A young, black male donning a New York Giants football jersey, with tightly braided locks and the broad shoulders of a running back sitting behind a pedal steel guitar – yeah, right. It’d be like witnessing a blue-eyed, country boy in a 10-gallon cowboy hat get behind a pair of turntables and start rapping with a thick Kentucky twang about the trials of farm life.
“People, especially the country pedal steel players, look and go, ‘What the hell? What is he doing? Where is that sound coming from? How’d he pick up this instrument?'” Robert Randolph said with a chuckle.
On his 2002 debut, Live at the Wetlands, the 24-year-old phenom extracts a fresh, propulsive sound out of his pedal steel completely different from the weeping tones produced by country artists to which the instrument is most closely associated. Randolph’s unique sound – imagine the late Duane Allman on lap pedal instead of slide guitar and upping the tempo – hasn’t gone unnoticed. Randolph and his racially diverse band that includes Danyel Morgan on bass/vocals, Marcus Randolph on drums and John Ginty on Hammond organ, were given the opportunity of a lifetime several months ago when Dave Matthews invited them to open a string of dates for him. After playing together for less than two years, Robert Randolph & The Family Band were performing in front of packed arenas across the Northeast.
“It’s crazy to play in front of that many people,” Randolph said with enthusiasm. “About a year ago I would never have imagined being in this position this fast – opening for (Dave Matthews). It’s been real fun.”
In 2001, Randolph was discovered by the North Mississippi Allstars and invited to play on the album, The Word – a critically acclaimed collection of jazzed-up gospel traditionals and originals that teamed the young sensation with members of the Allstars along with Medeski (of Medeski, Martin & Wood fame.)
Less than two years ago, Randolph was working as a paralegal at a law office and playing pedal steel at the House of God Church near his hometown of Irvington, NJ. This particular denomination of the Pentecostal church has a long tradition of using pedal steel guitars during their services. Randolph grew up worshipping with his family, but between the ages of 14 and 16, he stopped attending when his parents no longer made it mandatory. At 17, his new found interest in the pedal steel brought him back into the religious fold and added focus to his life. Practicing four to six hours kept him too busy to get involved with the criminal element that permeated his neighborhood like an evil shadow.”I can’t believe I did some of those things … If I didn’t have this instrument I know I would have been dealing drugs and been involved in street gangs and just a lot of other things kids my age were doing,” Randolph admitted. “Pedal steel … playing in the house, kept me off the streets.”
When Randolph first started playing the instrument he listened exclusively to taped services of other pedal steel players in the House of God. At 20, a fellow church member slipped Randolph a Stevie Ray Vaughan cassette, and his style was forever altered.
“That’s what turned my head to a whole other music scene,” Randolph said.
In 2000, The Family Band was formed, and Randolph was ready to take his pedal steel out of the church and into the clubs. However, his decision caused much controversy among the congregation. The House of God Church, to the best of Randolph’s knowledge, has never had one of their pedal steel players leave their hallowed walls to seek fortune and fame in the secular world.
“We’ve had great older guys in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s who played pedal steel and they were good, man,” Randolph emphasized. “But, they just couldn’t (play outside the pews) because in those days, they said that if you went to a bar or club and played, you’d be banned from the church and you’d be going against God’s will.”
Randolph said there will always be detractors, but that lately, more members are glad to see nonmembers enjoying the same type of music they have prized for decades.
“I look at it as an opportunity for getting the word out for the sound and the style of music that we play and for the pedal steel and to let (people) know great music can still be positive,” Randolph said. “That’s why Dave Matthews is so huge; he’s not like these other (popular acts) who come out singing about girls bending over and hoes and sluts and things.”
Despite the fact that Randolph has been inundated with the same raunchy, superficial lyrics of the rap world and the lewd images propagated by BET and MTV as the rest of his generation, he is appalled, rather than entertained, by the message.
“I listen to this stuff and I’m like, ‘I can’t believe this is a song – somebody talking about 20-inch rims and all their gold and platinum,” Randolph said, disgusted.
Randolph is disappointed by the latest trend in the black community to sing exclusively about “bling-bling” and other material possessions and pleasures of the flesh. Randolph notes the rich history of black music, dating back to the African roots and carrying on through the great blues, jazz and funk pioneers of the 20th Century. He compares the gravity of those seminal artists to today’s shallow hip-hop artist and the negative influence they have on today’s youth – especially in urban areas such as the one in which he was raised.
“Now everyone wants to be rappers, and it’s just like, ‘What’s going on with the world today?'” Randolph rued. “The young kids, they hear somebody rapping and look at a video and say, ‘Oh man, I wanna have 20-inch rims – forget about school, forget about everything else,’ they wanna be that.”
Randolph is grateful for his upbringing in the church because it taught him there was more to life than just money and power.
“A lot of people don’t know better,” Randolph said. “They do what they see on TV.”
If Randolph could realize his dream, today’s youth would have a different brand of musical heroes to look up to.”Hopefully, me and Dave Matthews and all the other people who sing about positive message and have a great sound … maybe a bunch of us can get together and change the whole music industry,” Randolph said, his ambitious statement spoken with humble sincerity.
Randolph’s performances have received rave reviews across the country. His latest gig with Matthews exposed his genius to thousands of individuals.
“People of all ages, of all races, are at the show dancing and screaming,” Randolph said with pride. “That’s what I feed off, just seeing people really enjoying (the pedal steel). I’m trying to introduce the old instrument.
“I want younger kids – younger white kids, younger Spanish kids – I want everybody to be playing one of these things, just how regular guitars are. Hopefully, I can start something for young pedal steel guitar players,” Randolph said with a bashful chuckle.
Robert Randolph & The Family Band perform Saturdayat Skipper’s Smokehouse at 8 p.m. with Cabaret Diosa. Expect a sellout. For advance tickets/info call 971-0666.
Contact Wade Tatangelo at email@example.com