Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sacred Steel

Kenneth Routon recently attended the annual Savannah Music Festival and filed this report for Afropop Worldwide. Read his previous entries here

Robert Randolph’s meteoric rise to the status of “jam-band/blues cult hero,” as Timothy Finn put it, is astonishing, especially considering that he began life as a musician in a black Pentecostal church and spent the majority of his adolescence entirely unaware of what was going on in popular music.

With so much buzz circulating around this virtuoso of the pedal steel guitar, I took my seat at the Trustees Theater last Friday night early, not wanting to miss a single note. Maybe it was the noticeably younger, jam-band revelers, who made up a significant portion of the audience that night, or maybe it was the stadium rock acoustics, but, to me, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, who stuck mostly to a set of blues-tinged, gospel-inspired southern rock, seemed to be trying way too hard, and way too soon, to just blow the roof off the place. I recalled one reviewer’s characterization of Randolph as a one-man, machine gun quartet, something like “BB King on steroids.” Although I was disappointed with this particular show, Randolph is a real gem, a phenomenal musician known to sometimes cater too much to his audience and their cravings for a spectacle, which is likely the reason why the diesel-driven antics of some of his shows tend to overshadow what is truly unique and rare about him and his style.

photo by Ayano Hisa

You can’t really understand the deeper significance of Randolph’s story without some knowledge of one of the often untold histories of the steel guitar. Although originally invented by Hawaiian musicians in the nineteenth-century, and widely known for its use in country music beginning in the 1930s, the steel guitar also has a rarely acknowledged musical pedigree associated with African American “praise” music. The steel guitar has been an integral musical fixture in certain black Pentecostal churches across the United States since the 1930s.

As the story goes, Hawaiian music became very popular in the U.S. around the 1910s through World War II. Sometime in the mid-1930s, a man by the name of Troman Eason heard a Hawaiian steel guitarist on the radio in Philadelphia. His curiosity piqued, he called the station and before long was receiving lessons from the guitarist. By latter part of that decade, Eason, who played in a straight Hawaiian style, and his brother Willie, known for incorporating black vocal inflections into his technique, introduced the electric steel guitar into the church services of the Philadelphia-based House of God. Congregants enthusiastically embraced the instrument not only because they could not afford an organ, and the steel guitar proved to be a much cheaper alternative, but also because, known for their music-driven services, the visceral sound and voice-like feeling of the instrument fit well with their form of ecstatic worship.

Later, a man out of Ocala, Florida by the name of Henry Nelson developed what would become the House of God’s signature one-chord “praise” or “shout” music, still considered by many congregants to be the only truly authentic form. Influenced by Willie Eason, Bishop Lorenzo Harrison introduced chord changes and the wah-wah pedal to the music. By the 1970s, a number of players – Maurice "Ted" Beard, Jr, Calvin Cooke, Chuck Campbell, Acorne Coffee – were introducing the pedal steel guitar to church services, developing unique tunings, pedal set-ups, and styles. For the most part, this music remained behind the closed doors of these churches until Arhoolie, nearly sixty years after the birth of this tradition, released Robert Stone’s field recordings in 1996.

Enter Robert Randolph. Born 1978 in New Jersey, and raised in Philadelphia’s House of God, Randolph, the son of a minister, his mother, and a deacon, his father, was, by the time he was in high school, spending a lot of time on the streets, getting into trouble, gambling and selling drugs. Then, when he was seventeen, after the shooting death of a close friend, Randolph, determined to turn his life around, picked up a guitar given to him by Chuck Campbell and began honing his skills, all the while maintaining his ties to the church.

Randolph has said that during his adolescent years he was almost entirely unfamiliar with popular music. After he picked up the guitar, however, he began voraciously consuming everything he could get his hands on – everything from Muddy Waters and Sly & the Family Stone to the Allman Brothers. It wasn’t until a friend gave him a mix tape of Stevie Ray Vaughan that everything clicked for Randolph, inspiring him to develop what would become his signature style. He’s quoted as saying that it was this late Texas bluesman that taught him that there was no reason why the sacred and secular couldn’t co-exist.

It wasn’t easy though. He was met with disapproval among some church leaders. They warned him not to play what was essentially sacred music outside the walls of the church because it was profane. But Randolph remained determined, once describing the band as missionaries with a positive message. Confining sacred steel music to the church, he felt, was akin to preaching to the choir. Those who really needed to hear this music were not living a sheltered existence inside the hallowed walls of the church; they were out there in the world, and what was blaring from their speakers wasn’t praise but pop music.

Randolph made his recording debut on Arhoolie’s “Sacred Steel – Live!,” a collection of recordings made in 1998 and 1999. He was then invited to play on John Medeski and the North Mississippi Allstars’ album “The Word” and with the great New Orleanian second-line group Dirty Dozen Brass Band on their album “Medicated Magic.” In addition to numerous other guest and soundtrack appearances, Robert Randolph and the Family Band have recorded one full-length live album and three studio albums.

I’m a fan of Robert Randolph, and although I had expected a little more nuance from his SMF show, I look forward to digging deeper into his repertoire and future musical endeavors. This guy’s going to surprise us all.

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