The Word is difficult to describe succinctly. The supergroup’s sound is a gospel-influenced musical fusion combining the talents of jazz pianist and organist John Medeski, southern blues/rock band North Mississippi Allstars and the soulful guitar sounds of Robert Randolph. Although the band just released their second album this year, their genesis took place a decade and a half ago.
In the late ’90s, Randolph was a 20-year-old, church-going paralegal. He was raised in the House of God Church, a pentecostal denomination, following the path of both his parents and grandparents. There are House of God churches in 26 states plus Jamaica and the Bahamas, and the sacred steel guitar has been an integral piece of church services since its introduction almost 80 years ago. The praise and worship in the church is led by the steel guitar, which takes the place of an organ, and much of Randolph’s inspiration to play guitar is derived from the “weeping, moaning slide guitar” he was exposed to in his formative years.
“I grew up watching those guys, and they really gave me the inspiration, and I wanted to be like them. They were sort of my Albert King and B.B. King,” Randolph says. “We were focused on having to sound like singers. It had to be very precise with sliding notes like a vocal singer.”
Most of the sacred steel players never ventured out of the church, but Randolph was different.
Eventually, a small record label noticed Randolph’s blooming talent. Arhoolie Records began in 1960 as an effort to document down home blues singers. Along with other prominent sacred steel players, Randolph was invited to play on an album called Sacred Steel, Live! in 1998 at various House of God churches.
Around the same time, the funk group Medeski, Martin and Wood was on tour with North Mississippi Allstars. It was the Sacred Steel, Live! album that caught the attention of Medeski and the Allstars (comprised of guitarist Luther Dickinson, percussionist Cody Dickinson and bassist Chris Chew). The musicians had envisioned creating a new improvisational gospel collaboration. Once they realized Robert Randolph — who’s featured on the album performing a moving rendition of “Without God” — lived nearby, they knew they wanted to play with him.
Medeski and the Allstars got in touch with the young Randolph and asked him to open for them at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. They then invited Randolph to record with them in Medeski’s Brooklyn studio. Hence, The Word was born.
These musicians, all with vastly different musical backgrounds, came together in a synthesis of gospel-infused rock ‘n’ roll, funk, jazz and blues in an extended improvisational style that went above and beyond any of the genres on their own. Their self-titled debut album, released in 2001, consists mostly of instrumental traditional songs, but also contains a couple original arrangements.
Randolph steers clear of placing the supergroup’s music within a specific genre. Alluding to the great Eric Clapton, with whom he has collaborated, Randolph says the best route is to just take the music for what it is.
“There’s no trying to figure out which genre does it go in on iTunes, you know?” Randolph says.
Sometimes songs are planned and “other times it just happens naturally,” Randolph continues. “It’s really hard to explain because it’s so special and spontaneous. That’s why a lot of people really understand it when it’s presented live and on tour and in concert, because of the different elements and different levels of things that happen.”
Produced by Medeski and Ropeadope Records, the first album stood out from other sacred steel albums because of the new spin the musicians were able to put on well-established classics. The combination of Randolph’s guitar skills, Medeski’s pronounced organ and electric piano and Cody Dickinson’s electric washboard helped differentiate the group from more traditional-sounding bands. And people took notice.
Although the sacred steel sound was just gaining popularity at the turn of the 21st century, the instrument has been in existence since the late 1800s. Electric steel guitar became popular during the 1930s through country/Western music and includes both the lap and pedal steel guitar. Randolph plays both versions, but the addition of the pedals allows him to achieve more complex chords, jazz ideas and scales, he says.
After touring for a brief period in the early 2000s, the musicians went their separate ways to work on other projects: Medeski performed with Medeski, Martin and Wood; The North Mississippi Allstars recorded their own albums; and Randolph played with Robert Randolph and the Family Band. The Word met up intermittently for performances, including Jam Cruise and appearances at Bonnaroo, but they couldn’t find time in their busy schedules to record another album.
