and the twenties really, you know. When he would sit with Dylan they would all listen to that stuff and let that stuff sort of inspire Dylan.
BBP: At some point do you want to experiment with hip-hop styles? Because I’ve listened to you and you sound more oriented toward the rock side.
Randolph: Hip-hop, I mean especially the older R and B and hip-hop is really what’s, I mean we were just talking about that the other day, me and the guys from Living Color, Steve Vai. You know, the old style R and B and hip-hop, that’s what I grew up on. I mean, I grew up in the inner city..I listened to all of that stuff. Hip-hop is just a new form. It’s just like how blues became rock and roll. It’s like, hip hop is just the most popular music right now. I’m friends with a lot of the hip hop guys. You know what’s funny is that most of the real hip hop guys are all real music guys anyway. You know that’s just how it is. A lot of the producers today, you know when you’re lookin’ at some of the top hip-hop producers you know, everybody was just…you’re looking at Dr. Dre, you look at Pharrell and you look at –a lot of these guys are musicians. A lot of these guys were in their high school bands and their grammar school bands.
BBP: Tell me who some of your earlier influences were. Your band is called “the Family Band.” I hear a little Sly and the Family Stone influence there, not only in the title of your band but in how you play. Am I right about that?
Randolph: Well, Yeah, I mean when you look at it Sly and a lot of us, we all come from church. And it was weird for me to actually listen to Sly, an interview that Sly did. I mean, it’s an old interview, you know. I mean, the Dick Cavett show or whatever it’s from and he was sort of talking about how he had this wacky musical mind, but he was really trying to mix in all of the sounds that he heard growing up in church. But he had this wacky rock and roll sense of mind that it should be a little wilder, you know. I mean, when you think about gospel music in the 60’s, it’s way different. So he came out of nowhere with that, because he heard the harmonies in the way people were singing. And the same with me. That’s why for me, all we ever did really was mix in the sounds that grew up in my tradition, in my church and we would just write different styles of songs. But in terms of the sounds and the way the energy was and the way we would sing and play that all came from my background in church.
BBP: I notice that on Colorblind, you have a guest spot with Eric Clapton and another one with Dave Matthews. How did you connect with them and how did you use them on that album?
Randolph: Well those were the first big guys that actually took me on a tour, you know, Dave Matthews being the first one and Eric Clapton being the second one. And we just all became close to where sitting around after sound check or something, we would all start jamming. Or late night after a show we would start jamming and those things just sort of came into play like that, you know, so like “hey, let’s think about doing something, let’s think about playing, let’s think about doing some tunes together and that’s sort of how it came about. The song that Dave Matthews had sung he had wrote that song for his band and he said “hey man, I think this sounds more like you and the Family Band. Y’all should do this song, you know. So we recorded it and went for it, you know. And it came out to be such a great recording.
BBP: Yeah, I understand also you toured with Pharrell and John Mayer. What was that like? And do you plan any collaborations with them in the future?
Randolph: Yeah, I think so. We’re all pretty much close when I see those guys and talk to them during the course of time. But yeah I mean we sort of had, with this T-Bone record, we had sort of took time and it was sort of cool that all of this time went by and really was able to gather all of this information from hanging around T-Bone and all of the people doing these great sessions with (session drummer) Jim Keltner and …and (guitarist) Robbie Robinson and (songwriter and session musician) Leon Russell and all of these guys sort of comin’ in and talking about music. It’s sort of great where we sit at now because now we still have been creating so much music with so many other artists since then and it’s been great. We got this record out and I’m sure there’ll probably be something out next summer again. And you know, it’s just been a great process.
BBP: You mentioned some of the old blues guys that you’ve been listening to lately. Which one of them has really influenced you the most?
Randolph: Stevie Ray Vaughn is the number one guy. That’s probably the most influential guy to me. It’s probably not a week that don’t go by when I don’t listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan, just Stevie Ray Vaughan. You got him sitting down and like guys like Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy, Albert King, you know, I listen to that stuff. It’s sort of cool.
