Robert Randolph and The Family Band are bringing blues, funk and gospel to Vinyl Music Hall. Call it a lap or pedal steel guitar—either way, it is all sacred. Since the 1930s, the pedal steel guitar has been the premier instrument played in the House of God Church—in partnership with the glorious voices of the gospel singers.
At one particular House of God Church in New Jersey, there was a young man named Robert Randolph who was surrounded and affected by this church music his whole life. One day the pedal steel came to call; he answered that call by perfecting the sound and making it his own. He turned it into a blues/rock take on gospel.
“It is a custom-made 13-string guitar. I researched all the guitars. I combined the strings to work it all in. I am still learning what it can do. I have not mastered it yet,” Randolph said of the particular type of steel guitar he plays. “It is a fun instrument that many are picking up on. We make it sound like singers; that was its role in the church.”
When asked to describe his style of music, Randolph explained that “It is what it is. I never try to classify it. It has the elements of the story of life, the church, being musicians and coming up through the church.” Many of his early influences were monsters of the guitar such as Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix. When asked why he chose pedal steel, Randolph continued, “It is history. It was my calling and I wanted to share this historical gift. It chose me.”
During a sacred steel convention in Florida in 2001, Randolph was discovered by Jim Marko, who, according to Randolph, said to him, “We gotta get you out there.” The process of getting anyone out of the House of God Church to play in a secular setting was a tough process; no one had ever done it.
In a 2001 NPR interview by Liane Hansen titled “Heavenly ‘Sacred Steel’: The House of God’s Little-Known Sound Goes Mainstream,” Randolph said that he told his father, a deacon in the church, that “This music makes everyone happy here—it will make everyone happy outside the church too.” He made a good case for it and was allowed to pursue a music career.
So, with that approval, Randolph left his full-time assistant paralegal position with a law firm and started playing pedal steel for the masses. In mid-2001, Randolph, along with John Medeski, and the band members from the North Mississippi Allstars, formed The Word. They toured the United States and played various clubs in 2002. In 2007 and early 2008, they reunited and toured again. They’ve played together as The Word a few times since then, for festivals and special appearances.
“I got hooked up. It was a great experience. It was a tribute to the church. I was introduced to a rock and roll world, yet the church was still so close,” Randolph said of that time in his life.
Shortly after touring with The Word, Randolph joined with other musicians who had been on tour with them and formed Robert Randolph and The Family Band. The first album by the newly formed band was called “Live At The Wetlands” and was released in 2002. Since that time, Robert Randolph and The Family Band have recorded three other albums.
Their latest, “We Walk This Road,” was released in 2010 on Warner Bros. Records and was produced by the legendary T-Bone Burnett. The band has made numerous guest appearances on other musicians’ recordings, their songs have been used in movie soundtracks and they have played every major music festival in the United States.
When asked about his current musical influences Randolph said, “It is always changing. I like Miles Davis and the old school—Eric Clapton—guys making music. Derek Trucks, Jack White and The Black Keys are the next movement. These are who I listen to—so moving. They are who I hone in on to see what is going on.”
We are all in for a real treat when the sacred steel hits the stage.
ROBERT RANDOLPH AND THE FAMILY BAND
WHEN: Doors open at 7:30 p.m., show begins
at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 8
WHERE: Vinyl Music Hall, 2 S. Palafox Place
COST: $20-$25, ages 18 and over