“We’d always talked about getting back together over the years, and there wasn’t enough time to sit in the studio and record and try to figure out a plan. It was always a little difficult,” Randolph says. “So, we were happy that it all worked out now.”
The Word reunited in 2014 to begin recording their second album, Soul Food, an inversion of their first album consisting of mostly original songs. It also stands out due to the addition of lyrics and two guest singers, Ruthie Foster and Amy Helm. This follow-up album was recorded in two famous studios, Brooklyn Recording in New York and Royal Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. In the latter studio, nothing has changed since the 1970s, so “you can’t help but get soulful when you walk in there,” Randolph says. The few traditional songs, most of which Randolph used to play in church, are built upon with new ideas and improvisational melodies.
“We all settled in and figured out a date and time and got together, and the music just felt right and everything started to click. And you know, people should know how different and special the music is, it sounds like no other,” he says. “It’s a very kind of rock ‘n’ roll, spiritual, bluesy thing, you know, gospel; it’s just real — the elements are all wrapped in one.”
The group tries not to stop themselves when they play, Randolph says, but this often leads to 10 and 12 minute songs that they then have to edit down. But this makes the live shows unique — they don’t have to stop themselves. Randolph says he’s influenced by jam bands including the Grateful Dead and Phish and other iconic artists like Carlos Santana, Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughn, all of whom are known for their ability to stretch out a song and create intimate moments that only come to the surface at live shows.
“You write a song and can’t wait to get in front of a live audience because you can’t wait for that moment. I call it church because it really is,” Randolph says. “Everybody sort of wanting to see what happens next and how we can turn this into something special. It all comes together at that point.”
Although firmly rooted in gospel culture, the music of The Word is not inherently religious. Some of the songs on Soul Food have religious lyrics, but the overall feeling of the music is inspirational.
“It’s very spiritual because for some reason, [when] we start playing everyone’s spirits get uplifted, that’s just the way it’s always been. You kind of feel relieved and revived,” Randolph continues. “I guess it’s just something about the reason why I’m here. I mean, sometimes I can try to write a love song and for some reason it still sounds spiritual.”
The music that radiates from Randolph and his guitar has a tangible social utility. Music artists should recognize the profound impact they have on the world, Randolph says, especially in light of the divisiveness and turbulence in the media.
It’s time music artists “look to inspire our younger generations as we see what’s going on with all of these shootings and killings and hatred,” Randolph says. “And I’ll be the first to tell you to blame a lot of the negative music that’s out there because music has a very heavy influence on what we do, who we are and what we become. It’s the one thing we all do.
“I’ll put it to you like this: when you look at the ’60s and ’70s, I mean with all of the stuff going on with segregation and this and that; I mean, you had The Beatles, you had Al Green, you had Stevie Wonder, you had Bob Marley, even Jimi Hendrix,” he says. “You had all of these guys really trying to be influential, use the power of their microphones to really make the world a better place.”
The connectivity of social media also makes it much easier to reach negative people, which contributes to the reformation of hate groups, and this is where positive music helps — spreading joy rather than malice, Randolph says.
Even though the band’s audience has morphed and shifted over the years, the ethereal component of The Word’s music still remains vital to their message. This is especially true for Randolph, transitioning from playing for churchgoers to jam and blues fans to entertaining a whole new generation of music listeners. Randolph used to try and cater to different audiences but sees that as a mistake because he’s here for a reason.
“God gave us a gift, and when you start trying to figure out how you can fit in somewhere else it just never works. So, I think for me and for the band and all the music I do now, you can only be whoever you are and make the best possible music you can make,” Randolph says. “As you can see, the music will get to those people who love that music, or get new people who thought they were fans of some other style of music.”
ON THE BILL: The Word. 9 p.m. Friday Oct. 9, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030. Tickets are $32.50 in advance, $35 the day of the show.