BBP: This is for the musicians out there. I was watching you play and it’s almost like somebody playing an electric..I was watching the electric guitarist to see if he was doing it, but it was you. How do you get that kind of sound from the steel pedal?
Randolph: I guess it’s sort of being a little wild, man. You know, you gotta be a little crazy. You know my thing was always, I was always trying to implement the sound of all of these great singers like Aretha Franklin and Frank Sinatra, you know, Mahalia Jackson. I’ve been so focused on trying to sound as precise as they are, you know, with the way that they sing, and I’ve always been trying to play those notes, you know, as well as listening to Stevie Ray Vaughn, Duane Allman and the Allman Brothers and stuff like that, you know. So it’s a lot of different, I guess elements that sort of get me going.
BBP: When you say you’re trying to follow the singers, you mean with your voice or your instrument?
Randolph: Oh the instrument. I would try to play what they would sing. Especially when you get into all that stuff like Aretha, Stevie Wonder and crazy vibratos of Mahalia Jackson and Frank Sinatra. Those were probably some of the main ones that I was really listening to that I would try. The stuff that they would sing, I would try to do those licks. That’s why everybody would go “man, where did you get that guitar lick from?” I’m like: “Well, I’m listening to what the singers are singing that’s what I’m playing. I’m not really trying to play exactly what Stevie Ray Vaughan did. Even though I listen to him, it’s the soulfulness of what those guys do, like Stevie Ray and Albert King. To be able to listen to some of the great guitarists like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, it’s a cool thing.
BBP: So it’s almost like your trying to do two things at one time. The singers on one side and the guitarists on the other?
Randolph: Yes.
BBP: Wow. That’s incredible.
Randolph: All of my voicings mainly do come from the main singers, you know. So I’m not spending all day trying to learn BB King licks or Steve Vai licks. I’m trying to learn what Aretha Franklin was doing, Patti Labelle, or you know.
BBP: Also, T Bone Burnett, it’s interesting because he has a little bit of a country bent to what he does sometimes. Are you heading in that direction at some point? Is he trying to take you in that direction?
Randolph: You know I think now especially from really talking and being around these guys like Clapton and being around the Hendrix family and a lot of people that I’ve been able to be around, it’s just more so of being an artist, you know. When you’re an artist or a musician you really don’t think about whether its rock or country you just sort of…it just so happens if I want to play the acoustic slide guitar, it’d be classified as country or folk music. You know it’s like if you hear the old version of Jimi Hendrix… now everybody goes “Oh Hendrix, the rock guy.” But years ago Hendrix just said, “listen I’m just playing the blues, it’s just the way I’m playing it.” You know, so for me, I’m just playing music. Whatever songs I’m singing about or writing about or whatever, it sounds like I look at other people trying to classify it, to me it’s all gospel and blues.
BBP: Let me just get this last question in. In terms of albums, future projects you have going, can you go into that a little bit? What we may be seeing from Robert Randolph in the next year or so?
Randolph: Well we got this thing and then I’m doing a record with all of the guys I grew up with in my church watching. People can look out for that, the Slide Brothers, we call them. You know it’s all the older guys that I grew up in my church watching, the ones that are still alive. So I actually have them out on the road with me doing these Experience Hendrix tours. So people can look out for that and anything else that I’m doing. It’s just fun right now, you know.
BBP: How about the Family Band?
Randolph: We have a live record that will be out I think in December or January that we recorded. We actually trying to choose between what shows, will it be live in Portland or the show we did in Indianapolis a couple of weeks ago? Or one other show, from Atlanta I believe.
BBP: Any types of videos?
Randolph: Probably not any videos.
BBP: And let me ask you this one last question. Who out there do you like? Who out there are you watching?
Randolph: The Black Keyes are great. I like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Joe Bonamassa, you know. In terms of young guys, that’s really who I like to listen to. Of course, Red Hot Chili Peppers, of course Derek Trucks. You know. Those are the guys I like to listen to.
BBP: And of those guys, who would you like to collaborate with on a future project?
Randolph: It probably’d be Prince. You can probably look forward to that because we already been drumming up some ideas.
BBP: You and Prince have been talking?
Randolph: Yeah

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