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Thursday, January 20,2011

Strumming the sacred steel

Robert Randolph pushes a once-obscure instrument to the foretront

By Brian Palmer
Anyone who has followed the career of Robert Randolph & the Family Band knows that they love giving people a good time. From their legendary, epic shows at The Wetlands, to the insanely catchy groove of tracks like “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That,” to the Sly & the Family Stone-tinged sound of songs like “I Need More Love,” Randolph, his steel-pedal guitar skills and his band have spent years building an incredible fan base by giving people a chance to have some fun for a couple hours. Sometimes, though, a Robert Randolph show does more than that.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten e-mails from people who were poor or on the verge of being suicidal or even killing somebody because of something that happened,” Randolph says. “And these people came to a show and now they’re like, ‘Man, I just feel like I want to be a different person.’” Moments like this help make the journey more worthwhile and reinforce his belief about why he makes music to begin with.

“I’ve come to sort of accept the fact that this is the reason why I’m here on this earth,” he says. “To play music and use the influence I have from church and things like that, to connect with the world and uplift people. I think that’s just why I’m here.”

With respect to his most recent release, We Walk This Road — a collection of gospel, blues and rock tunes that includes covers of songs from Bob Dylan, Prince and John Lennon, among others — his experiences in church proved to be both a help and a hindrance to him. Growing up in a House of God community may have helped give him his moral center, but as he admits, it also limited his access to music.

“There’s a lot of music that I sort of missed out on. I mean, I wasn’t alive for it anyway,” he adds quickly with a laugh, “but I just never really thought about going back and looking into stuff.”

And this is where producer T-Bone Burnett played such a crucial role, not just in terms of helping Randolph create the tone and scope of this record, but also in terms of helping Randolph see what he had missed, and what many others are still missing today. Burnett brought in archival songs for Randolph to listen to that went as far back as the 1920s, and doing so allowed Randolph to not only connect blues with rock and gospel, but also to connect a sense of the past with the present.

“T-Bone helped tremendously,” Randolph says, “by getting me to go back and really study a lot of this stuff and understand this was the earliest form of American music. And that this is what artists — over time — can become: great artists. You know, like Dylan, Zeppelin and Muddy Waters. American music has really sort of stalled these days, mainly by kids not looking back to the old stuff.”

Having this experience, being able to absorb so many songs from so many artists from the recent and distant past, has proved to be eye-opening for Randolph.

“It was great to listen to the music and really try to sort of open up this new world for me, musically and creatively,” Randolph says, a hint of awe in his voice as he reminisces. “Listening to it has just brought so much energy to my brain, you know? This is one of the most fascinating things that’s ever happened to me.”

Randolph also freely admits that ever since the recording sessions were completed, he has had a field day on iTunes — to the tune of more than $1,000 — updating his collection.

“Everything from Blind Willie Johnson to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, to all the old blues stuff. I mean there’s so much, man,” he says enthusiastically before laughing some more. “All I know is, I have all this stuff on my iTunes and I turn it on and just gain all this newfound creative energy.”

Randolph’s decision to record a more serious album — a marked contrast from the overwhelmingly upbeat jam sessions, party songs and overtly positive messages that are found on his first two studio releases, Unclassified and Colorblind — was not made lightly. In fact, in some ways it was a project that was borne out of necessity rather than simply wishing to change the musical dynamic of an album and try going in a new direction.

“T-Bone was a big Obama supporter during recording, so we were all into these debates while we were in the studio,” Randolph says. “We were watching Obama versus McCain and listening to both guys, and watching America sort of saying, ‘Look, man, we just want the truth. We just want a guy that’ll tell us the truth.’ That’s what we were all looking for at the time, so listening to all these guys and listening to a lot of these debates really fueled a bunch of these serious songs, serious lyrics and things like that.”

Seeing what people were going through — and are still going through — felt like a call to Randolph for him to do something to help turn the tide, even if just a little bit. And despite his easygoing demeanor, it is clear this is one call he is willing to take up, one responsibility he is proud to have.

“I like having that sort of burden on my shoulders of being a guy who’s gonna use music and use songwriting to really uplift people,” he admits. “These are depressing times we’re in. A lot of people are sort of looking for a show they can go to or something they can do to seek an answer. I just like inspiring people and giving people this outlook that I had a chance to witness and be a part of, growing up in church and whatnot. Everything is sort of heavensent and it’s all a part of life and the growing process of each person. Sometimes bad things happen for the future of the good, you know, and you’ve just got to learn to accept that because that’s what it is.”

Randolph does not like to back down from a challenge when there is something he can do to help via his music, but music is such a driving force in his life that he probably would not be able to sit on the sidelines during troublesome times even if he wanted to.

“Music is what keeps me going!” Randolph exclaims. “It keeps me happy. It keeps me … sane, I guess. Can’t live without it.”


On the Bill:

Robert Randolph & the Family Band play the Ogden Theatre on Saturday, Jan. 22. Doors at 8 p.m. Must be 16 to enter. The Constellations open. Tickets are $25. 935 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, 303-830-2525.

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