Before a performance in Birmingham, Alabama, AAJ had the opportunity to speak with pedal steel prodigy Robert Randolph about the pedal steel guitar, the church, improvising, and writing music.
As he is seated before his pedal steel guitar, the energy mounting during Robert Randolph's performance seems to increase exponentially. It is only a matter of time before he can not even contain himself; only moments before he shouts, kicks his chair from under him and joins the audience in 'the moment'. His hand on the slide and its precise location acts as some piece of scientific equipment built to gauge and control emotion (like an emotion-o-meter). With abrupt movement or a frantic slide he can squeal out the sound of joy the way few have ever heard it, or bellow and wail the sound of a cry that can only identify with your soul.
'I never cry,' he says. 'I really save it all for when I play, I really do cry with my instrument. I let it all out in my music.' If you get the chance to see or hear Randolph perform you would agree. With the right sound quality, the right moment, the right touch and tone he channels pure and sincere emotion.
When Randolph is on stage, he is rambunctious. It is as if he is made of pure emotion and energy as he becomes an electrified performer for every pair of eyes and ears in the audience. All night long his legs move wildly under the pedal steel, while his hands move with precise accuracy and finesse. When he sits down to talk about his love for the pedal steel, the music, his background, successes and plans, he is calm, clear, articulate, and goal oriented. 'I want to create an identity for myself as an artist and as a sound.' explained Randolph. The truth is that if you have not yet heard the 'gospel' of Robert Randolph...you will. At least that is his plan, and at 24 years of age as he turns the heads and perks the ears of musicians and audiences everywhere, he is closing in on his goal which now lies just around the corner.
In the midst of a national tour as audiences grow by the night, Robert Randolph presents a show that only builds in energy led by the sound of his wailing electric pedal steel guitar. This sound, and his performance finds its origin in a more religious and cultural context as historical tradition of African American Pentecostal Church services. 'I grew up in and around the church, where the live pedal steel was the main sound. My church at first did not have a pedal steel, so I started by playing the drums. But then I really got into the sound of the pedal steel...I loved the sound.' he explained. Throughout the Pentecostal Churches in the United States the pedal steel guitar replaced the presence of a more costly organ. Yet in the world of more mainstream music, the pedal steel guitar has fallen 'under the radar'. 'A lot of the country players think that the pedal steel is only supposed to sound a certain way,' he explains as his distinct sound is electrified with distortion sometimes and other effects pedals. 'There has not yet been an artist in the forefronta pedal steel player with presence or a voice to bring this instrument into the public consciousness.' While the pedal steel is still popular in places like the church where Randolph first fell in love with the instrument and was taught, as well as in bluegrass and country western music, most of the world has yet to be 'revived'. It might take one second of hearing Randolph doing Jimi Hendrix's 'Voodoo Chile' to change all that.
In the past year, Randolph has achieved the recognition and the success he deserves. 'It's really crazy,' he explains, 'each night just gets bigger and bigger, one night the crowd is like 800 people, then the next one is 900, then 1000...' he laughs. In the past year he has performed with the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, Derek Trucks, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Galactic, Jack Johnson, Moe, the String Cheese Incident, and Warren Haynes just to name a few. He has been touring relentlessly with Robert Randolph and the Family Band (see http://www.robertrandolph.net ), whose first release was a live CD from the recently closed Wetlands club in New York City. They have been featured all over the country from the House of Blues, to Madison Square Garden, Jazz Fest, and the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee. With Marcus Randolph on the drums, Danyel Morgan on the Bass (both Randolph's cousins), and John Ginty on the Hammond B-3 Organ the band combines these gospel elements with modern R&B, funk, soul, blues and rock music.
They also have their own style of improvisation, and their own way of jamming. 'A lot of people get the wrong idea about improvisinglike you have to go into something else or something. I have met a lot of musicians on the road and stuff and a lot of people who have their own ideas of what improvising is. I think you just have to keep the basic song... I think it's important to always keep that part of the song going that riff or whateverthat everyone can hear is still that one song, and keep building and building on it.' This is Randolph's method and perhaps his biggest critique at the same time. Live, Randolph seems to expound upon a theme until it can not possibly go any further. His hooks are motivational and repetitive as the band becomes this powerful driving machine creating an atmosphere reminiscent of the church services where this 'Sacred Steel' genre of music originated. 'Improvising is just a natural thing that comes from church too. You would just listen to the song, and stay inside the song, but build on it.'
More recently, Randolph has become involved and fascinated with the song writing process as he is due to release his first studio album in late February/early March. 'On the live record, we had songs that lasted like 18 minutes long, but that was just a show. We didn't know it was going to become an album, and we were just playing out the way we play. Now, I am trying to write these songs that are three and a half or four minutes long with the same energy that our live stuff has,' explains Randolph as he begins discusses plans for the album. 'The songwriting has really become an adventure...I usually have my acoustic or dobro on the bus and I come up with a certain riff or change, or an idea pops into my head and I'll record it, save it and work it into a song eventually. If some words pop into my head, I'm always thinking 'Man, that's a great title for a song'" he explains. 'I've never really been a singer, but now I am trying to write these songs that have a great message with the same energy.'
Randolph's first major recognition came about after opening for the North Mississippi All-Starts in New York City, when he was approached by John Medeski who was in the audience that night. He and members from the North Mississippi All-stars asked Randolph to join them for an idea he had for playing traditional gospel music. This was the formation of the super-group The Word with Luther Dickson, Cody Dickson and Chris Chew of the North Mississippi All-Stars, and John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood, who released an album highlighting traditional gospel standards, followed by two national tours. Once the 'jamband' and live music scene got to hear Robert Randolph, they embraced him with open arms. Since his arrival on the scene, he has not stopped even for a moment as his talent improves, his audiences grow, and his admirers and fellow musicians remain in awe of his abilities.
Through all of his success, growth, improvement and achievement, Randolph still looks to the future with great ambition. Inside the jam and jazz scene, he works with more mainstream goals in mind. He wants to make popular records and he wants to make himself known. 'I really want sell a lot of records'to make perfect, great, records'like Michael Jackson's Off the Wall, a record that is as good 10 years later as when it is first released.' Randolph looks up to fellow artists like Dave Matthews as musicians who have had similar beginnings, who stayed true to their sound, and who have toured heavily and continue to tour and work at making their sound popular and fresh. With this in mind, we should all anticipate the first studio release, and with the start to his career, it seems as though there is nothing Robert Randolph can't accomplish.
Related Article: Blazing Steel Guitarist Robert Randolph Releases "Live At The Wetlands"