"Music’s ‘Man of Steel’ plays Payomet" - Robert Randolph & the Family Band

CAPE COD TIMES

by Joe Burns - August, 30, 2019

On a tree-shaded side street, in Orange, N.J., stands a small brick building, home to the House of God Church. It was there that Robert Randolph learned the Gospel and the steel guitar.

Randolph and his Family Band, who perform at the Payomet Performing Arts Center on Saturday, Sept. 7, honed their skills in church and that gospel sound permeates their music today, as evidenced in the band’s performance and in its recently released CD, “Brighter Days.”

Robert RandolphRandolph, who was named one of the hundred greatest guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, plays both pedal and lap steel guitar, instruments that have been staples in House of God churches since the 1930s as an economical alternative to the church organ.

“The lap steel is the prominent instrument in the whole church (organization) throughout its history,” Randolph says. “My great-grandparents, my grandparents, they all grew up a part of this thing. That’s kind of like all we knew growing up, so I grew up into that.”

Randolph says that the steel guitar player was the rock star in his Pentecostal community.

“There were all these guys, Calvin Cook and Ted Beard, Chuck Campbell and Glen Reed. All of these guys, they were sort of like our Albert King and Albert Collins and B.B. King, Chuck Berry. Each guy had a different style and sound that influenced me.”

Dubbed “sacred steel” by music marketers, the music existed for decades within that Pentecostal denomination, unknown to the outside world, until the release of a series of compilation albums, beginning in the 1990s, that brought world-wide attention to Randolph and others.

“Those albums were kind of the beginning of all of us understanding that there was some sort of outside audience that loved what we were doing. Because we had no clue. We were always just playing amongst our peers in church. It was like this hidden little musical gem that was going on in America for almost a hundred years,” Randolph says.

But just as the outside world was discovering Randolph and sacred steel, Randolph was opening his ears to secular sounds.

“I started listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan and that got me into the whole secular scene,” Randolph says. “And once I started that it gave me a whole new approach to playing. That was sort of the whole vibe. Listening to him I wanted to play that sort of bluesy style that he was playing, and all these riffs , so I kind of added that approach to the pedal steel.”

Vaughan’s influence can be heard in Randolph’s playing, but he and the band are more than electric blues. Psychedelia, funk, southern rock and soul are all blended into the band’s gospel foundation.

The band’s extended riffs, that seem to flow like a collective stream of consciousness, have led some to assume they hear a jam band influence in the group’s music.

“It’s kind of funny,” Randolph says of that assumption,” because (in) the church, it’s all about the jam. Somebody would sing a song and we would have to take this song and turn it into some sort of jubilee jam that would last five minutes, ten minutes, twenty minutes. That’s all we knew how to do.”

Since taking their music outside of the church Randolph and the band have grown musically, but still retain the style and spirit of what they played and heard in that small brick church.

“It hasn’t really changed. It kind of like evolved into songwriting, singing and all these different things and adding different sounds and other different influences, but the style is pretty much the same of what we grew up doing from the beginning,” Randolph says.

That style and spirit is the essence of “Brighter Days,” an album of all original songs with the exception of Pop Staples’ “Simple Man.”

Randolph says that the songs in the album are meant to “bring hope and joy and a little bit of spirituality” to a divided and troubled world.

“A lot of people are down and out these days. There’s a lot of bickering and fighting and complaining and everybody hating each other,” he says.

“There’s a sense of feeling that’s needed, people being picked up and inspired and all these different things, and so writing these songs, that’s what I strived out to wanting to do. It’s the next phase of growth not only for this country, but for the world. This is the new phase of now. How are we going to pick these people up? How are we going to pick each other up? How are we going to learn from what’s going on?”

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If You Go

Who: Robert Randolph and the Family Band, with opening act Hollis Brown

When: 7 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 7

Where: Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Rd., Truro.

Tickets: From $30; payomet.org. or at the Wellfleet box office, 2616 Route 6 (call 508-349-2929 for hours)