Fire Note Says: 17 years and 6 studio albums later, Robert Randolph & The Family Band celebrate their early roots in soulful Gospel grooves and funky R&B and rock suitable for the clubs.
Album Review: Robert Randolph and his Family Band came on the scene when Warner Bros. picked up their live concert EP in 2002, “Live at the Wetlands,” where the band helped close down one of NYC’s landmark nightclubs. Right from that start, Randolph’s skillful playing of the pedal steel—to say the least an unusual instrument in R&B and rock setting—together with the band’s mix of funk and bluesy, yet danceable rock, often set to the churchy march rhythms of their Pentecostal up-bringing set these guys apart. Randolph had developed as a player in the “Sacred Steel” tradition of African American House of God Church, where the pedal steel and lap steel guitar shook of its stereotype as a country music instrument and was drafted into service as a replacement for much more traditional organs. Randolph and his relations mixed what they learned inside the church with R&B influences like Sly & the Family Stone when they hit the club circuit, and Randolph used his multi-string slide instrument to reproduce the sounds he heard from guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duane Allman and Eric Clapton.
Now, 17 years and 6 full-length studio albums later, we can hear Randolph still at the top of his game on his latest effort, Brighter Days. In fact, soulful funky tracks like “Don’t Fight It,” with its false ending where Randolph had to match the high screaming vocals of his sister Lenesha in a spirited call & response, fall into a groove that matches “The March” from the band’s debut. We hear a lot more from Lenesha on Brighter Days, but she comes front and center trading lead vocals with Robert on “Have Mercy,” and singing solo on “Cry Over Me.” Elsewhere, we hear Randolph and the cousins who make up the instrumental players of his Family Band – including long-time drummer Marcus Randolph – and producer Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell), embrace their Gospel music roots on the opening “Baptize Me,” “Have Mercy,” and “I Need You,” mixing a positive spirituality with that funky club feel.
Randolph turns down the heat to a simmer for his cover of Pops Staples’ “Simple Man,” a bluesy testimonial, but again and again his musical prowess on his instrument of choice shines out throughout, with quick fills, lengthy soulful solos that can raise the roof, as he does on “Cut Em Loose, and the one-two punch of closers, “I’m Living Off the Love You Give” and the jamming of “Strange Train.” Robert Randolph & The Family Band continue to deliver a fun, soulful mix of R&B, funk and rock sounds, that balance virtuoso steel guitar chops with a playful dance energy that lives into George Clinton’s philosophical proclamation to “free your mind and your ass will follow.”
Key Tracks: “Have Mercy” / “Baptize Me” / “I’m Living Off the Love You Give”
Artists With Similar Fire: Allman Bros. / Eric Clapton / Sly Stone & the Family Band
Robert Randolph Website
Robert Randolph Facebook
Mascot Label Group
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb