When organist John Medeski helped the young guitarist Robert Randolph get his music career started, the trio leader was rightfully deemed a fair judge of talent, and The Word
(Ropeadope, 2001) helped Randolph land a major label deal. Unclassified
, the pedal steel player's funk-infused gospel-pop debut for Warner Bros., introduced mass audiences to the Sacred Steel tradition of the House of God church.
So, much should be expected from Medeski's latest find for Ropeadope: Rochester, New York's Campbell Brothers. Can You Feel It?
, the Brothers' first Ropeadope release, exposes the roots of what made Randolph famous by sticking closer to the heart-held tradition of his church.
Led by the pedal steel of Charles T. "Chuck Campbell, son of House of God Bishop Charles E. Campbell, the band is rounded out by Chuck's brother Phil Campbell, a proficient standard electric guitarist, and Phil's son Carlton on drums. The youngest Campbell brother, Darick, plays a pedal-less eight string lap steel. Short one Campbell, Malcolm Kirby is enlisted to handle bass duties. Denise Brown and Medeski make multiple guest appearances.
The brothers, like young protégé Randolph, come from the Pentecostal tradition of the House of God Church, the northern sister to the Florida-headquartered Church of the Living Ghost. Relying heavily on the testifying tradition of African-American gospel, the Campbell Brothers' sacred steel playing is full of higher power, natural energy, and pure religious passion.
Denise Brown, a longtime family friend and House of God singer, lends her voice to "Sign of the Judgement, which, like many of the tunes found here, is a selection that the Brothers perform regularly in the senior Campbell's Rochester church. Medeski gives "Good All The Time a touch of new school flare, with his oozing organ aided and abetted by the song's b-boy bounce.
D. Campbell sets Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come aflame with his lap steel playing. In place of Cooke's croon, Campbell wills a wealth of sounds from his steel, mirroring the human voice in moments, with soulful wails, cries, and calls. "Power Lord is a bit much for a secular audience it seems, but stunning syncopated clapping near the end of the tune is a small savior.
On the whole, Can You Feel It? seems to suffer from the natural blandness of studio recording; something tells me seeing the Campbell Brothers at home in their church, or on the road at a secular venue (the sort they are continually praised for being the first to play), would be far more exciting and engaging.
Despite whatever criticism he may receive for watering down the closely guarded gospel of the Sacred Steel, Robert Randolph's music is far more accessible than the Campbells' churchy sound. Can You Feel It? is a lot to digest all at once, and as the album drags on, it shows. Regardless, both the record and the Campbell Brothers are a worthy addition to the Ropeadope catalog.